Since the series' inception in 1915, the annual volumes of The Best American Short Stories have launched literary careers, showcased the most compelling stories of each year, and confirmed for all time the significance of the short story in our national literature. Now THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES OF THE CENTURY brings together the best of the best - fifty-five extraordinary stories that represent a century's worth of unsurpassed accomplishments in this quintessentially American literary genre. Here are the stories that have endured the test of time: masterworks by such writers as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Saroyan, Flannery O'Connor, John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver, Cynthia Ozick, and scores of others. These are the writers who have shaped and defined the landscape of the American short story, who have unflinchingly explored all aspects of the human condition, and whose works will continue to speak to us as we enter the next century. Their artistry is represented splendidly in these pages. THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES series has also always been known for making literary discoveries, and discovery proved to be an essential part of selecting the stories for this volume too. Collections from years past yielded a rich harvest of surprises, stories that may have been forgotten but still retain their relevance and luster. The result is a volume that not only gathers some of the most significant stories of our century between two covers but resurrects a handful of lost literary gems as well. Of all the great writers whose work has appeared in the series, only John Updike's contributions have spanned five consecutive decades, from his first appearance, in 1959. Updike worked with coeditor Katrina Kenison to choose stories from each decade that meet his own high standards of literary quality.
About the Author
John Updike is the author of numerous books, including the acclaimed "Rabbit" novels, Couples, In the Beauty of the Lilies, and Bech at Bay. He has won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the William Dean Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1998 he received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
Date of Birth:March 18, 1932
Date of Death:January 27, 2009
Place of Birth:Shillington, Pennsylvania
Place of Death:Beverly Farms, MA
Education:A.B. in English, Harvard University, 1954; also studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England
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The BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES of the Century
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANYCopyright © 2000 Houghton Mifflin Company
All right reserved.
IntroductionTHESE STORIES have been four times selected. First, they were selected for publication, against steep odds. Story reports twenty thousand submissions a year, Ploughshares seven hundred fifty a month, The New Yorker five hundred a week. Next, published stories - now amounting annually, Katrina Kenison tells us in her foreword, to three thousand, from over three hundred American journals - were sifted for the annual volumes of the Best American Short Stories of the Year. The eighty-four volumes since 1915 held a total of two thousand stories; Ms. Kenison read all these and gave me more than two hundred, and I asked to read several dozen more. Of this third selection I have selected, with her gracious advice and counsel, these fifty-five - less than one in four. A fathomless ocean of rejection and exclusion surrounds this brave little flotilla, the best of the best.
Certain authors had to be included, that was clear from the outset. An anthology of this century's short fiction that lacked a story by Hemingway, Faulkner, or Fitzgerald would be perversely deficient. Almost as compulsory, I felt, was the female trio of Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O'Connor, and Eudora Welty. Of postwar writers, there had to be Bellow, Roth, and Malamud, even though only Malamud could be saidto have devoted a major portion of his energy to the short story. If John O'Hara and Mary McCarthy-two Irish-Americans with a sociological bent-had been available, I might have included them, but neither ever made a Best. Traditionally, in the compilation of this annual short-story collection, excerpts from a larger work are excluded, though some do creep in; among my choices were a pair, by Jack Kerouac and William Goyen, that turned out to be pieces of novels.
Two personal principles, invented for the occasion, guided me. First, I wanted this selection to reflect the century, with each decade given roughly equal weight - what amounted to between six and eight stories per decade. As it turned out, the 1950s, with the last-minute elimination of Peter Taylor's "A Wife of Nashville" and James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," were shortchanged, even though it was a healthy decade for short fiction, just before television's fabulations took center stage.
My second rule, enforcing the reflection of an American reality, was to exclude any story that did not take place on this continent or deal with characters from the United States or Anglophone Canada. This would seem to exclude little, and yet in Ms. Kenison's selection I encountered a story about Russian soldiery in World War I ("Chautonville," by Will Levington Comfort), another taking place in a polygamous Chinese household ("The Kitchen Gods," by Guliema Fell Alsop), one involving Gypsies near the Black Sea ("The Death of Murdo," by Konrad Bercovici), a supernatural tale of a woodchopper in New Spain ("The Third Guest," by B. Traven), another of a Czech concert violinist ("The Listener," by John Berry), one set in an African village ("The Hill People," by Elizabeth Marshall), one concerning a magician from nineteenth-century Bratislava ("Eisenheim the Illusionist," by Steven Millhauser), a linked set of Elizabethan epistles dealing with the death of Christopher Marlowe ("A Great Reckoning in a Little Room," by Geoffrey Bush), an astringent account of a Danish semiorphan ("The Forest," by Ella Leffland), a story beginning "In Munich are many men who look like weasels" ("The Schreuderspitze" by Mark Helprin), several stories of Irish life by Maeve Brennan and Mary Lavin, a lyrical tale of arranged marriage among the Parisian bourgeoisie ("Across the Bridge," by Mavis Gallant), and a deeply feminist, humorously epic account of how a few Latin American women inhabited Antarctica and reached the South Pole some years before Amundsen did ("Sur," by Ursula K. Le Guin). All these are not here. "'That in Aleppo Once ...,'" by Vladimir Nabokov, and "The Shawl," by Cynthia Ozick, are here, on the weak excuse that some of their characters are on the way (unknowingly, in Ozick's case) to America.
Immigration is a central strand in America's collective story, and the first two stories in my selection deal with the immigrant experience - Jewish in the first case, Irish in the second. The third portrays the rural life, one of drudgery and isolation, that was once the common lot and is presently experienced by a mere one percent of the population, who feed the rest of us - one of the more remarkable shifts the century has witnessed.
The 1920s, which open here with Sherwood Anderson, are a decade with a distinct personality, fixed between the onset of Prohibition in 1920 and the stock market crash of 1929 and marked by a new sharpness and vivacity, a jazzy American note, in style and in the arts. The urban minority of Americans that produced most of the writing felt superior if not hostile to what H. L. Mencken called the "booboisie," whose votes had brought on Prohibition, puritanical censorship, the Scopes trial, and Calvin Coolidge. Members of the prospering middle class figure as objects of satire in the fiction of Sinclair Lewis and Ring Lardner, though since both men were sons of the booster-driven Midwest, the satire is more affectionate than it first seemed. Lardner's "Golden Honeymoon" is almost surreal in the circumstantiality of its monologue, a veritable lode of data as to how a certain class of Easterner managed a Florida vacation. The device of the self-incriminating narrator - used here more subtly and gently than in Lardner's better-known "Haircut" - generates a characteriology of American types not to be confused with the author, who may well be sitting at a Paris café table in happy expatriation. Except in stories based on his boyhood, Hemingway couldn't bear to dwell on life in America. It was, for many, a drab, workaday life. The small town or city surrounded by farmland, adrift in a post-Calvinist dreaminess, with the local doctor the closest thing to a hero, is a venue ubiquitous in this period's fiction, not only in Anderson and Lewis but in the "Summit" of Hemingway's chilling yet (with its boy narrator) faintly Penrodian "The Killers," and in the Pittsburgh named in Willa Cather's "Double Birthday," a great city as cozy and inturned as a Southern hamlet.
Provincial smugness and bewilderment cease to be quite so urgent a theme in the Depression-darkened thirties. Dorothy Parker's "Here We Are" hovers above its honeymooning couple as if not knowing whether to smile or weep. The heroine of Katherine Anne Porter's "Theft" faces without self-pity the waste of her life amid the passing, predatory contacts of the city. This is a boom period for the short story, a heyday of Story and The American Mercury. With an exuberant, cocky sweep William Saroyan sums up in a few headlong paragraphs a life and the religious mystery, "somehow deathless," of being alive; William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren impart to their Southern microcosms the scope and accumulated intensity of a novelist's vision. Faulkner had previously tucked the denouement of "That Evening Sun Go Down" into his 1929 novel, The Sound and the Fury. Though he was a staple of Best American Short Story collections, represented almost annually in the 1930s, there seemed no avoiding this particular masterpiece, his most anthologized tale, a minimally rhetorical conjuration of impending doom. Fitzgerald's knowing, disheveled tale of Hollywood took preference, narrowly, over his more familiar "Babylon Revisited," a rueful reprise of the twenties' expatriate culture. Alexander Godin's "My Dead Brother Comes to America" revisits the experience of immigration in a tone of amplifying remembrance that anticipates magic realism. The longest story in these pages, and perhaps the most melodramatic, is Richard Wright's "Bright and Morning Star," a painful relic of a time when American blacks could see their lone friend and best hope in the Communist party. The African-American has inhabited, and to a lamentable degree still inhabits, another country within the United States, where most white signposts of security and stability are absent. I have tried to give this country representation, from Jean Toomer's "Blood-Burning Moon" of 1923 to Carolyn Ferrell's "Proper Library" of 1994. Had space permitted, stories by James Baldwin and Ann Petry would have added to the picture's many tints of violence and despair. Even the amiable, detached Ivy Leaguer of James Alan McPherson's "Gold Coast" finds himself, in the end, on the losing side of a racial divide.
I tried not to select stories because they illustrated a theme or portion of the national experience but because they struck me as lively, beautiful, believable, and, in the human news they brought, important. The temptations of the illustrative pulled strongest in the early decades, which were basically historical for me - the times of my fathers. With the 1940s, the times become my own, and the short story takes an inward turn, away from states of society toward states of mind. To an elusive but felt extent, facts become more enigmatic. It is no longer always clear what the author wants us to feel. The short-story writer has gone into competition with the poet, asking the same charged economy of his images as the narrator of The Waste Land, whose narrative lay in shards.
Small-town coziness, with its rules and repressions, is absent from the seething but listless town visited by Eudora Welty's traveling salesman in "The Hitch-Hikers." He thinks of himself: "He is free: helpless." Welty, though habitually linked with her fellow Mississippian Faulkner, here appears more a disciple of Hemingway, and a sister of Flannery O'Connor, the queen of redneck Gothic. Free equals helpless: our American freedom - to thrive, to fail, to hit the road - has a bleak and bitter underside, a noir awareness of ultimate pointlessness that haunts as well the big-city protagonists of Jean Stafford's "The Interior Castle" and E. B. White's "The Second Tree from the Corner." White's story, incidentally, marks the earliest appearance in my selection of The New Yorker, which was founded in 1925. Its editors, White's wife Katharine foremost, sought for its fiction a light, quick, unforced, casual quality that was slow to catch on with Best American Short Stories and that, however telling in its magazine setting, stacks up as slight against earthier, more strenuous stories. The New Yorker might have run, but didn't, Elizabeth Bishop's crystalline "The Farmer's Children," an almost unbearably brilliant fable in which farm machinery and Canadian cold become emissaries of an infernal universe; only a poet of genius and a child of misery could have coined this set of wounding, glittering images.
All was not noir: from the bleakest of bases, the burial of a child, Paul Horgan's "The Peach Stone" builds to a redemptive affirmation, and Vladimir Nabokov, portraying the refugee chaos and panic on the edge of Hitler's war, imports into English an early sample of his unique legerdemain. It surprised me that World War II, that all-consuming paroxysm, left so meager a trace in the fiction of this decade, as selected by others. Perhaps it takes time for great events to sift into art; however, I remember the magazines of the forties as being full of stories from the camps and the fronts - many of them no doubt too sentimental and jocular for our taste, but functioning as bulletins to the home front. On request, Ms. Kenison came up with several, including Edward Fenton's harrowing "Burial in the Desert," which depicts the North African campaign's harvest of corpses. In the end only Martha Gellhom's account of an unsatisfactory flirtation, "Miami-New York," conveyed to me the feel of wartime America - the pervasive dislocation that included erotic opportunity, constant weariness, and contagious recklessness.
The fifties, though underrepresented, are represented handsomely, with two of the century's supreme masters of the short story, John Cheerer and Flannery O'Connor. They occupied different parts of the country, of the society, and of the literary world, yet were similar in the authority with which they swiftly built their fictional castles right on the edge of the absurd. They wrote with an inspired compression and heightened clarity; their prose brooked no contradiction or timid withholding of belief. Both were religious - O'Connor, fated to die young, fiercely so - and transcendent currents, perhaps, enabled them to light up their characters like paper lanterns, to impart an electric momentum to their narratives, and to situate human misadventure in a crackling moral context. Both "Greenleaf" and "The Country Husband" display animals - a bull, a dog - as spiritual presences; J. F. Powers's "Death of a Favorite" is told by a cat. The effect is not frivolous. For Powers, like O'Connor a Catholic, the mundane, heavily politicized celibate life of male priests was a serious and all but exclusive obsession. Few story writers of high merit have staked so narrow a territory. And why, the reader may ask, with so many thoroughly crafted works to choose from, have I included a thinly fictionalized piece that drifts off into ellipses and appeared in the ephemeral, chichi Flair? Well, there are some grave turnings caught in the courtly diffidence of Tennessee Williams's "The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin." The narrator, though fearing "that this story will seem to be losing itself like a path that has climbed a hill and then lost itself in an overgrowth of brambles," comes to the double realization that his sister is mentally ill and that he is gay. Overall, there were fewer stories of gay experience than I had expected - not many were written, I think, before 1970 or so - but more about music and its performance; Phillip Lopate's "The Chamber Music Evening" and Charles Baxter's "Harmony of the World" were especially fine and heartfelt, and it pained me to lack space for them.
Excerpted from The BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES of the Century Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Table of Contents
Foreword Introduction By John Updike
Zelig By Benjamin Rosenblatt
Little Selves By Mary Lerner
A Jury of Her Peers By Susan Glaspell
The Other Woman By Sherwood Anderson
The Golden Honeymoon By Ring Lardner
Blood-Burning Moon By Jean Toomer
The Killers By Ernest Hemingway
Double Birthday By Willa Cather
Wild Plums By Grace Stone Coates
Theft By Katherine Anne Porter
That Evening Sun Go Down By William Faulkner
Here We Are By Dorothy Parker
Crazy Sunday By F. Scott Fitzgerald
My Dead Brother Comes to America By Alexander Godin
Resurrection of a Life By William Saroyan
Christmas Gift By Robert Penn Warren
Bright and Morning Star By Richard Wright
The Hitch-Hikers By Eudora Welty
The Peach Stone By Paul Horgan
"That in Aleppo Once ..." By Vladimir Nabokov
The Interior Castle By Jean Stafford
Miami - New York By Martha Gellhorn
The Second Tree from the Corner By E. B. White
The Farmer's Children By Elizabeth Bishop
Death of a Favorite By J. F. Powers
The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin By Tennessee Williams
The Country Husband By John Cheever
Greenleaf By Flannery O'Connor
The Ledge By Lawrence Sargent Hall
Defender of the Faith By Philip Roth
Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers By Stanley Elkin
The German Refugee By Bernard Malamud
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? By Joyce Carol Oates
The Rotifer By Mary Ladd Gavell
Gold Coast By James Alan McPherson
The Key By Isaac Bashevis Singer
A City of Churches By Donald Barthelme
How to Win By Rosellen Brown
Roses, Rhododendron By Alice Adams
Verona: A Young Woman Speaks By Harold Brodkey
A Silver Dish By Saul Bellow
Gesturing By John Updike
The Shawl By Cynthia Ozick
Where I'm Calling From By Raymond Carver
Janus By Ann Beattie
The Way We Live Now By Susan Sontag
The Things They Carried By Tim O'Brien
Meneseteung By Alice Munro
You're Ugly, Too By Lorrie Moore
I Want to Live! By Thom Jones
In the Gloaming By Alice Elliott Dark
Proper Library By Carolyn Ferrell
Birthmates By Gish Jen
Soon By Pam Durban
The Half-Skinned Steer By Annie Proulx
What People are Saying About This
"A treasure - a one-volume literary history of this country's immeasurable pains and near-infinite hopes." Boston Globe
"Finding wonderful stories that you don't already know is one of this collection's great pleasures... " The New York Times
"The short story - not to mention America and the twentieth century - at its best." The Wall Street Journal
"...a thrillingly energized argument for the enduring vitality of big ideas in small packages." Entertainment Weekly
On Thursday, April 1st, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Katrina Kenison to discuss THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES OF THE CENTURY.
Moderator: Welcome, Katrina Kenison! Thank you for taking the time to join us online tonight to chat about THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES OF THE CENTURY. How are you doing this evening?
Katrina Kenison: Oh, I'm fine. It's a pleasure to be here!
Marina from NYC: There must have been tremendous pressure to choose the right guest editor for this volume. How was John Updike selected to be the editor? Who else were you considering, if he were to say no?
Katrina Kenison: Well, the fact is, we didn't consider anybody else. He was the obvious choice, because he was the only living writer whose stories had appeared in Best American Short Stories in every consecutive decade since the '50s. No one else could make that claim, although Joyce Carol Oates comes close. Also, I looked at Updike as being a critic as much as he is a short story writer. And we very much wanted that generosity of spirit toward other writers to flavor this collection. So, fortunately, he said yes!
John from New Berlin, NY: Were there any stories that were overlooked in past volumes of Best American Short Stories that you would have wished to include? Perhaps stories that didn't get their due until later years?
Katrina Kenison: Well, the most obvious story to me was Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," which I was sure I would find in the 1958 volume. And not only was it not there, but it wasn't even listed as a notable story of the year. Others would be "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," John Steinbeck's "The Red Pony." There were no stories by Mary McCarthy, no stories by John O'Hara. So, those were the most notable omissions.
Pauline from Minnesota: With the turning of the century, there have been a lot of "the best" lists going around. What were your criteria for determining which stories were the best of the best?
Katrina Kenison: Well, obviously the first criterion [was] that the stories had to have appeared in a volume of Best American Short Stories. Beyond that, I looked for stories that both represented the time in which they were written, and had withstood the test of time.
Celia from Florida: Do you think the stories included in the 1990s chapter would have made it into a Best American volume published in the teens? Or vice versa?
Katrina Kenison: I think that a reader in 1915 would have looked at the stories of the 1990s as something akin to science fiction. There would have been so few points of common reference that a reader would have been baffled. Well, you know, I think one of the best stories in this collection, and a story that is quite modern in tone and subject, is a story from 1917 called "A Jury of Her Peers." It's about a woman who murders her abusive husband and is protected by two women in her community. And it is as fresh and as powerful now as it must have been then. I also think that Sherwood Anderson really defined the modern short story and would be completely at home were he alive and writing today.
Kate from Houston, TX: You must have had an amazing time reading all of the past volumes. How did you go about it? How many had you read before the project began?
Katrina Kenison: I had read, obviously, all of the '90s volumes, most of the '80s volumes. Before I proposed the project to Houghton Mifflin, I picked up a couple of the old volumes just to get a sense for myself of how the stories would hold up, and whether or not it would even make sense to do a project like this, and I found those old volumes to be extremely compelling. So, once I actually began to put together this volume and to do the reading, I started at the very beginning. And fortunately, I had the 1915 volume from a used bookstore, and I read it chronologically, decade by decade. And I took notes as I went in a great big black notebook, because I read everywhere and I wanted to make sure that none of the stories that I read slipped through the cracks.
Mark from Weston, CT: Did you and John Updike disagree on any of the selections? Anything you would have liked to see included that didn't make it?
Katrina Kenison: Our tastes were remarkably similar. I think there were one or two stories that he chose that perhaps I wouldn't have. Stories that he remembered reading years ago and was happy to put back into print. In particular, the J. F. Powers story "Death of a Favorite," which was a particular favorite of his. But for the most part, we really were in agreement, although the final cutting and winnowing was painful for us both, and I still feel a bit guilty that Andre Dubus is not in this collection, and in particular his story "A Father's Tale," which would have been here if we had had more room.
James from San Francisco, CA: Of course, this edition came out before the 1999 Best American could come out. Have you seen any new stories this year that you think could possibly have made it into the century volume?
Katrina Kenison: Absolutely! And in fact, when we do the paperback a year from now, we will include a story from the 1999 volume of Best American Short Stories. You heard it here first at barnesandnoble.com!
Haley from Kansas: Have any younger people (teens to early 20s) made the cut into your book?
Katrina Kenison: Definitely early 20s. I don't know exactly how old Maxine Swann is, but I believe she's in her early 20s. She's in the 1998 volume. I think Carson McCullers was 19 or 20 when she first appeared in Best American Short Stories. Certainly it's a level playing field, and age is not a factor.
Greg from Ann Arbor, MI: Based on what some editors have chosen for these volumes over the years, how do you think the short story and our perception of it has evolved in this century?
Katrina Kenison: I would say that the biggest change has been the role that the short story plays in our lives. In 1915, when this series began, many people in this country did not even read a daily newspaper, let alone have access to the kind of information that we all take for granted today. So, the short story really did bring them news of the world, and of how other people lived. We don't need stories to do that for us anymore, and so in the course of this century, there has been a movement toward the inner life, and today we look to short stories to tell us truths about the human spirit rather than details of our daily lives.
Niki from Sudbury, MA: Do you think past editions of Best American Short Stories reflect the editors of that particular year? For example, will the stories that Garrison Keillor picks have a different general feel as compared to when, say, Tobias Wolff was the editor? Thanks!
Katrina Kenison: Absolutely. And I think that this is one reason that the series remains so fresh and so interesting year after year, because it never has a chance to settle into any kind of an editorial rut. Each guest editor brings his or her own taste and predilections to this process. This year's editor is Amy Tan, and although we certainly didn't plan it this way, the volume that she has assembled has a wonderfully multicultural flavor, and in fact for the very first time, Best American Short Stories will feature a writer who was born in Nepal but was eligible for inclusion because he now lives in Hawaii. As the annual editor, I am grateful that this series is never simply a reflection of my own taste.
email@example.com: Were there any particular years that were especially strong and more difficult than other years to pick a story?
Katrina Kenison: I fell in love with the '40s, and I just wallowed in those volumes and probably submitted more stories from the '40s to John Updike than I should have, but it seemed to both of us that the short story really came alive in the '40s, and there was just a wealth of good fiction to choose from. I think it's also difficult to choose from the most recent volumes, because we didn't have the benefit of time and hindsight to tell us which stories would really hold up.
Geraldine from Boca Raton, FL: What surprised you most while preparing THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES OF THE CENTURY?
Katrina Kenison: Well, I guess the biggest surprise to me was how much I enjoyed this process. It was a daunting amount of work, and a great responsibility to take on. And yet, I never thought it was a burden. In fact, I felt honored to be the editor who happened to be alive at the end of the century to assemble this volume. About the stories themselves, I would say I was most surprised to see how powerful some of the writers we take for granted really are. Most of us read Hemingway and Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty and others in high school or college English classes, and we tend to think that we don't need to go back to revisit their work again. When in fact, anyone who really cares about American fiction should welcome the opportunity to read these authors again as adults, rather than as students.
E. V. from Lighthouse Point, FL: I read that Ernest Hemingway was first published in Best American -- even though his story was previously unpublished. Could you tell us more about this? Do you think this decision launched Hemingway's career? What do you know about what governed the editor's decision to include him?
Katrina Kenison: That's a great question, and a great story behind Best American Short Stories. Edward O'Brien lived in England for most of his life, and edited Best American Short Stories from England, and he was also kind of a patron saint to writers. He entertained writers in his home for months at a time, and often supported writers from one book to the next, and in Hemingway's case, O'Brien was on a holiday in Switzerland, and someone introduced him to this discouraged young man who told O'Brien that he was ready to give up writing because no one would publish him, and that all of his manuscripts had been lost or destroyed -- that's the famous 'suitcase full of manuscripts' story. O'Brien asked him if he had anything to show him, and the young man said that he had two short stories that no one wanted. O'Brien offered to read them, and broke his own rule that stories had to have been published elsewhere to be eligible for Best American Short Stories. He gave Hemingway his very first publication in 1923, and even dedicated that year's volume to him. And thus was launched one of the great literary careers of our century!
Moderator: If the Y2K bug wreaks its havoc, what three books would you like to read by the light of your power generator?
Katrina Kenison: Well, I think I would keep THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES OF THE CENTURY by my side, because all of the stories bear rereading and offer rewards to those who do so. I would also pick Anne Morrow Lindbergh's GIFT FROM THE SEA, which has been a personal bible to me in my own life as a writer, wife, and mother. And I would pick ANNA KARENINA, because it's the one book that I've been meaning to read for 25 years and still haven't! Probably SHAKESPEARE'S SONNETS, because I could read them for the rest of my life and continue to find beauty and inspiration in them.
firstname.lastname@example.org from Richmount: What would you say are good qualities that the short stories in this volume have in common?
Katrina Kenison: Well, they are all stories that demand to be finished. I made a vow at the outset of this project that I would read every story -- about 2,000 in all -- from start to finish. Even the ones that I thought didn't stand a chance. But the stories that survived the process of reading and selection and rejection are the ones that just wouldn't let go. And so we couldn't let go of them either. They compelled me as a reader. They compelled John Updike as a reader. And we hope that they will compel those who pick up this volume.
William from Binghamton, NY: What were the most difficult stories for you to omit?
Katrina Kenison: I've already mentioned Andre Dubus's "A Father's Tale." It was very hard to let go of a story called "Helping" by Robert Stone. And I'm sorry that Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen aren't here, because they've been so important to me. But in the end, it was a question of space, and the final hard decisions belonged to John Updike, who suffered mightily while he made them.
Hannah M. from Louisville, KY: Did you find that most of the stories came from similar sources, like The New Yorker? Why do you suppose this is? Also, what was the most surprising source for something included?
Katrina Kenison: The New Yorker gets the prize for the most short stories published in Best American Short Stories over the years. They have 208 in all, beginning in 1930. The Atlantic is the runner-up, and the reason is that both of these magazines have been staunch defenders of fiction for most of this century. Their standards have always been high. They've published without interruption. And many of our Best American writers appeared regularly in their pages. I would say that over the years, there have been little magazines that come and go, and many of the early ones are long since lost to history. So they were all surprising sources for me -- magazines like The Bellman, Every Week, and The Frontier. A couple of these magazines vanished without a trace, and yet published some of the best fiction of their time. So they are intriguing mysteries to me.
Oren from Milton, MA: What do you think of the controversial Modern Library Top 100 list? Although you are operating under a different set of rules, since the Best American annuals have been published for most of the century, do you expect the same sort of conflict over this book?
Katrina Kenison: The existence of that Modern Library list and the controversy that erupted over it made me thankful that our own list could not be so arbitrary. We were able to cast our net in one pool only, and so we began with a list of candidates that was preordained. Reviewers, knowing that, have been reluctant to carp too much about what's not here, and have enthusiastically embraced the stories themselves -- both the literary classics that are must-haves in a volume like this one, and the undiscovered gems that might otherwise have disappeared forever.
Naomi from Bennington, VT: Which, of all the ones included, is your favorite story?
Katrina Kenison: I guess I have two, and they are very different. One is "A Jury of Her Peers," by Susan Glaspell, which is a story mentioned earlier in our discussion. It was a revelation to me that women nearly 100 years ago were courageously facing some of the same issues that we confront today. And I love that story because it is one of those discoveries of an unknown writer who is no longer a part of the canon. On the other hand, I would have to pick John Cheever's story "The Country Husband" as a favorite. I had read it before, and yet when I read it again, I felt that I had rediscovered it, and I was reminded all over again that John Cheever is our greatest master of the form. If there is a masterpiece in this book, this might be it.
Moderator: Thank you, Katrina Kenison! Best of luck with THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES OF THE CENTURY. Do you have any parting thoughts for the online audience?
Katrina Kenison: I would just say: Don't read this book because you feel you should, but read it for the sheer joy of encountering writers both old and new who will touch your life in ways that will surprise, delight, or haunt you.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I recommend this book as a great way to entertain yourself with many, many interesting plots and glimpses of life in America in this century. There are always a few duds that do not particularly interest me in a collection of short stories but relatively few here. You, as reader, feel at the end that you have been a witness to the development of America in this century in the stories included here. It must have been difficult to select which to include but the editors did a good job for most are very, very good.
The title is a misnomer. Not that there aren't some wonderful stories here, but they were never really chosen because they're the best American short stories of the 20th century. Rather, these are Updike's 56 picks out of the 2,000 stories originally chosen in the 84 volumes of a yearly anthology published from 1915 through 1999. If a story was never published in Best American Stories they weren't available to be selected. Updike couldn't select "Paul's Case" by Willa Cather, "Are These Actual Miles?" by Raymond Carver, "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell, "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner, "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Hills Like White Elephants" or "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway, "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes, "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet" by Stephen King, "To Build a Fire" by Jack London, "A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor, "Gift of the Magi" or "The Ransom of Red Chief" by O'Henry, "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" by Katherine Anne Porter, "Brokeback Mountain" by Annie Proulx, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" by J.D. Salinger, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" by James Thurber, "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" or "The War Prayer" by Mark Twain, "A Worn Path" by Eudora Welty or Updike's own "A&P." That means a lot of American short stories of the 20th century that are often anthologized won't be found here--arguably none of the really famous ones are found here, even though a lot of familiar names such as Hemingway and Faulkner are included.There were so many of my favorite short stories that were part of the anthologies that could have been selected though listed at the back of the book: "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin, "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver, "Babylon Revisited" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Snows of Kilimanjaro" by Ernest Hemingway, "Haircut" by Ring Lardner, "The Magic Barrel" by Bernard Malamud, "Shiloh" by Bobbie Ann Mason, "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe" by Carson McCullers, "People Like That Are the Only People Here" by Lorrie Moore, "Everything that Rises Must Converge" by Flannery O'Connor, "My Friend Flicka" by Mary O'Hara, "A Telephone Call" by Dorothy Parker, "Act of Faith" by Irwin Shaw, "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck, "The Catbird Seat" by James Thurber or Tillie Olson's "I Stand Here Ironing." And, sadly, though I can't say I'm surprised, no short stories by the well-known science fiction authors who I truly believe wrote some of the best short fiction of the 20th century--and some of them did make it into the yearly anthologies. Yet Updike didn't choose any such story--so no Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Ursula Le Guin or Theodore Sturgeon. Almost nothing that could be called a genre story, no love stories, little humor or anything that's upbeat and I can't say any story had a great twist. Nor were there any horror stories--and given that the American short story got its foundation from stories such as Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the horror tales of Edgar Allan Poe and stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne such as "Young Goodman Brown" and "The Minister's Black Veil" that's a crime. In the end, especially reading one story after the other, I felt the collection too often came across as bland and predictable.So, if you're thinking of getting a one-volume collection of the canonical American short stories of the past century, or the best or the most entertaining and memorable that could make you a fan of the form, this isn't the book. But if you want a collection of 56 strong short stories of literary fiction of the kind you find in The New Yorker, well, almost all of the stories included are well worth reading with little moments to savor and writing techniques to learn from. About the only time I thought "My God, what was Updike thinking?" was his inclusion of Richard Wright's ode to the Communist Party, "Bright and Morni
I love short story compilations, and this is one of the best, in my opinion. The stories range in subject matter, style, and length. Everyone will find something of interest in this collection. Perhaps even more important, everyone will discover a new author or a new style that is appealing. Highly recommended.
Enchanting and yet down-to-earth! Updikes unique and profound story telling ability surpasses any I've seen so far!