The Best American Short Stories 1999 – Amy Tan (ed.)

file-3I’m usually not the biggest fan of short stories, but I’m making an effort to read them because so many people actually do love them and so I’m trying to see if perhaps my (limited) view could be swayed somewhat. I could be wrong. (Shock. Gasp. 🙂 )

It’s hard to go astray with any of the titles in the book series, “The Best American FILL-IN-THE-BLANK”, usually published each year and edited by a notable author who curates all the selections inside each edition. There are books that celebrate travel writing (see 2000 [Bill Bryson], 2011 [Sloane Crosley] and 2016 [Andrew McCarthy*]), science and nature writing, short stories, and others and although they have a tendency to be heavily rich white male in their offerings (through design or accident), you can usually steer your way through that by your choice of who the book editor is. For example, this one was edited by Amy Tan which, to me, ups the odds of there being a more diverse selection of writings inside.

(It’s not always true to form, and there are some (white male) editors who choose a diverse selection and vice versa, but generally speaking, the older the edition the more likely it is to be a white European-centric volume.)

All that to say, I enjoyed this anthology and Amy Tan’s selections. As with any collected volume of works, there are going to be some hits and misses, but on the whole, this was a good selection of writing and a good read. Tan has curated a collection that’s pretty evenly split between male and female authors, but for some reason, it’s heavily swayed towards white people (16 out of 21 stories had white authors).

This has got me wondering whether this emphasis on white authors is primarily because most of the stories that the guest editor in question is going to read (or find) are those from authors who have already published their work (in literary journals and/or similar).

This seems to be common as many authors are (or have been) caught up in the engine of grad school writing programs (the “publish or perish” syndrome) — students are rewarded by high grades from profs (majority of whom are traditionally older white males) who think “this student writes just like me and it’s awesome!” So it’s like a vicious cycle of some kind and since grades are almost everything in grad school, no one wants to rock their own boat too hard so they stick to the “same old same old” as it’s the safest way to get through class…

Hear me out on this theory (and it’s only a theory): For most people, going to grad school is only possible, really, if you have some money/time to spare, and so I’m wondering if the low diversity numbers are due to the fact that disproportionately high numbers of POC simply do not have the luxury of that choice to attend a grad school with prestigious authorial faculty (even more $$$) and so on up the educational pipeline. Poorly-funded school systems also tend to disproportionately impact minority and under-represented kids (which means that the kids might not have the same academic or other support system)…

I don’t know, but just thought it was interesting to ponder for a while. What do you think?

Back to the book: Diversity-wise, this anthology included work from a Dominican-American, someone who is Chinese-American, an Indian-American, a professorial type from Tibet (now living in the US), and a guy from Bosnia (now also living in the US).) Perhaps I should be wise to remember that the title of the series is the “Best American….” !!

Of the stories that I liked, I thoroughly enjoyed the work of Lorrie Moore (whose work I will be searching for more to read), and then I thought that the others were all a bit same-y in the end, although they were a nice same-y.

Therein lies the biggest problem for me with regard to short stories: since most tend to be generated either during or after going through grad school writing programs, the authors are taught to write in a certain way to get the “A” grades, that certain way being determined by the students’ professors who also have previously also spent their time in the grad school engine and so it’s a big self-feeding circle in the end.

I could be wrong with this pondering, and this is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the read. I did, especially when I was exposed to very different authors than my usual choices. Perhaps that was what was challenging: that some of these stories were very different in both structure and form than my typical fare. And yet, I’m usually ok with post-modern endings, inventive structural decisions and other experimental offerings. That I finished the whole book would support that I enjoyed the majority of the read. I’m just contemplating what my expectations were in contrast with the final product.

Whatever the reason(s), in the end this was a thoughtful read that led me down plenty of other rabbit holes on-line. It’s always good to learn, and this title certainly helped to expose me to different authors and approaches.

I wonder if you (as the reader) have a similar experience of “same-y” when you read a book of short stories all written by the same author. (Toddles off to the TBR shelves to see what else I have…)

(This title is off the TBR pile. Go me. 🙂 )

  • The very same Andrew McCarthy who acted in John Hughes’ inimitable Breakfast Club from the 1980’s. He’s all growed up now. 🙂 )

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