December 1724, 1998
Choosing the Best
The best short stories of the year: Who decides? And which of the collections comes out on top?
by Piers Marchant
True, in these depressingly non-literary times, the competition has little on Coke and Pepsi ("And we're Pepsi," sighs O. Henry series editor Larry Dark), but in the tight-knit literary world, it's a decent undercard. Not the nastiness of the feud between Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul (a main event, if the two would simply shut up and meet in a ring), but no less of the intensity. Simply put, these two revered anthologies want to amiably knock each other senseless.
To wit, these salvos, from the otherwise exceedingly friendly and sweet series editors: "We aren't really competitors, in that BASS sales are so much greater than the O. Henrys," says BASS series editor Katrina Kenison. Retorts Dark, "I think they're going for more of a pop direction, and I think we go for a little bit edgier, challenging direction."
In truth, both collections are perceived as pinnacles of the literary formcareers are often begun with an inclusion in either.
BASS' resurgence began in 1978, with their practice of using a different guest editor every year. Initially, as Kenison notes, "It was very hard to get writers to say yes" to accepting the post, but that has changed as the series has become more and more prestigious. Of course, BASS' success has not come without criticism. In 1990, Richard Ford selected not one but two stories by his good friend Richard Bausch, earning BASS the reputation of being "clubby," a charge that Kenison flatly denies. In any event, as she points out, no one could use that term with this year's editor, National Public Radio humorist Garrison Keillor, who was "truly an expansive guest editor," she says, "willing and happy to read anything."
Over the years, such literary heavyweights as Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie and Robert Stone have taken the mantle, but lately some reviewers have suggested that editors have been picked as much for their overall popularity as their literary credentials. In the past five years, best-selling authors Louise Erdrich, Jane Smiley and Annie Proulx have weighed in with their editorial selections (and there likely won't be any end to the critical carping with next year's guest, Amy Tan).
This is what Dark (who took over the O. Henrys from the late William Abrahams in 1996) means when he points out that the "fragment of difference" between the two collections is that the O. Henry judges are chosen less for bestseller marquee value and more for their literary reputations (although the inclusion of Stephen King in next year's panel might prove a flaw in this particular argument).
The initial system both editors use to choose the selections is very similar: throughout the year, they receive and read hundreds of literary journals and magazines in the mail (each listed in the backs of the books: everything from a journal called the Oyster Bay Review to the New Yorker). In this manner, Kenison and Dark both estimate that they read a staggering 3,000 stories a year (or slightly more than eight a day). Out of these, Kenison chooses 120 for the guest editor to sift through, who in turn selects the best 20 stories for the collection. Dark, meanwhile, chooses all 20 stories for the O. Henrys himself. The sometimes punishing diligence of the editors usually pays off. Nearly every year, the anthologies manage to uncover previously unknown writers, exposed to the bright lights of a huge audience for the first time.
"If a writer has only published [his or her story] in a small magazine and been read by 3,000 people," Kenison says, "suddenly that story is being read by over 100,000 people a month or two later." To say nothing of the agents and other editors who regularly scan the books searching for new talent. It is no surprise that an appearance in either collection often results in a book contract.
It used to be that the O. Henrys came out in the spring, but as part of the anthology's refurbishing they moved to a fall release, putting them in direct competition with BASS. (Both editors hotly deny having any idea what stories the other has selected until they exchange copies just prior to publication.) To further the series' clout, the O. Henrys have also re-incorporated an idea from the volume's inception: a panel of three judges to determine the first, second and third prize winners. This year's panel included Andrea Barrett, Mary Gaitskill and Rick Moody, who separately read through each of the 20 finalists "blind" (meaning the author's name had been removed from the manuscript). The panel then cast their votes to Dark, and wrote brief introductions for the winning stories they selected.
The collections themselves, like most anthologies, are something of a mixed bag. Happily enough, out of the combined 40 stories, only three overlap, suggesting the depth and talent in the field. While two of the stories (first-time writer Maxine Swann's "Flower Children" and Akhil Sharma's "Cosmopolitan") have their moments, the third crossover is a no-brainer: one of the most highly acclaimed stories of the year (and winner of O. Henry's first prize), Lorrie Moore's devastating "People Like That Are the Only People Here." Moore's story (based not so loosely on her own experiences) chronicles with cut-glass precision the ordeal of a married couple whose baby contracts cancer. Moore, whose stories can descend into a kind of verbal slapstick, here never lets you forget just what's at stake at the end of the punchlines.
That story is a highlight in both collections, but each turns in a slightly different direction thereafter. The second-prize winner in the O. Henry collection, Steven Millhauser's macabre "The Knife Thrower," describes in eerie detail the performance of the title character. Reminiscent of Kafka's "The Hunger Artist" in its sublime description of the perverse, the story works like a bad dream, one whose every detail is singed into your consciousness upon waking up. Rounding out the prize winners, Alice Munro's excellent "The Children Stay," concerning a young mother who abandons her family, speaks to a quieter kind of trauma. Panel judge Andrea Barrett doesn't wonder for a second what it is about Munro that sets her apart from nearly everyone else: "Her language is always beautiful," she says. " I also love her refusal to go for easy answers and pat endings."
After these fine prize-winners, however, the O. Henry collection suffers some inconsistency: the aforementioned "Flower Children" is a sweet, richly detailed description of life as a small child among the confused hippies of the free love movement, but Karen Heuler's "Me and My Enemy," which unsuccessfully attempts to show how the victim of a stalker finally learns to take the responsibility off her own shoulders, reads like an assignment by an overreaching undergraduate.
The collection zigs and zags from there in unpredictable, and not altogether pleasing ways. Peter Ho Davies' "Relief," which focuses on a British officer in Africa coping with bad intestinal gas, reads like a cross between an historical war text and a particularly ribald selection from Reader's Digest's "All In A Day's Work." Still, the collection finishes strongly with Annie Proulx's wonderfully moving "Brokeback Mountain," about a pair of cowboys who spend a season together in the open prairie and fall helplessly in love.
As for Keillor's BASS, despite the fact that many of the stories are slighter by comparison, the collection holds together somewhat better as a whole. Keillor has an eye for the brief, compelling kinds of episodes that speak to the absurdity in our lives. Poe Ballantine's "The Devils of Blue Ridge Avenue" is a big, expressive description of hometown life and Padgett Powell's "Wayne in Love" is a charming story of a lowlife finding new love in a trailer park.
On a more serious note, Doran Larson's painfully exact "Morphine" extracts the truths of a terminally ill woman and her doting husband, while John Updike's "My Father On The Verge Of Disgrace" is a quietly moving reminiscence of a character's perceived shame about his idiosyncratic dad. For the most part, however, Keillor's collection stays away from deeply dramatic material.
Indeed, if there is any particular weakness to Keillor's BASS, it's that he proves himself a bit too easily seduced by a good line or comic overture. Many of the stories settle for being vaguely amusing instead of emotionally fulfilling. This is, to some degree, by design. Kenison and her publishers wanted to take a break from the more somber guest editors they have used in recent years, and Keillor fit the bill. "The series is never going to become a reflection of any single person's taste," Kenison says with a laugh. "I always say to people, 'If you don't like it this year, read it next year.'"
Fair enough, but the question remains whether or not there is a literary audience big enough for both anthologies to thrive. Both series editors believe so, and early sales of the two books suggest there are plenty of readers to go around. There is certainly no lack of talent out there. As soft-spoken Barrett happily puts it: "The world is full of wonderful stories."