November 2007

Benjamin Jacob Hollars

fiction

The Best American Short Stories 2007 edited by Stephen King

In his introduction, Stephen King, guest editor for the 2007 edition of The Best American Short Stories, offers a State of the Union address for the short story.

Stories are still alive, he assures us, though moments later he can’t refrain from asking, “What happens to a writer when he or she realizes that his or her audience is shrinking almost daily?” This question reflects a known fact: the reading community is dwindling. Readers must ask themselves if the demand for short stories is vanishing due to cultural shifts or because of a newly debilitated prose. Who are we to blame, the readers or the writers?

This collection of the year’s best stories is evidence that the latter cannot possibly be true. The prose from 2007 continues to be invigorating and precise, and many of the included stories are written by old favorites: John Barth, T.C. Boyle, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, Richard Russo, and William Gay, among others. But alongside the literary powerhouses are lesser-known, though equally talented, newcomers. Writers like Randy Devita, Joseph Epstein, Lauren Groff, Bruce McAllister and Karen Russell. And for me, it was not the tried-and-true, but the dark horses, that managed to bring a kind of unexpected luminosity to the collection.

In Karen Russell’s “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” we get exactly what the title implies: girls previously raised by wolves who work hard to earn the civility thrust upon them. And in Randy Devita’s “Riding the Doghouse,” we watch as a father and son’s trucking adventure grows far more serious when the boy stumbles upon a stranger on the other end of the CB. Joseph Epstein, in “My Brother Eli,” gives the portrayal of an acclaimed writer who dedicates his life to his art, only to question late in life whether his sacrifices were worth the payoff.

T.C. Boyle gives us a reckless father and a vengeful daughter on the day of a court hearing; Ann Beattie gives us a magic show shared in strange company. And in John Barth’s “Toga Party,” we enjoy aging intellectuals donning togas who begin assuming their positions as antiquities themselves.

One of the finest stories, however, was written by Lauren Groff, whose story “L. DeBard and Aliette: A Love Story,” is quite haunting despite the unappealing title. In 1918, a former Olympic swimmer begins giving swimming lesson to a polio-afflicted young girl, and as her strength grows, so does their unlikely love. The entire story resides under the cloud of Spanish influenza, and the lovers’ attempts to overcome disease, recklessness, and their own mutual advances weave an odd, juxtaposed world back together again.

Yet throughout reading the collection, one line from Stephen King’s introduction continued to resonate. He explains that in 2006, many stories (though not the ones included here) seemed to feel “show-offy, rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and -- worst of all -- written for editors and teachers rather than the readers.”

And what are writers and readers to do to improve the state of the short story? First, writers must heed King’s advice and begin writing with the readers in mind. And second, the readers must return the favor: keep their eyes sharp, and their hands at the ready, awaiting the results of stories honest to their craft and written for the loyal audiences who deserve them.

The Best American Short Stories 2007 edited by Stephen King
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 0618713476
448 Pages