Monday, September 22, 2008

And My Vote for Greatest Living Short Story Writer Goes To . . .

Were it not for The Best American Short Stories anthology, I might never have discovered two of my all-time favorite short story writers: Amy Bloom and Tim Gautreaux. You may have heard of Bloom, whose novel, Away, was named one of the best books of 2007 by many publications, including the Chicago Tribune.

But long before Away was published, Bloom’s haunting short story, “Silver Water,” was selected for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 1992,and I’ve been raving about her and The Best American Short Stories anthology ever since.

The BASS anthology is a fantastic way to discover new writers: you can dip into a writer’s work with a short story, which doesn’t require the time commitment of a novel, and then, if you like it, seek out his or her novels and short story collections. Sometimes an author, like Bloom, is so new to the literary scene when published in BASS that he or she hasn’t yet published a book, and you feel fortunate to have discovered the author so early in his or her career, later annoying friends and family after said author has received acclaim: See, what did I tell you? I TOLD you she was a great writer!! Do I have impeccable taste or what?!

How are stories selected for BASS? Every year, the series editor reads periodicals large and small to select what she considers the best 120 or so short stories published that year. Those stories are then passed along to that year’s guest editor, who reads them all and then selects approximately 20 for publication. Guest editors have included John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Jane Smiley, and Walter Mosley. The editor of BASS 2007 was Stephen King and the editor of BASS 2008, which we should be getting soon, is Salman Rushdie. I really like that the series has a new guest editor every year to keep it fresh, and that each editor writes an introduction, often offering his or her thoughts on the state of fiction and the short story, and elaborating on what they like about the stories they selected.

Also enlightening and often moving are the author comments about their stories at the back of the book. Bloom, a social worker for many years, writes of “Silver Water”: “The grief, love, and exhaustion of life with schizophrenics is so close to unbearable that I can only admire, and want to sing for, the afflicted and their families.” In her story, Bloom captures the pain of Violet, whose older sister, Rose, has been transformed by schizophrenia. Violet wants people to know of Rose “that who they saw was not all there was to see. That before the constant tinkling of commercials and fast-food jingles, there had been Puccini and Mozart and hymns so sweet and mighty, you expected Jesus to come down off his cross and clap. That before there was a mountain of Thorazined fat swaying down the halls in nylon maternity tops and sweatpants, there had been the prettiest girl in Arrandale Elementary School, the belle of Landmark Junior High. Maybe there were other pretty girls, but I didn’t see them. To me, Rose, my beautiful blond defender, my guide to Tampax and my mother’s moods, was perfect."

Another magnificent short story writer that I first read in BASS is Tim Gautreaux, who in my not so humble opinion, is perhaps our greatest living short story writer. Although he's had five stories published in BASS over the years, the story that I love most is “Welding with Children,” which appeared in BASS 1998, and like most Gautreaux stories, is set in rural Louisiana. The narrator is a welder whose daughters keep dropping off his grandkids so they can go out carousing. Tuesday was about typical, the story begins. My four daughters, not a one of them married, you understand, brought over the kids, one each, and explained to my wife how much fun she was going to have looking after them again. But Tuesday was her day to go out to the casino, so guess who got to tend the four babies.” The welder is torn between his resentment towards his daughters, whom he admits he didn’t always do right by when he was raising them, and his desire to improve the lives of his grandchildren, who desperately need a responsible adult in their lives. Part Mark Twain and part Flannery O'Connor, Gautreaux's stories often make me laugh out loud, but they also address questions in ways that linger--to me one of the signs of a great story.

"Welding with Children" was inspired, Gautreaux writes in BASS 1998, by a voice he heard at the store one day. “It was a middle-aged man talking to a friend he’d bumped into. He was complaining about his three grown daughters, who kept having babies out of wedlock and then bringing them over to his house for him and his wife to take care of. The old guy had a great voice, southern, smart, and full of humor. But it was full of hurt too. His blue-collar salary was being eaten up by Cokes and diapers, and his blue-collar heart was smashed flat by children who were running their lives like a drunk runs a truck with bald tires downhill in a rainstorm.”

If that story piques your interest, be sure to check out his short story collection, Welding with Children. Another great Gautreaux collection is Same Place, Same Things.

Do you have a favorite short story or short story writer? What writer are you always crowing about to your friends and family? Do you have a favorite source from which to learn about books and authors? Inquiring minds want to know!


Roberta said...

I know that fans of SF and fantasy remember fondly the first story that captured their imagination. Mine (and many other readers as well) was The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin (1954) about a space freighter captain who finds a teen stowaway, planning to visit her brother at the ship's destination. Because the balance between payload and fuel is so precarious, the captain must choose between the medicine that will save the colony and his innocent passenger. I've never forgotten this story and the combinationn of science and humanity that it captured.

Jo B. said...

My all time favorite book of short stories is Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger where he fills in some of the gaps about "the other" members of the wonderful Glass family.

Recently I read The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel which I found amazing. I can't recommend it strongly enough.

Karen said...

Often lacking the patience to read an entire novel, short stories have always been my friends. However, your post made me realize how rarely I have read a living short story writer! But authors like Flannery O'Connor & F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote stories that transfixed me as a reader and also colored my perception of the world for all my days to come.

Laura A. said...

Short stories are a great way to get a fiction fix if you don't have a lot of time. I really like Flannery O'Connor, too, especially her short stories. "Good Country People," with its flask-toting bible salesman, is particularly memorable.

Cheryl said...

My favorite short story writer is Ray Bradbury. I had read his books before, but he became my favorite when I discovered his story "There Will Come Soft Rains". It's a story about the aftermath of nuclear war, where an automated house keeps everything going for a family that died in the blast. The story takes it's title from a poem by Sara Teasdale that the house reads aloud (which is also my favorite poem). The idea that mankind can disappear and go unnoticed by technology and nature is very powerful to me.

Jeanne said...

While I'll never admit to being a fan of the short story, I loved Alice Munro's Runaway. Nobody does bleak Canada like Munro!

Disco Stu said...

I have to agree with Cheryl on Ray Bradbury, the Illustrated Man is one of my two favorite collections. The other is Daughter of Regals by Stephen R. Donaldson, who likens the relation between short stories and novels as champagne is to beer.

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