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
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.”
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!