Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Storis about How Things Work, the Way Things Happened: Not the Best Year for Best Americn Short Stories

As I've said before, one of the Christmas presents I would be very sad to give up is the new edition of The Best American Short Stories. Published by Houghton Mifflin for decades, the series features 20 stories selected by a guest editor each year. In 2010 Richard Russo had the honours, and I must say that I'm a little perplexed.

Russo is not a writer I was familiar with, but I was delighted by his opening essay. In it he quotes a visit of Isaac Bashevis Singer in which the very elderly writer repeated again and again that the purpose of fiction is to entertain and to instruct. That is a good philosophy for writing in general, I think.

The stories that Russo has chosen for this collection frequently take off from facts: two striking examples are one based on the life of Martha Gelhorn "Delicate Edible Birds, and one where we learn immense amounts about the way the Dutch have constructed their country, "The Netherlands Lives by Water." Both are entertaining in that there is suspense and we wonder what will happen next. But both are some how emotionally hollow. The impetus is to tell us things we don't know, not to lead us to reflections and emotions that we have not had before.

Of course, as the man who was my editor on my first reporting job used to say, "Differences of opinion are what make horse races." In the case of Russo's choices, my opinion is that there are far too much instructing and entertaining in this collection, and not enough emotional veracity.

Another quibble, the last story "Raw Water" contains at least a half dozen errors of fact (a woman of 43 is unlikely to have gone through menopause, for example) and inexact use of words. Where was the editor at McSweeney's where the story was first published.

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