Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Best American Short Stories 1990

August 1990 - The beginning.
This collection contains stories published in 1989, read by the series and volume editor in ’89 and 1990 with a publication of the collected stories occurring in November of ‘90.
I’ve thought a lot over the past several months about this volume of stories.   It’s the date stamped across the cover that draws my emotions I think more than the stories within (at least at this point).   
1990 was 23 years ago.
23 years.
I’ll be 65 years old in 23 years.
I find it so hard to digest.  Where have those years gone? It really is incredible.
It is within those 23 years beginning in 1990 that I have lived the best years of my life.
You see, in 1990, the raw materials that eventually became my life today started to gather and construct themselves – slowly being shaped by forces visible and invisible – some only to make themselves known many years later.
That year I stepped out from under the wings of my parents and entered a new world  (and thinking of my own son doing this, breaks my heart).
I found new wings to shelter under and new companions to find comfort in.
I found myself in those early months  of my freedom sitting  alone, in a classroom, at a desk in the library, in my bed, face buried in a pillow, stifling sobs and struggling to mask the tears.  I cried for my past and my future.  Cried for the mistakes I was making and crying for the mistakes I was going to make.
Mistakes became my new friends – for I made many and there was no one to blame but myself.
Mistakes that sit with me today. Mistakes that weigh heavy on my conscience because it is I that created them and must shoulder the burden.
And still 23 years have passed.  23 years to the week that I set out on the path I now find myself on.
Again, I feel a strength, a strength that I can summon so many of these memories simply by holding a book stamped with a date.
And I read what I have written above and I see that what I have used as a point to illustrate these 23 years is the idea of “mistakes”.
But above me talking about all the mistakes I made, I clearly wrote about how the years have been the best ever.  So, how could a described life of mistakes be the best?
Is it that I have seen these mistakes as lessons? Perhaps - I’m still trying to figure that out.

Let’s quickly look at a few selected quotes from the volume editor Richard Ford.
-“A warming chestnut snugged into the heart of many introductions of this very sort protests that a virtual cornucopia of wonderful stories – far too many for one slender volume – made final choices nearly impossible.  This was not precisely my experience in 1989.”  

-“Unarguably, writing short stories – a minor contribution to the saga of mankind- is something most people can’t do very well.  I don’t know why.  Maybe it’s harder than it looks, and wonderful stories do see like little miracles.”  
-“Art’s that way – free.”
-“I only know I’ve made no effort to “stamp’ this volume as my own,  I’ve meant not to set the world straight about the contemporary short story, or show people what they ought to be reading – only what they may like.  The selector or his method isn’t the star here.  It’s not my collection, it’s the writers’.  And although a skeptical reader might say these stories are bluntly predictable given their blunt chooser, their chooser has done his best not only to find stories he can stand up for, but also to put himself out of business with his choices.”  
-“So finally we get to the back of the garage, the nuts and bolts.  There are not a lot of wonderful short stories published in America year to year, and partly in view of that rarity I have sought to publish here only the best I could find, with no attempt to distribute evenly the number of men to women, the number of small magazines to large ones; no attempt to include some percentage of gays or Chicanos or African Americans or Jews.  I have not tried to encourage younger writers nor discourage Southerners, West Coast writers, dyslexics, New Agers, Christians or Viet Vets.  I did not read these manuscripts “blind,” as some of my predecessors have, but I trust myself to honor the basic primacy of the work to its author.”

I read the introduction twice.  Once as an introduction and a second time to pull the above quotes and think a bit about why I decided to include them here.  
I appreciate the Ford puts right out there the fact that there really aren’t a lot of good short stories published each year.  I think that still holds true today.  Ford picks stories that he feels the reader might like – but of course this is through his filter – and I have a little trouble believing his statement that he hasn’t made an effort to stamp this volume as his own – for with that statement and the other that follow, he has done just that. Not reading them blind – that too I believe can only color his selections a bit closer to shades of his favor.    

He read 250 stories for this volume and selected 20 from a nice variety of magazines.  You will also note as I read through this volume that he selected two stories from Richard Bausch and Alice Munro.  It will be nice to read selections from old friends such as Madison Smartt Bell, Elizabeth tallent and Joy Williams.

This is the last volume that Shannon Ravenel will serve as the series editor.  Shannon did a wonderful job as series editor since 1978 and I’m sad to see her go.  She will be replaced by another competent editor - and I look forward to reading selections that are passed to various volume editors.
I’ll always cherish and remain starstruck by this letter she wrote after I asked her about her work with John Gardner.  I’ve attached the letter below.

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