Monday, February 27, 2017

The Best American Short Stories - 1991 - Introduction - Katrina Kenison and Alice Adams

Katrina Kenison

Alice Adams

I like to start these introductions to the new collection with a look back at where I was when the guest editor was making their selection of stories – it grounds me a bit to the world as it was then and I make efforts when reading and writing about the stories to place myself in those years.
I think it’s important to first draw attention to the fact that the BASS 1991 brings aboard Katrina Kenison as the series editor. Shannon Ravenel steps aside after plowing through thousands of short stories for 13 volumes of BASS – 1978 through 1990.
I don’t know what sort of say Shannon had in the selection of guest editors but I can say that there are several standouts over the past 13 collections and the stories that she passed down to the guest editors have left lasting marks.
And of those 4, I struggle with which collection I enjoyed the most. The two guest editors that taught me the most, that pushed me to seek out more about their writers and them – the editors – would be Gardner and Carver. And I feel terrible saying that Oates and Updike weren’t my favorite as they too educated me beyond expectation (hey, they get the third and 4th spot!).
Carver just picked some wonderful stories – and what a writer he is. And Gardner…man…he was crazy and I like that.
Looking back at the attention I gave to these four favorites, I wonder if I could do the same with Kenison and Adams. I mean I honestly know nothing about either of them.
Alice first appeared in The BASS in 1976 so I missed her by a couple of years as this project started with the 1978 collection. She reappears again after this guest editor spot in ’92 and ’96. I’ll touch on her introduction in a moment but first I should explore Katrina.
One thing I find is that the deeper I dig into the background of a majority of these writers, the more I like them. Katrina has a wonderful website and one that she writes on quite frequently. The philosophy that now centers her in her life is one that I can respect and aspire to. I struggle with being more mindful and attentive to my “everyday” but it’s tough in the industry I’m in where my mind is often pulled in several directions. I feel that I do a good job at leaving work at work but it’s tough to slow down my mind at home. For my future and the memories my sons are creating, I need to slow down - I might have a limited time to do this so there is pressure to implement this practice.   Katrina has quite the engaging audience and she does a wonderful job interacting with her readers through the comments below her posts. Katrina has a beautiful soul and the decision to make her series editor of BASS was a wise one.
I would imagine that she was a pleasure to work with as a guest editor and I look forward to reading the guest editor’s comments about the stories that katrina passes down to them.
I was interested in how Katrina worked through her time as an editor and for a few interview where she touches on this. I’ve pulled those portions and attached them below. Full interviews can be found in the links at the end of each excerpt.

From her own website -
For sixteen years I had what was arguably the best job in the world. It certainly was the best job for me. As a first-time mother of an infant, I wanted nothing more than to be at home with my new baby. At the same time, I’d loved my career as a literary editor and I still had to earn a living. By some miraculous stroke of luck and grace, the universe afforded me the chance to do both.
A week after my baby was born, I got word that I’d been chosen to be the new series editor of The Best American Short Stories, an annual anthology beloved by readers and writers alike. Three months later, I hired some help, bought my first desktop computer, set up a system to keep track of everything (magazines logged into FileMakerPro, the stories themselves written up by hand on file cards), and got down to work. It was amazing — I was getting paid to read.
I dressed for my new job in stretchy old black leggings and sweatshirts spotted with baby drool. I had no set hours and three deadlines a year. The magazines arrived by the box load and the babysitter came for a few hours every morning. While she was there, and while my son slept, and in every other spare moment of the day, I read short stories.
Sixteen years flew by. During that time, two little babies grew up into teenagers and sixteen volumes got published and I read thousands and thousands of stories. I had the joy of “discovering” such new voices as Amy Bloom, Junot Diaz, Akhil Sharma, Edith Pearlman, and Nathan Englander, and helping to introduce them to wider audiences. Meanwhile, I also had the privilege of working closely with some of our most accomplished writers — chatting about what made certain stories work and others miss the mark with the likes of Louise Erdrich, Tobias Wolff, Garrison Keillor, Barbara Kingsolver, E. L. Doctorow and many others. Co-editing with John Updike The Best American Short Stories of the Century allowed me not only the happy, prodigious task of reading every story ever published in the series since its inception in 1915, but also the privilege of engaging in an intensive, congenial, two-year correspondence with one of my lifelong literary heroes.

From a NYT An interview by Bill Goldstein, Books Editor of The New York Times on the Web, August 10, 1999.
"I have to confess I had always been a novel reader. And I don't think I took short stories all that seriously when I began, which is a terrible thing for an editor of short stories to confess. But I had just become a mother . . . and there was something about the form that really attracted me in my new life, because I didn't have a lot of time ever to sit down and read at a stretch . . . And the more I read, the more I came to appreciate the flexibility of the form and the strength and how challenging it is for writers."

And finally from the Maiseymak interview:
I had a great job I loved, editing The Best American Short Stories series, which I did for 16 years, all through my sons’ growing up years. It was part-time and flexible and a way for me to have a steady income and a professional identity while still making motherhood my top priority.
I was incredibly lucky and I knew it.
And then, out of the blue, I lost that job, during a time of reorganizing and budget cutting at the publishers. It was devastating. But I don’t think I would have written these books if I hadn’t suddenly found myself out of work.

Let’s take a quick look at Katrina’s first forward as the series editor.
She starts off by asking the question “What is the secret of a good short story?”
  • mentions that she read nearly 2,000 stories and that she didn’t find the answer yet but suspects that in the years ahead that each good story would provide a unique answer.
Of the 2,000 stories, she gave Alice 120 and Alice selected 20 for inclusion.
Katrina notes that the stories she selected do all have something in common and the is that they all “give voice to our universal quest for connection.”
later -
“In the afterglow of a good short story, consciousness is heightened - we see more clearly, gain fresh perspective, seek to live more clearly, gain fresh perspective, seek to live more thoughtfully and independently.”
And this passage nails it for me.
This is one of  - if not the drive behind this project and what I missed these past couple of years when I fell off the rails of reading these stories.
I’m happy that Katrina wrote this so that I can have it in front of me once again - to drive me, push me through this project - this education.

As mentioned towards the top of this post I missed the first story by Adams that appeared in BASS.
Let’s get to know her a little just through her introduction to this edition.
Katrina then notes her place as the fourth series editor with Edward O’Brien being the first followed by Martha Foley, then Shannon who Katrina attributes the success that the series has achieved today. Katrina then mentions that since 1978, “a different writer or critic has served each year as guest editor of the anthology, thereby ensuring its continued diversity.”
Which brings us to Alice Adams.
As far as introductions go, I don’t think the introduction written by Adams stands out from an intro in previous editions read.
Her first sentence is pleasant enough.
“I am deeply enamored of short stories.”
Within the first page of the intro she states that she really didn’t have trouble picking out the good stories - they made “their presence felt very strongly,” and that she felt that there should have been “more first-rate stories from which to choose.”
A few sentences later she offers up what she believes to be a clue - and it’s one that I have touched on a few times in these posts.
“ I looked over the list of magazines from which I made my selection, I felt that at least one clue was offered. Six stories are from The New Yorker, one of the most visible and highest-paying magazines on the market (and one that continues to treat writers with great respect…”
I’ve pointed out before the domination of stories from  The New Yorker.
I’ll now provide a list of magazines and the number of stories selected from each one.
The New Yorker - 6
The Southern Review -2
Fiction -1
Special Report - Fiction - 1
The Paris Review - 1
The Michigan Quarterly Review - 1
Room of One’s Own - 1
Story -1
Southwest Review - 1
Antaeus -1
Boulevard -1
Shenandoah -1
North American Review -1
As you can see, the only magazine coming close to The New Yorker is The Southern Review with two stories selected. I’m not sure if Fiction and Special Report - Fiction are the same publication but if so, then they tie with The Southern Review with two stories.
Noting this disparity (if it could be called that), Adams then asks about the demise of the short story in magazines that once published them - for instance women’s magazines.
Adams writes further on the short story, their writers and the publications in which they are published. She drops a few big names of the craft and then writes of being inspired by certain authors - and stories that motivate her to write a story of her own.
Finally, as I mentioned alllll the way at the top of this post, I like to remember back to the year that the guest editor was making their selections and reflect on where I was in this world.
1991 was dominated by my second year at Norwich. I had a bit more freedom as a Sophomore. I was corporal cadre which meant I was involved with the instruction of the new freshmen - this pretty much lined me up to be a member of the cadre my Junior year.
I enjoyed my second year at Norwich. I roomed with my best friend, had a good set of guys on the floor and had a great college year. As a student, I wasn’t a good one. I struggled in a couple of my classes and allowed my social life to interfere with academics. This year was probably the year that laid the foundation for the poorly constructed academic record I built.
And with that, Let’s get to reading BASS 1991!

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