The Short List

With the extraordinary number of books being published per year in traditional and non-traditional format (self-published and co-op publishing ventures), a trip to a well-stocked bookstore reminds me of a trip to the Animal Shelter. Shelf after shelf performs the literary equivalent of barking and tail wagging. Take me home! No, take me; I have a more provocative cover. But I promise to do more for you.

The Labor Day weekend is traditionally seen as the swan song of summer, the last hurrah of long days with seemingly sufficient time to slip in some self-indulgence in addition to the self- improvement. Unfinished mysteries, thrillers, and historicals, get shoved to the space under the sofa or bed, there to take their chances of being finished or ending up in a yard sale. The bookstore is not the only venue where most books have a shorter shelf life than a carton of yogurt.

As if to confirm the seriousness of the approaching autumn season, bookstores begin displaying works more calculated to engage and challenge than to entertain. A serious icon of such intent is the arrival of the Houghton Mifflin collection, “The Best American Short Stories, 2007.”

A long-standing tradition, the Houghton Mifflin series has for several years employed a noted author to be supervisory editor, culling twenty or so stories from the hundreds published from February of 2006 through January of this year. Although I am quite fond of this year’s guest editor, Stephen King, admiring his wide range of material, his energy, and his overall positiveness, even while it is his avowed intent to frighten us in new, convincing ways, I found his introduction neither frightening nor particularly informative.

King has things to say about the kinds of writing he and other writers produce that is worth listening to, “The Dance Macabre,” his history of the thriller genre he almost single-handedly birthed, a notable example. In this venue, he has little to say that hasn’t been said before: he read a great many short stories, perhaps as many as the assistant assigned to work with him; he is fond of the short story format; a great many gifted writers are producing splendid work, but alas, they are buried under the pile of publicity accorded Britney Spears.

King also confessed to seeing a good many flat, spineless stories, and might have got into some good depth as well as frightening us by discussing the how and why of the flat, spineless stories. Tobias Wolff in 1994, and Annie Proulx, in 1997, were and remain high-water marks for introduction to this series, which has become as iconic for short fiction as the famed Loeb Classic Library has become for the works of the great classicists.

The contents of “The Best American Short Stories 2007” are another matter. Of the twenty stories making the final cut, only one, “Dimension,” by Alice Munro, is from “The New Yorker,” and although T.C. Boyle, whose stories are often linked by association to “The New Yorker,” makes an appearance in the top twenty (Surprise! Surprise!), his story, “Balto” saw first light of day in “The Paris Review.”

Does this signal some sort of decline for “The New Yorker”? Don’t cancel your subscription yet. (If you’re going to cancel anything, cancel “The Atlantic,” which has taken an unusually harsh and parochial attitude toward fiction.) In a back-matter section, King has chosen “100 Other Distinguished Stories,” seven of which appeared first in “The New Yorker,” a selection I’m happy to agree with. I’m even happier about the variety of venues for short fiction.

The cover price of magazines and literary journals has risen steadily, causing me to have developed what I will call The Lowenkopf Index. (I tried in alphabetical order to name the index after Jim Alexander and Jim Buckley, but they were not impressed.) This index is a ratio between the cover price of a magazine, journal, or book and the number of agreeable short stories found therein. “Tin House,” “Granta,” and even more notably, “The Virginia Quarterly Review,” rank high; “The Georgia Review” and “The Sewanee Review” rank as satisfying. All these are worthwhile.

“The Best American Short Stories 2007,”through Stephen King’s gimlet eye, seems to me one of the more successful volumes in this series. Once again agreeing with King, I was well satisfied with William Gay’s “Tin House” story, “Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You.” In this narrative, Gay gives us a look at a tragedy in the making, a character who “had his ticket punched for the graveyard or the penitentiary and one foot on the platform and the other foot on the train.” Why, you ask, would I care about such a person? And here comes into play the amazing breadth of William Gay and the piercing instrument of examination and drama the short story has become.

Karen Russell’s “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” originally appeared in “Granta,” and has the ironic bite of laughter that will see you past the William Gay story.

For different kinds of nuance, Ann Beattie’s “Solid Wood” seems an innocent enough incursion into a past relationship, but her power with the disparity between what characters say and what you suspect they really mean wrenches you into an intrigue where you have to find out who is the real antagonist of this fine story.

Alice Munro’s “Dimension” yanks you through the turmoil of a novel within the confines of a short story, leaving you with the sense of a narrative having the same kind of hand and drape as a custom-made suit.

Richard Russo’s “Horseman” will do for you what Stephen King often does; it will pile a sense of impending dread and uneasiness on you, and as Russo so often accomplishes in his work, will leave you looking nervously over your shoulder.

If you had any doubts about T.C Boyle being a virtuoso of the short form, “Balto,” in all its moody convergences, will reaffirm.

My own favorite, Kate Walbert’s “Do Something,” is placed at the tail end, a nod to the notion of setting a collection off with a wrenching start and finishing with a chiropractic crunch. The first story in the collection has the sense of well-oiled furniture in a restored heritage building. Its author, Louis Auchincloss, better known for his longer works, pulls us by our conventional collars into a family situation that will move many of us into another dimension of tradition and connection. “Pa’s Darling” is an inspired choice to lead off the collection.

So how does the Lowenkopf Index apply when used to gauge “The Best American Short Stories 2007”? Okay, I’ve never been a big fan of John Barth and “Toga Party” didn’t change my mind, nor did Joseph Epstein’s “My Brother Eli” cause me to light firecrackers on its behalf. Eighteen out of twenty. A remarkable index score for a remarkable collection, one that will ease you into the seriousness of the coming season and perhaps even have you scrambling to find some of Stephen King’s “100 Other Distinguished Stories.”