Best American Short Stories: Part 5

The Best American Short Stories 1988 was a strange collection of work. From Raymond Carver’s “Errand” (a story of almost all summary and filled with a heavy dose of biographical material taken from Henry Troyat’s Chekhov) to Majorie Sandor’s enigmatic “Still Life,” there was a wide berth of subject matter, character, and thematic emphasis. Interestingly, 1988 appears to be the first year writers were asked to provide some background on their stories, and it’s worth checking out these back pages for some nuggets on each work’s genesis.

The guest editor—the right-leaning Mark Helprin—introduces the collection with an in-depth and intellectual essay that rails against minimalism, left-wing politics, writing programs, and the surge of women writers and ethnic literature. In terms of the latter two, he argues these forms of writing have taken over English literature college classes in the U.S., deemphasizing Shakespeare and many other authors Helprin holds close to his heart. Although well argued, his essay is misguided and reactionary on so many points, it would take an equally long rebuttal (his introduction “The Canon Under Siege” is 8,500 words!) to defuse many of his conjectures.

The questions Helprin raises about the minimalist aesthetic are interesting and are worth noting here:

Why are so any minimalist stories about despicable people in filthy unkempt garden apartments filled with ugly bric-a-brac, where everybody smokes, drinks, stays up all night, and is addicted to coffee? Why are the characters almost uniformly pudgy, stiff, and out-of-shape, even if they are in their twenties? Why do they watch so much about television? Why do they have so many headaches? Why are they impotent, frigid, promiscuous, or all three combined?

He continues asking questions for another half a page. For me, some of these observations are indeed facets of the genre, this “Dirty Realism,” which in the following years went out of vogue. Although these scenarios appear infrequently in contemporary literature, they occasionally reemerge in similar or sometimes innovative forms (see some of my stories! or Carve magazine, for example), they are for the most part relegated to a few names: Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, and others, and a period: the late 1970s to the 1980s. The editor of Granta, Bill Buford, coined the term in a 1983 issue of the magazine.

Standout stories:

Tobais Wolff’s “Smorgasboard” and Ralph Lombreglia’s “Inn Essence.”

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