Pre-1978 The Best American Short Story series had a single editor. For decades, from 1915 to 1941, Edward O’Brien fulfilled this role. After his death, Martha Foley took over. Raymond Carver mentions Foley’s importance for American short fiction during his superb 1983 interview with The Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER

Is it true—a friend of yours told me this— that you celebrated your first publication by taking the magazine to bed with you?

CARVER

That’s partly true. Actually, it was a book, the Best American Short Stories annual. My story “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” had just appeared in the collection. That was back in the late sixties, when it was edited every year by Martha Foley and people used to call it that—simply, “The Foley Collection.” The story had been published in an obscure little magazine out of Chicago called December. The day the anthology came in the mail I took it to bed to read and just to look at, you know, and hold it, but I did more looking and holding than actual reading. I fell asleep and woke up the next morning with the book there in bed beside me, along with my wife.

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.”

In 1927, Ernest Hemingway was paid two hundred dollars for his short story, “The Killers.” The story appeared in Scribner’s Magazine and is considered by scholars to be his first mature work. Over his career, the income from his stories only went up.

Today, the situation is rather different. Whatever the cause of the decline of the pay-scale—often heralded to be a lack of interested and/or paying readers—the writer is left in a tough spot: He/she wants his/her story out there, but thinks the piece deserves compensation. I agree; however, magazines and literary journals often make little or no profit. Therefore, pay tends to be in copies, subscriptions, or a small honorarium.

With the inexorable growth of online journals, the pay has been reduced to nothing. In tandem, several new start-up journals use Print On Demand (POD) technology and they only pay with a digital copy. The situation, at least financially, remains bleak.

The question remains: why do you want to be published?

For the prestige? Seeking tenure? To see your work in print? To say something important? For the promotion of art? For the money?

In terms of the latter, and to backtrack a tad on what I said earlier, slick international magazines, such as, The New Yorker, Playboy, The Atlantic, etc. will often pay several thousand dollars for a short story. Of course, most work is carefully agented—few pieces making it out of the slush pile.

So, then, the realistic options: several current literary journals, The Sun (up to fifteen hundred dollars), Subtropics (one thousand), Glimmer Train (seven hundred, and more for contest winners), One Story (one hundred) pay well. I wrote an earlier post, which discussed several of the top literary journals. Getting published in these journals can help a budding academic career or attract an agent.

Contests are the other chance for making money. Often they have top prizes of one thousand dollars or more (watch out, though, for the entry fees of ten to twenty dollars!). Send only to reputable places, like, Crazyhorse, Narrative, Cream City Review, New South, and so forth. The Internet is rife with various scams, including journals set up only to produce profit from contests.

As always the best advice is to write, send work out, get drunk at AWP, accumulate publications, graduate from an M.F.A. program, gripe about the state of literature on HTMLGIANT, get on the tenure-track, switch to novels, acquire an agent, and then shift into memoir, collect literary prizes, publish more books, elope with a grad student, publish a magnum opus, refuse literary prizes, and then end your days teaching undergrads in a small liberal arts college somewhere in the Midwest.

Sounds like bliss to me.

A NYT essay on David Foster Wallace and his impact upon Internet writing styles (via HTMLGIANT).

A related Zadie Smith essay in the TNYRB.

A website that reviews neglected, rare, and obscure books of all genres.

A book that seems both odd and enchanting.

Time Magazine‘s 100 book canon.

Another 100 book canon from the Modern Library

A Slate critique of the canon.

A book of essays analyzing popular culture.

A new blog that charts the interior of Kazakhstan.

Many national literary journals are located geographically in the Midwest. Madison Review, Iowa Review, New Letters, Michigan Quarterly Review, etc., are all prominent publications that solicit beyond their local confines for a diverse, international literature. Recently, though, several journals seem to have gone the other way: narrowing their focus and giving voice to the American heartland. Midwestern Gothic, Cleveland Review, South Dakota Review, Camas, Whitefish Review, Downstate Story, and Front Range to name a handful, attempt to offer identity to this vast and subtly heterogeneous region. Often, it seems, many journals also cover the natural environment (and how humans change it), and the idea and practices of the West. Iowa State’s Flyway, the independent Three Coyotes, and more broadly ISLE, Terrain, Precipitate also parlay into this evolving and mythic territory. Although, in some ways, Midwestern literature is conjoined with a backlog of archetypal scenarios, backdrops, and character, mostly aptly described below by Patricia Hampl, the art of the written word is blossoming in the countless miles between the coasts.

The Midwest. The flyover, where even the towns have fled to the margins, groceries warehoused in Wal-Marts hugging the freeways, the red barns of family farms sagging, dismantled and sold as “distressed” wood for McMansion kitchens, the feedlots of agribusiness crouched low to the prairie ground. Of all the American regions, the Midwest remains the most imaginary, ahistorical but fiercely emblematic. It’s Nowheresville. But it’s also the Heartland. That weight again: the innocent middle. Though it isn’t innocent. It’s where the American imagination has decided to archive innocence.

The Florist’s Daughter.

Recently, I’ve managed to publish a few flash fictions. There’s “Dear Id” at Atticus Review, “The Temple at Avenue D” at Big Lucks’ online arm Quick Lucks, “Notes From a Fruit Dentist,” at Penguin Review, “The Sale” at RipRap, and finally “The Walk” at Rougarou. In addition, I have a full length story, “Moonbow,” in the inaugural issue of The Lindenwood Review.

The first two posts charting my odyssey through thirty volumes of the Best American series can be found here and here. While reading another one of the books, I came across a recent survey by VIDA, an organization that deals with women in the arts. VIDA completed a statistical analysis of the gender discrepancies in each of the Best American Short Stories, Poetry, and Essays anthologies. They found over the last thirty years women accounted for 29% of the essays, and 39% of the poems. However, in terms of the short stories they discovered practical equality:

…of the stories published in the anthologies from 1978 through 2010, 47% were written by women. Of the thirty-three years of the Best American Short Stories we counted, there were sixteen years in which the number of works by women published in the anthologies were equal to or greater than the number of works by men.

Some fascinating data there. I leave it to others to draw their own conclusions. So onward with my latest year:

The Best American Short Stories 2000

Standout stories: Geoffrey Becker’s “Black Elvis,” Ha Jin’s “The Bridegroom,” and Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Third and Final Continent.”

Overall, I found this edition to be lackluster, many well-written but so-so stories. Often I found myself wanting more profundity in the work, the type of insight gleaned at by the guest editor, E.L. Doctorow, in his fascinating introduction:

It was the Freudian disciple Wilhelm Reich who realized that extensive dream analysis was not necessary to uncover a patient’s psyche: anywhere you looked — in actions taken, habits of thought, tone of voice, body language — you would find the typified self. That about describes the working principle of the short story as practiced by James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway.

Throughout his short essay, Doctorow offers his thoughts on the short story and its development and progression over the last few years. Of particular interest, he examines episodic and epiphanic narrative modes and discusses the strengths and pitfalls of Frank O’Conner’s The Lonely Voice (1963), a sweeping and yet detailed study of the short story genre. In the past, I’ve read sections of O’Conner’s book. I think it may be time to pay it another visit.

In my first post on the Best American Short Story series, I outlined my plan to read the last thirty editions. I’m reading the books for craft, the nuts-and-bolts of (short) storytelling, and to read some damn-good fiction. As I mentioned in my previous post, many of the magazines that submitted to the series are now defunct (Antaeus, Four Quarters, Kansas Quarterly, Ontario Review, TriQuarterly) for various reasons. Others, mostly university-based journals, have simply changed their names over the years. It’s interesting for me also to read writers I’d previously never discovered: Kent Nelson, Tess Gallagher, Jessica Neely. I will be checking out their collections in the years to come.

The Best American Short Stories 1986

Standout stories: Charles Baxter’s “Gryphon,” Ann Beattie’s “Janus,” Ethan Canin’s “Star Food,” and Mona Simpson’s “Lawns.”

This really was a stellar year for short fiction, or perhaps the selections were more to my tastes. It’s no surprise, I suppose, the guest editor of that year was Raymond Carver — one of my major influences.

For the first part of this summer — before I start work at a temporary Johns Hopkins’ job — I’m reading through multiple Best American Short Story anthologies. Each volume contains twenty stories in their entirety and mentions one hundred other distinguished stories of the past year. Around three thousand published stories are whittled down by the series editor and then the guest editor selects the final one hundred and twenty. The commercial magazines and literary journals from which the stories are chosen includes: the famous (The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s), the established (The Paris Review, Agni, Ploughshares), the university-based (The Minnesota Review, The Indiana Review) the challenging (Conjunctions), and the less well known (Upstreet, Kestrel) and many, many others.

The series has been running since 1915 and has reprinted some of the finest and most widely anthologized work in American literary history. Working through the volumes from the 1980s (more on them in a later post) I noticed many writers and magazines I’d never heard of. Many of the writers were supremely accomplished; yet through various factors, including my lack of knowledge about the eighties writing scene, these writers have faded from public life. Whether through death, retirement, or literary tastes changing, other writers have taken their places.

It’s my aim to read the volumes 2010-1980 this summer. That’s 600 stories! My wish is to pick up some of the finer points of craft and gain a few answers on the eternal question: what makes a short story? And more importantly, what makes a good short story? By the time of the hundredth Best American anniversary arrives in 2015, I hope to place at least one story in that top one hundred and twenty of the year’s best.

Below I note the books I’ve read so far and the stories that leave me in awe:

The Best American Short Stories 2010

Standout stories: Marlin Barton’s “Into Silence” and Maggie Shipstead’s “The Cowboy Tango.”

The Best American Short Stories 2008

Standout stories: Nicol Krauss’ “From the Desk of Daniel Varsky” and Katie Chase’s “Man and Wife.”

The Best American Short Stories 2007

Standout stories: Lauren Groff’s “L. Debard and Aliette: A Love Story” and Mary Gordon’s “Eleanor’s Music.”

The Best American Short Stories 1995

Standout stories: Andrea Barrett’s “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” and Don DeLillo’s “The Angel Esmeralda.”

Interestingly, there was one writer — Andrew Cozine — in this edition who seems to have completely disappeared. When the story was published (first in the Iowa Review), Cozine was an MFA student at Columbia. A Google search revealed no other published stories by him or any clues to what happened to him. Perhaps he changed his name? Or became disenchanted with the publishing world? Or something sadder? If anyone knows what happened to Andrew Cozine, post a response, or send me an email at clinfor (at) vt (dot) edu