When I was 16 or 17, it felt like Ernest Hemingway and Willa Cather were my own personal discoveries. I had read through all of Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, and T.C. Boyle after discovering their books and then working steadily through their bodies of work until there was nothing left to read. (And it’s amazing to think about how much time I had to read – time that I set aside for reading – back in those days.)
Empty-handed, a self-taught reader as yet unaware of many literary greats, I turned to anthologies. They were plentiful at used bookstores and I was already enamored of the form thanks to the New Yorkers lying around the house and to my adolescent thoughts of becoming a writer. What I quickly realized is that these books could open me up to a new world (almost the whole world, really) of literature. Delightful little tomes like A Pocket Book of Short Stories packed an incredible punch, introducing me to the likes of Balzac, Chekhov, Ring Lardner, Somerset Maugham, Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, and Cather – the table of contents is a chronicle of the weight of my discoveries. These discoveries would be made to seem mundane in college when I was instructed in the importance and context of these writers’ bodies of work, but discovering them first, in these beat up, little pocket paperbacks, bought for a dollar or two, was a revelation. Looking through all the tables of contents at the amazing, no frills “Miscellaneous Anthologies” site is like a walk down memory lane, not to mention an unparalleled catalog of the highlights of the form.
I ended up collecting quite a few of these anthologies, which I suspect are still ferreted around my parents house, as I can’t seem to find any on my bookshelves now. As my reading horizons broadened, I saw that these anthologies were nearing extinction, brought on by the combined declining market fortunes of both short stories and the declining prevalence of pocket-sized (or mass market) editions of literary fiction.
Nowadays, most short fiction anthologies you’ll see fall into three categories: academic (Norton, et al), yearly series (e.g. Best American and O. Henry Prize), and thematic. The latter two categories more and more have become known for the involvement of “celebrity” editors, typically big name authors who can grab a little press for the books. For example, Best American was edited by Stephen King in 2007 and Ann Patchett in 2006.
Likewise, celebrity editors are at the helm of a pair of themed anthologies already released this year. Jeffrey Eugenides has put together My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro. Of course, who’s ever seen a contemporary short story that plays out like a fairy tale? As Eugenides told NPR, “I started to realize that not only the love stories that I liked, but actually the love stories that everybody liked, had a certain bittersweet quality to them. The stories in this collection are by no means tragic, but in order to even get to a measure of happiness, the characters usually have to go through a lot of difficulty.” That sounds about right.
The Book of Other People, Zadie Smith’s anthology effort, is even more “low concept” (not necessarily a bad thing) than Eugenides’s. We are told her only instruction to her contributors – which include the likes of David Mitchell, Jonathan Lethem, and a generous sampling of the McSweeney’s set – was to “make somebody up.” USA Today quips “just when you’re ready to howl in frustration at the anthologification of the book world – I’ve seen the best minds of my generation, live blogging about recipes that inspire them – along comes The Book of Other People,” but ultimately the verdict is that the book has flashes of goodness, as is echoed by the Washington Post: “Variety — in approach, style and, in some cases, quality — is certainly on display here.”
At the very least, there’s much to applaud in the creativity of Eugenides and Smith in compiling these books, and, for that matter, in the yearly anthologies for insisting by their very existence that the year’s “best” short story is something that matters. However, the idea of carrying a varied compendium of literary goodness in one’s pocket appears to have gone by the wayside, consigned to the dusty shelves of second-hand shops. For those in the know, a treasure trove of short fiction is there for the taking.