Best American Short Stories: By the Numbers

November 10, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 14 2 min read

coverThe Best American Short Stories, of all the annual story anthologies, seems to have the biggest following among readers. The series has been around in one form or another since 1915 and has published short fiction by pretty much all of America’s best-known (and many more lesser known) practitioners of the form.

The series’ long history and comprehensive reach makes it a unique chronicle of the form. With that in mind, when I got a note from a reader about a collection of BASS data he had put together, I was very intrigued. Jake has spent the last year or so reading his way through the last 30 years of BASS collections and writing about it at a site called Years of BASS. As part of this project, he put together a spreadsheet of all the 639 stories that appeared in the collection from 1978 to 2008.

Folks who want to dig into the info can find it as a Google Spreadsheet here, but I went ahead and pulled some numbers from the aggregated data.

Interestingly, Alice Munro, though Canadian, has made the most BASS appearances over the last 30 years by a wide margin with 18 appearances. After her come some more of the leading lights of short fiction: Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike with nine stories each; Mavis Gallant (another Canadian) with eight; Joy Williams and Tobias Wolff with seven stories a piece; Lorrie Moore and Rick Bass with six stories each; and Charles Baxter, Raymond Carver, and Tim Gautreaux with five stories each.

All told, these writers have accounted for about 13%. Writers with four or more stories have accounted for 21% of all the stories in the series; writers with three or more, 31% of the stories; and writers with two or more, for 52% of the series. This means that writers who had only one BASS story during the 30-year span accounted for about 48% of the stories in the series during that time.

The gender split, meanwhile, turns out to be quite equal: 47% female and 53% male.

If you dig into the spreadsheet and uncover anything else interesting, let us know. And as a point of comparison, check out New Yorker Fiction by the Numbers.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


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  2. I’m a fan of the Best American Essays series, and the first bit of information that i digest about each essay is which publication it was plucked from. Shame that he did not include this data on the spreadsheet.

  3. The last couple have been bang-head-against-wall bad. However, I noticed in the 2009 table of contents “Hurricanes Anonymous” by Adam Johnson and almost cheered. It’s a tremendous story with a real, beating heart that I found in last summer’s Tin House. It’s also a lot longer than something Best American would usually publish; pushing thirty-five pages if I remember correctly.

  4. As a reader, I guess I’m interested in other aspects of story selection for BASS.

    In the 2007 BASS, the Stephen King one, Heidi Pitlor, the series editor, talked in the intro about how her selection process, too vaguely I’m afraid, but still intriguing.

    For that year’s BASS she had to read 3000 stories in order to whittle it down to 100 for Stephen King, who’d then choose the 20 that would make it into the anthology.

    The clincher was that besides going through 3000 stories, Pitlor also wrote a novel and gave birth to twins. I’d like to see the spreadsheet for her reading process. Or for that matter, for her life.

    After I read Pitlor’s intro and did the math, I wondered if a casual reader of short stories like myself could even make it through the 2007 BASS, let alone read anything approaching a whole bunch more in a given time period.

    I did manage to read 500 stories in 6 months, which I thought was pushing it. And I wasn’t concurrently working on a novel or having any babies, so I shouldn’t complain.

  5. If I remember correctly — I don’t have the 2007 volume at hand — King wasn’t satisfied with the 100 Pitlor gave him, and sought out additional stories.
    He didn’t use the word “satisfied,” but that was the gist.

  6. It took me awhile but I finally got a copy of Summer 2008 Tin House with the astonishing short story by Adam Johnson. I have access to 3 libraries but of the two that carry Tin House, only one allows it off the premises. Wow wow wow. The end of the story, the last line actually, reminds me of a line in Gatsby when Gatsby talks about crossing a bridge and the heart pumping feeling of limitless possibilities. Since reading that line decades ago, I never cross a big bridge in my car w/o thinking of Gatsby. Now I wil think of Nonc as well. Thank you.

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