Paper Laurels: On a More Diverse ‘Best American Short Stories’

January 27, 2017 | 2 books mentioned 16 3 min read


In the latest edition of The Best American Short Stories, series editor Heidi Pitlor and guest editor Junot Díaz picked a wide and diverse selection of stories and authors for this year’s anthology. Hailing new voices (Yuko Sakata, Lisa Ko) and established alike (Andrea Barrett, Karen Russell), the editors in their respective introductions mused — as is common most years — on the relevance and startling power of short fiction today. Unlike The Pushcart Prize anthology, The Best American Short Stories allows national and transnational periodicals to submit — as long as the magazine is published within North America. For decades, the slicks (Harper’s, The Atlantic, Playboy, Esquire) played a vital role in publishing literary fiction, and these magazines were often rewarded with plaudits from the anthology. Today, only one — The New Yorker — dominates the percentage of reprinted and noted stories in The Best American Short Stories.

coverThis is understandable. Unlike its peers, The New Yorker publishes 50 issues a year, each one containing a short story or a culled novel fragment. Until a poorly-paid graduate student sets out to write a dissertation on the stories of The New Yorker, we have only subjective opinions as to what constitutes one of its “typical” offerings. Arguably there is no such identifiable thing as a New Yorker story (other than the story being well-told and the writing edited to an immaculate state). The magazine publishes a wide repertoire of stylistic and artistic modes, spanning realism and postmodernism, fables and modern-day fairytales. More to the point, the diverse array of recent authors includes George Saunders, Etgar Keret, Joy Williams, Charles Yu, Robert Coover, Salman Rushdie, and Zadie Smith. With such an eclectic group of authors, does the fiction of The New Yorker have anything in common? Perhaps critics may argue a sizable portion of the magazine’s stories concern the lives of the middle-classes and that the characters are generally heteronormative and/or white. Indeed, Marlon James once complained in a public Facebook post of highbrow magazines privileging a certain type of story that appealed to “older white women critics.” For James these stories were “Astringent, observed, clipped, wallowing in its own middle-style prose and private ennui.” Whether completely fair to The New Yorker or not, perhaps the Díaz-chosen stories in The Best American Short Stories offer a different demographic of readers a chance to see less represented voices and read about the unfamiliar inner lives and struggles of a more diverse set of characters. Perhaps change is taking place from the bottom-up, in the so-called little magazines.

Let’s look at the data: Each year for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s esteemed annual, Pitlor sifts through thousands of stories from the gamut of literary journals (and the few slicks) in the United States and Canada. In discussion with that year’s guest editor, the stories are whittled down to a manageable number. Ultimately, the book reprints 20 stories and notes 100 other “Distinguished Stories.” For the 2016 edition, Díaz and Pitlor selected 14 stories from The New Yorker. In previous years, the stats played out as follows: 15 (2015), 19 (2014), 24 (2013), 14 (2012), 26 (2011). In other words, over those six years, the percentage of New Yorker stories fell from 21.7 percent to 11.7 percent. As in 2012, it is possible this year’s selection was a down-year for The New Yorker, a blip on its record. It is also possible, though, the choice of an inclusivity-minded guest editor opened up a space for other venues to bask in the limelight. Admittedly subjective, the concerns of many of this year’s stories also speak to — and represent — traditionally marginalized voices and characters. In this time of Donald Trump’s presidency, the celebrated depiction of multitudes, of what “Best” and “American” means, can only be a good thing.

Smaller journals such as the Iowa Review, Pembroke Magazine, New Madrid, and e-flux made inroads this year, adding to the previous accomplishments of Hobart, Fifth Wednesday, American Short Fiction, and DailyLit. Yet, we must not forget that statistically, unless writers publish in top-tier literary journals — Ploughshares, Tin House, Southern Review, One Story, Glimmer Train, etc. — the odds of being honored are still against them. This is important because inclusion in The Best American Short Stories is often viewed as one of the pinnacles of achievement for short story writers and generally leads to more professional opportunities: tenure-track jobs, fellowships, book deals. Unagented writers usually become represented. (Thus, in this publishing-world ouroboros, writers lower the odds of being accepted in The New Yorker!)

At least for now, The New Yorker’s loosened grip on the Best American series offers the potential for up-and-coming writers and writers of color, and for less-commercially viable fiction, to be seriously considered for the anthology. We’ll see what next year brings.


  1. Have never been able to grasp the popularity of Junot Diaz. The Oscar Wao book was far and away the most overrated novel of the last decade.

  2. Diaz is pretty much a straight-up racist. A friend of mine (a Caucasian woman with a Latino boyfriend) went to one of his readings a few years ago and tried to talk to him and he completely ignored her until her boyfriend arrived. Then Diaz got all smiley and friendly with her; a complete and total phony, she said. The goal is to pick the BEST stories. If that happens to be 20 white guys, so be it. If it’s 20 black women, so be it. “Celebrating the multitudes” is code for quota-ism. Who the sitting president is has absolutely nothing to do with art. Anything with “Best” in the title should be judged blind, on merit alone. The author should be irrelevant to art anyway, but some people, when given the power to select things, cannot be trusted to not let their identity politics get in the way (ie: Sherman Alexie, who was famously punked and admitted that part of the reason he chose a poem for a Best American Poetry anthology was because he thought its author was Asian).

  3. It’s easier to “address the problem” with quotas than it is to reverse the momentum of American culture and interest “minority” kids in reading… reading broadly, even, outside of their assigned zones. That’s where Writers come from: Readers. Talent is a numbers game… the larger the pool of wannabe-writers to choose from, the more likely you are to produce a few genuine talents.

    Of all the kids who are currently book-mad, in America, how many will carry the obsession through into high school and then college and from there to the first wobbly steps as Writers themselves? Statistically speaking, most of these kids are going to be “white”… and most of them will be mediocre. A handful will be pretty good. One in a blue moon will be a Great Writer (and it doesn’t help that TV/movies have moved (and widened) the goalposts: people seem to think, increasingly, that a Great Book is anything featuring a character arc. The technology of Lit is becoming an arcane practise; too few Writers and an underwhelming surfeit of Scriptwriters).

    Now apply that above-mentioned winnowing to the much smaller starting-pool of “minority” bookworms… the odds are depressing if you care for Lit. If you want Great Writers of Color, you have to expand the pool by improving the initial conditions. Quotas and Hype won’t change a thing. And, in the meantime, we’ll just keep getting this shameful shitstorm of award-winning Meh. Coming soon to a theater near you.

  4. Sean H,

    Both disagree and agree with this comment. As far as Diaz’s selection in this BASS goes, he is free as guest editor to apply whatever metric he wants. If, in his opinion, a part of being “best” is a for a story to concern a relatively unique or underrepresented cultural experience, and not, say, a failed dinner party in Brooklyn, so be it.

    I will entirely agree, though, about Diaz being an asshole and phony, as well as a misogynistic self-promoting scumbag who enjoyed every institutional privilege imaginable on the way up, and then shit on everyone who helped him in order to aid his bs anti-establishment pose. And yeah, Oscar Wao sucks.

  5. BASS has been shit for a long, long time, and isn’t getting any better. Junot Diaz has always been shit. That is all.

  6. Why was my comment on “Forty-Two” censored? It wasn’t any meaner than other comments in this thread.

  7. Happy for the diversity fetishists. But it can’t be the “best” by definition. It’s now the Best Most Diversified” American Stories.

  8. Richard Albarino,

    “Happy for the diversity fetishists. But it can’t be the “best” by definition. It’s now the Best Most Diversified” American Stories.”

    I see. So if, say, TC Boyle picks a story for BASS that he finds compelling, both in terms of writing style and subject matter/milieu, we can assume he brings none of his own biases to the table, and is picking mostly white people solely based on merit. But if Diaz picks a story using his own metrics, about subject matter/milieu he finds compelling, we should assume he is making biased choices, and that the enterprise is no longer merit-based.

    Do you see what a completely obvious, racist double standard this is? As I said upthread, I cannot stand Diaz personally or artistically, but come on people, you can do better than this.

  9. I’m not usually big on the term “white fragility,” but if there’s a better example of it than this thread, or the general pearl clutching displayed on this site any time the idea of diversity is put forward, I’d like to see it. Or no, I wouldn’t.

  10. :/?

    I tend not to like the term white fragility, as it immediately puts people on the defensive (see: your response), but it describes a real thing, i.e. white people’s incredible sensitivity to the notion that the deck might be stacked in their favor or that they might have their own identity biases (see: this thread, and any other like it on this website when notions of diversity are put forward).

    The responses here of “white people bad” and “down with whitey” are perfect examples. No one is saying white people are bad besides you–it’s just a defensive reaction when notions of inequality are put forward, an oversensitivity to having to think about identity and privilege, and a resulting impulse to turn any minor criticism into “Oh, you just hate white people.”

    Hope that helps!

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