The Best American Short Stories 2016

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

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.

This 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.

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