Generally I am a big fan of the Best American Short Stories annual series. I think it’s a well-run anthology, highlighting both the celeb-literati and little-knowns who deserve more attention. Having a guest editor choose the top 20 stories each year gives the series a wider range of opinions and choices than anthologies or series who stay with one particular editor.
That said, I was intrigued to see Stephen King listed as the editor for the 2007 edition. I’ve often felt he’s an underrated writer himself, someone who has frequently risen above what’s perceived as the limitations of genre writing. In his introduction to this book, King makes it clear that he took his role seriously, going above and beyond the reading duty normally assigned to the guest editor (120 stories selected by the series editor). He’s worried about the state of the American short story, and that itself seems hopeful; short stories always seem to get short shrift from the reading public, and yet at their best, they are works of art on their own. But King also said he read several “kick-ass” stories that made him excited about the world of short fiction.
Kick-ass, of course, ends up a subjective concept. Out of the 20 stories in this year’s book, I found six that I personally consider kick-ass: T.C. Boyle’s “Balto,” Lauren Groff’s “L. DeBard and Aliette: A Love Story,” Aryn Kyle’s “Allegiance,” Alice Munro’s “Dimension,” Richard Russo’s “Horseman,” and Jim Shepard’s “Sans Farine.” Other stories, including Kate Walbert’s “Do Something” and John Barth’s “Toga Party,” were highly readable and stayed with me after I put the book down, but kick-ass? Not quite. Others, like Mary Gordon’s “Eleanor’s Music” and Louis Auchincloss’ “Pa’s Darling” left me wondering what stories were left out of this book so these could have space—undeservedly. The Gordon story is downright maudlin, and Auchincloss’ is the tired story of a woman struggling with the death of her overbearing father. In the right hands, there is still something fresh to be written about that story, but Auchincloss’ story isn’t it.
Overall, it’s always worth reading BASS just to see what’s been happening recently in the world of literature. Some of the names (Barth, Munro) are long-respected writers, while others (Walbert, Shepard) are in the earlier stages of their careers, yet seem poised to have a long and successful life in writing.
Beyond that—well, Mr. King, you and I don’t see quite eye-to-eye about what makes a kick-ass story.