The Best American Short Stories of the Century

In 2003 I read The Best American Short Stories of the Century, a best-of anthology culled from decades of previous best-of anthologies.  When reading collections of various works, I track my responses to each by putting some notes on the table of contents.  Besides written comments, I rank things with the classic, lazy teacher method of check /check-plus /check-minus, where the check is average, and the plus or minus pretty well explain themselves. 

Here are my notes from this book.  I see now how repetitive and banal many of my “reviews” were; I hope that if I read it again today, a lot of my notes would read differently.  However, I think my overall opinions would still be positive. 

Out of the 56 stories, I gave 7 check-minuses, 20 checks, 25 check-plusses, and even 4 unprecedented check-plus-plusses

1915. Benjamin Rosenblatt, Zelig—Nothing more than a history lesson, and a poor one at that. √-

1916. Mary Lerner, Little Selves— Useful and pretty, but rigid.  Irish.  √

1917. Susan Gladspell, A Jury of Her Peers— As bad as Kate Chopin.  √ –

1920. Sherwood Anderson, The Other Woman— A bland cliché.  √- [unfortunate, as I loved Winesburg, Ohio.]

1922. Ring Lardner, The Golden Honeymoon— Not bad, but nothing special.  √

1923. Jean Toomer, Blood-Burning Moon— Same: not bad, but nothing special. √

1927. Ernest Hemingway, The Killers— As usual, very well written, and very depressing. √+

1929. Willa Cather, Double Birthday— I don’t often use the word “poignant,” but I need it now.  This story suggests beauty that can’t be described.  √+

1929. Grace Stone Coates, Wild Plums— Been done 100 times and 100 times better.  √-

1930. Katherine Anne Porter, Theft— A mediocre meditation on materialism. √

1931. William Faulkner, That Evening Sun Go Down— Too much dialogue.  Faulkner’s better at exposition.  √-

1931. Dorothy Parker, Here We Are— True and funny!  :)  √+

1933. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Crazy Sunday— Gatsby Lite.  Still, some beautiful thoughts.  √

1934. Alexander Godin, My Dead Brother Comes to America— A solid, predictable workhorse.  √

1935. William Saroyan, Resurrection of a Life— Wow!  “For Ivan Ilyich, With Love and Squalor” [this story seems to have reminded me of two of my favorite stories, one by Tolstoy, the other by Salinger; I’ve combined their names here] √+

1938. Robert Penn Warren, Christmas Gift— Stark, simple—cool.  √

1939. Richard Wright, Bright and Morning Star— At least it’s better than Faulkner’s. √

1940. Eudora Welty, The Hitch-Hikers— Wow!  Now this is what old-fashioned writing is supposed to sound like! √+

1943. Paul Horgan, The Peach Stone— Finds beauty even in grief. √+

1944. Vladimir Nabokov, “That in Aleppo Once…”—Worthwhile, but plodding. √

1947. Jean Stafford, The Interior Castle— Beautiful, riveting.  Years ahead of its time.  √+

1948. Martha Gellhorn, Miami—New York— A competent but still solidly average slice of life.  √              

1948. E. B. White, The Second Tree From the Corner—The beautiful ennui of our age…in 1948! √+

1949. Elizabeth Bishop, The Farmer’s Children— Very good writing but very very predictable. √

1951. J. F. Powers, Death of a Favorite— Not awful, but not nearly as clever as it pretends to be.  √-

1951. Tennessee Williams, The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin— Poetry that can only be described as exquisite. √+

1955. John Cheever, The Country Husband— American Beauty.  [ironic that this comparison is used here as a compliment, as I really wasn’t impressed by that movie.] √+

1957. Flannery O’Connor, Greenleaf— A piercing, laconic slice of Midwestern American tragedy. √+

1960. Lawrence Sargent Hall, The Ledge— Beautiful and sad-a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare. √+

1960. Philip Roth, Defender of the Faith— Awesome characterization, foils. √+

1962. Stanley Elkin, Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers— Intense doesn’t count if it’s just bitter. √-

1964. Bernard Malamud, The German Refugee— Deep empathy for Oskar. √

1967. Joyce Carol Oates, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?— Disturbing, but great use of dialogue. √+

1968. Mary Ladd Gavel, The Rotifer— Good insight, but way too discouraging.  √

1969. James Alan McPherson, Gold Coast— Almost a +. Beautifully captures the best and worst of people, but kind of plain. √

1970. Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Key— Beautiful, original, and life-affirming. √++

1973. Donald Barthelme, A City of Churches— Original, weird…perfect! [I remember reading his story “Game,” too, which I also loved.  I need to pick up some more of his stuff.] √++

1975. Rosellen Brown, How to Win— Again, fine writing, but still more predictable and depressing than insightful. √+

1976. Alice Adams, Roses, Rhododendron— Beautiful childhood friendship; don’t try so hard.  √+

1978. Harold Brodkey, Verona: A Young Woman Speaks— Beautiful writing only slightly marred by an overwrought narrator. √+

1979. Saul Bellow, A Silver Dish— Average.  Blah.  √

1980. John Updike, Gesturing— Descriptiveness affects emotion.  Bukowski meets Wolfe.  √+

1981. Cynthia Ozick, The Shawl— Just because it’s confusing and depressing doesn’t mean it’s well written. √

1983. Raymond Carver, Where I’m Calling From— Stringing simple sentences and fragments together didn’t work.  √

1986. Ann Beattie, Janus— Shock!  Horror!  Depressing story of ruined life.  √

1987. Susan Sontag, The Way We Live Now— Clever, yet plodding.  √

1987. Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried— Scary beautiful, like a delicate lampshade over a 10,000 watt bulb. √++

1989. Alice Munro, Meneseteung— Very simple literary style, with lots to say about writing. √+

1990. Lorrie Moore, You’re Ugly, Too— Well written (aren’t they all!) but nihilistic, bitter, and totally plotless.  Yet I enjoyed it!  √

1993. Thom Jones, I Want to Live!— Pessimistic, yet fresh and thoughtful.  √+

1994. Alice Elliott Dark, In the Gloaming— A rare achievement these days—a sadness not bleak, but soft and beautiful.  A Scottish Dumbo.  √+

1994. Carolyn Ferrell, Proper Library— Beautiful innovate writing.  √+

1995. Gish Jen, Birthmates— Perfect balance!  This is how I want to write.  √++

1997. Pam Durban, Soon— Peaceful, reflective, balanced.  For a partly cloudy day.  √+

1998. Annie Proulx, The Half-Skinned Steer— Nobody else can write like this.  √+

1999.  Pam Houston, The Best Girlfriend You Never Had— I like the girl in this story.  √+


2 comments on “The Best American Short Stories of the Century

  1. Good to know I’m not alone! It isn’t just being depressing that sours a story for me–a story can very well be a downer if it’s useful (a cautionary tale, a tragedy, a consciously critical portrait of a fallen world, etc.), but there are plenty of stories that simply revel in nihilism. Those are quite pointless, indeed.

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