The book on display today is not actually just a book, it is a collection of short stories. Sometime ago, I received a package in the mail from the other students in my graduate class cohort. Since some of them took up their professional experiences in the US, they were able to combine forces and send care packages to the students who went off to the Peace Corps. Among some food and other creature comforts, was The Best American Short Stories 2016, edited by Junot Diaz and Heidi Pitlor.
This collection combines short stories submitted to the Editors during the year of 2016. The reason the titles carries ‘American’ is not because each author is born in the States, that might be boring and incredibly Western. Instead, the stories are considered ‘American’ because each author has made a home in the States in some way or the other and has submitted their story to some sort of American outlet, be it a magazine, newspaper or writing competition. With that being the case, we get a lot more diversity. Authors from other parts of the globe and stories about diverse cultural worlds.
It had been a while since I had read a collection of short stories. Prior to The Best American, I had read Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger. So it’s safe to say I do not have much experience in this realm. However, I would say that I really enjoyed the stories that Diaz and Pitlor combined. They varied in length, plot, setting and motif. Each story had something different to offer. With that being said however, I also got the sense that Diaz and Pitlor purposely arranged the stories in a sequence that had meaning. I am not exactly sure why, but I felt like the transitions between the pieces made sense. This didn’t create some masterful meta-story, but it did foster a reading experience that was pleasant and smooth.
In the introduction of the collection, Diaz reflected on that which is the form of the short story. He explained that for much of writing career, he had been focused on writing novels like most other authors. He argued that the novel, in most writing circles and cultures, is the poster-child of literature. Some of the most compelling literary works of our time have come in the form of a really long novel. In fact, one of my most recent favorite reads is a novel (Los Lunes Son Para Libros, 14th Edition). As a result of this, Diaz believes that many of the incredible short stories that have been written have been overlooked. That in general, the form of the short story is taken for granted.
Understanding this, he argues in favor of the short story. In favor of shedding more light and placing more attention on short stories and their authors. If you are a outright novel lover, you might be asking why. Well, Diaz thinks there is something uniquely special about short stories. Because of their length, short stories are required to not beat around the bush. Like a poem, every word has purpose and meaning. The author has thought intricately about how to create a robust story in limited words. Not because they are lazy or want to write less, but because of the power that can come from the right words in the right order. The author has an image in their head about what they want the story to look like. Bringing that image to life without mincing words or adding fluff is precisely the attractive challenge of creating a well-written short story.
If I think about it, I’ve always been better at writing more than less. Using big words, constructing long and complicated sentences and explaining my arguments at least twice was my M.O. in college when I was writing a paper. It wasn’t until graduate school that I started getting critiqued for this. ‘Too wordy’, ‘convoluted vocab’, ‘poor word economy’ etc. On second and third drafts, cutting words and forming my thoughts more clearly was an immense struggle for me. I just wasn’t that good at writing acutely. To this day I still don’t think I am.
Reflecting upon this, I agree wholeheartedly with Diaz and his thoughts on novels vs. short stories. The form of a good short story is incredibly difficult to do correctly. But when it is done successfully, the experience just a few pages of writing can create is seductive. Leaving you wanting more, imagining the characters and settings, continuing the story and writing your own alternate ending. If you’ve ever been left with that sort of sensation, you’ve encountered a winning short story. And if you haven’t, I recommend you check out The Best American Short Stories 2016.