GWS Private Lecture: Harvard Book Store Panel Discussion on The Best American Short Stories 2010

We all know and love the Best American series.  While no reader is going to love EVERY story published in EVERY edition, the Best American books are must-haves for a few reasons:

  1. The stories are, by and large, really good.  Each was selected for its original publication out of thousands of stories.  Then Ms. Pitlor winnowed the field down to a hundred or so.  Then the guest author shared Ms. Pitlor’s enthusiasm for the piece enough to include it in the volume.  The cream rises to the top, right?
  2. The stories represent a common canon for short story writers.  Can every writer read every story out there?  Of course not.  But we need common cultural touchstones and Best American stories are a good foundation.  Let’s say you’re in a workshop and someone has written a story in a diary format; but your colleague is missing the mark.  It’s not very effective to say, “Hey, have you read that 1997 story that was in a print journal with a 600-copy print run?”  Of course your colleague hasn’t read the story.  If we have a common reading list, you can simply refer to the George Saunders story from the 2013 volume.
  3. The Best American authors have a great track record of being or becoming rock stars.  If you look at the lists, Joyce Carol Oates is always there.  Alice Munro.  Ron Rash.  Steven Millhauser.  These and others are writers we should all know, if only for technical excellence.

So the Harvard Book Store was kind enough to set up a panel discussion in honor of the 2010 volume of Best American.  WGBH, Boston’s excellent PBS station, was kind enough to put the panel on YouTube for our enjoyment:

Who’s on the panel?

One of the many wonders brought about by the Internet is that we ALL now have the ability to enjoy these kinds of presentations.  Two decades ago, someone may have transcribed the authors’ comments and the result would be condensed and put into a journal somewhere.  Or the exchange would not b e preserved at all.  Today, we can continue our education in writing wherever we like!  (I don’t have a smartphone, so I can only watch it on a computer, but you get the idea.)

What are some things we can steal from the panel discussion?

Early on, Mr. Russo recounts an exchange in which he was asked what sets the 2010 volume of Best American apart from all others.  “The only thing that I could come up with was that I had been reading this wonderful anthology since 1978…the only thing that I could think was different this year was that this was the only year from 1978 that I’ve loved all twenty stories.”  Like I said, you’re not going to like EVERY story; and that’s fine.  The important thing is that we consider what we can learn from the work.

Mr. Russo points out that he had a bit of a conundrum during his reading process.  He’s only published one volume of short stories, so he believed that his mind was “tooled” to the specific needs of the novel.  We must bear in mind at all times that each genre and each type of work has a unique set of conventions and should be evaluated on their own terms.  A pulp crime novel is probably SUPPOSED to have dialogue that is short, clippy and to-the-point.  A literary novel may indeed have long sections devoted to a character’s internal life.

Mr. Mathews claims that he has a problem “starting” works.  I think a lot of us can relate.  (I know I certainly can.”  The solution he proposes?  We must stick with our original instincts and trust there there is something in the work that is worthwhile. 

The panelists discuss the difference between writing short stories and novels.  Mr. Almond describes the architecture of a novel as “not just one flip on a trapeze; it’s a whole bunch of them and they have to build.”  He elucidates that he may not be correct; novels he loves, such as Pride and Prejudice, are fairly simple on some level.  That book is a love story.  I suppose the big lesson is that all kinds of pieces are simultaneously simple and complicated.

Mr. Mathews hits on another important concept: we all must be good literary citizens.  How?  By reading literary magazines.  He points out that his students will sometimes ask him where to send a piece.  He will ask the student which journals he or she likes.  They will sometimes reply that they don’t read any.  No one can read EVERY journal, but we should all read and buy a ton of them.  This kind of dedication is the only way to understand what a journal likes.

There’s much more to this meaningful discussion; why not watch it for yourself and describe what you learned in the comments?

Cool and useful quotes:

  • Mr. Russo: “Falling in love with a short story is like falling in love with a person.  It just defies analysis.”
  • Mr. Russo: “The physical world…is a doorway into your characters’ lives…You can’t just listen to them talk.  You have to allow them their objects.  You have to find out what the important physical objects are in the world of the story.”
  • Mr. Almond on overcoming fear: “It still comes down to sitting down and outlasting your doubt.”
  • Mr. Russo: “When you’ve been at it a while, you really can polish a turd.  And it will shine.  But it’s still a turd.”
  • Mr. Mathews hinting at the sad state of short stories in American culture and preparing to celebrate that the selection of his story for Best American would bring attention to The Cincinnati Review: “I don’t think I’ve ever been published in a publication with a circulation more than 5,000.”

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