My library has the entire run (well, at least I think so--not sure when the first one was published) of The Best American Short Stories. Every book from 1915 through 2010 and the 2011 should be arriving any day now. I've always thought it was really cool that we have the complete set. What a great resource for the best short stories published in any given year. I've often thought how much I would love to start with 1915 and make my way through each book until I get to the most recent. Imagine what a great survey of this form of writing it would be to read them all (or maybe even just a sampling from each book). I could see how writing styles have changed, what trends have come and gone, how world events may or may not have shaped the subject of stories and get a taste of some work from a large variety of authors.
I randomly picked a volume from the shelf, so 1944 it is. The anthology is edited by Martha Foley, and reading the foreword it is interesting to see that she seems almost apologetic for the contents. I guess literature like so much else is cyclical. She laments the fact that so many authors have sold out--the popular over the literary--"slick stories, the stories with wonderful technical skill and no soul." (Hmm, haven't heard that argument lately).
"What is significant is that the best short stories of the year have been written largely by a new group of writers. More new short story writers have appeared during the last year than for many previous years. And significant also is a descent into commercialized fiction on the part of many brilliant short story writers to whom great acclaim has been given in recent years."
"The inevitable question, of course, is why this should be. Is the vigorous creative life of a writer limited to a few years? Must writing be divided, as has been the tendency by critics, into decades--the 'lost generation' writing of the twenties, the 'depression' writing of the thirties and now, whatever it finally may be labeled, the writing of the forties?"
"To this editor, at least, the answer seems to lie deeper in American publishing mores than in literary chronology. In other countries, the writer progresses into a long maintained maturity. But in no other country is the pressure on the young writer, particularly the short story writer, to compromise for the sake of material gain so great as it is in America. It is a tragic situation because in no other country have so many young writers of promise appeared in the last twenty-five years as in the United States."
Although she mentions Hollywood, she does not blame it for corrupting young writers, though she is quick to note the sort of writing for movies is not in the same league as literary writing.
Now I am quite curious to read the stories, of which there are about thirty-six. Many names are unknown to me, but here are a few I think will be easily recognizable: Saul Bellow (Notes of a Dangling Man), Dorothy Canfield (The Knot Hole), Shirley Jackson (Come Dance With Me in Ireland), Carson McCullers (The Ballad of the Sad Café), Vladimir Nabokov ('That in Aleppo Once...'), Irwin Shaw (The Veterans Reflect), Lionel Trilling (Of This Time, of That Place), and Jessamyn West (The Illumination).
The book includes biographical information on each author, and lists of distinctive volumes of short stories published in the US, as well as distinctive short stories published in American magazines in 1943.
Without even meaning to, I'm finding myself wanting to take this volume back and pulling the 1915 edition off the shelf and in order to start from the beginning! Almost a hundred volumes of short stories--now that would be quite a reading project!