Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Oxford Book of American Short Stories

I've been dipping every so often into the new Oxford Book of American Short Stories (second edition) ever since I got my hands on an early copy a few weeks ago, and I continue to find one gem after the other.  This is a massive paperback of 873 pages and 60 short stories written by the early masters of the genre and those who have carried the tradition on into this century.  Lovecraft, Poe, Twain, Faulkner, and Hemingway are in the mix alongside writers like Updike, Malamud, Cheever, and Joyce Carol Oates.  Throw in writers like King, Erdrich, Ha Jin, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Junot Diaz and you can watch the American short story evolve over more than two centuries.

Fans of Joyce Carol Oates, among whom I count myself, will be pleased to see that Ms. Oates has contributed both a short story and an introduction to this edition of the collection.  And, as she puts it in that introduction:
"Though it is hardly necessary, I suggest that the reader read this volume as it is assembled, more or less chronologically.  A tale will unfold, by way of numerous tales, that is uniquely and wonderfully American."
Mostly because I've so much enjoyed reading the writers in the collection least familiar to me, I haven't followed her advice so far.  However, a quick look at the table of contents makes it easier to understand what Oates is saying.  The stories are presented in the order of each author's birth year, from oldest to most contemporary - in this instance, from Washington Irving in 1783 through Junot Diaz in 1968.   Readers making their way through all sixty stories in near-chronological order this way will gain a new perspective on the evolution of American culture over the last two centuries.

This evening I read Junot Diaz's "Edison, New Jersey" and Bernard Malamud's "My Son the Murderer," two very different voices from different eras whose stories happened not all that far from each other.    I have no idea where I'll go next...and, for me, that's half the fun.  It is obvious that Oates put a lot of thought into choosing these stories, none of which will be found in the first edition of American Short Stories.  Some are familiar "classics," some have largely been forgotten for decades, and others are being introduced for the first time to the larger audience they deserve.


  1. While I'm pleased to see interest in the short story, I'm also annoyed to see no inclusion of genre fiction, which is sadly typical. If you want to talk about the short story in America, I just don't see how you can exclude crime fiction and xscience fiction both.

    I'm typing this comment on an iPad. I've never used one before.

  2. James, don't let me entirely mislead you with that partial list of authors. It doesn't get much more contemporary, IMO, than the fiction of Junot Diaz, and Stephen King is represented by a 1985 story from the "Skeleton Crew" collection. Also, Ray Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains" from 1950 is included. 200 years of short story history represented by just 60 authors is pretty hard to do. I do wish there had been some noir fiction from Raymond Chandler or James Cain, etc. but I think it's a pretty good representation of American short stories over the long haul.

    I wonder if someone has done something similar for the second half of the twentieth century only...that would be interesting. Or even just the last 25 years or so, up to 2010. I've read eight short story collections so far this year, I think, but almost all of them, except for those "noir collections" have been by single authors. Just finished the new Junot Diaz one and will review it in the next few days, with any luck.

    Welcome to the joys of the iPad keyboard...unless you are using an external one. I love my iPad, but the keyboard still makes it tough sometimes.