Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Whodathunkit!? 2010: The Year In Bests (Books, And Other Smarty-Pants Things)

The other day, in the first installment of the lengthily-named

WHODATHUNKIT!? 2010: The Year In Bests;
The First-Ever TBOE
What You Were Told, And What You Should've Been Told Instead
Best Of The Year List.

I gave you the Best Book I Read in 2010. But that category on TBOE isn't just books, it's books and other smarty-pants things, so here's a second installment of The Year In Bests. etc. etc. from the Books (And Other Smarty-Pants Things) Category; this one is Short Stories.

The New Yorker, from whence I get 90% of my information about the culture these days (the other 10% coming from watching reruns of the Crash Nebula episode of Fairly Oddparents on the Nicktoons website with Mr Bunches), had a "fiction issue" this year featuring what it called "20 Under 40," twenty writers that blah blah blah whatever it was they said about the state of fiction or why they chose writers under 40 or something. I don't know; I don't recall what they said and don't want to go re-read it.

The point is, though, that they featured short stories or short snippets of longer stories, and have continued doing so in their magazine, making The New Yorker the only magazine I read that publishes short stories on a routine basis. (Of course, I only read four magazines on a regular basis.)(Which still puts me four magazines ahead of Sarah Palin. Take that, Mama Grizzly!)

Short stories tend to be a neglected writerly form -- even by me, and I've written a collection of them. (Two collections of them, actually -- and the fact that I originally didn't recall that shows you how lowly the short story is.) Even with that, I tend to walk right past the collections of short stories at the book store... when I go to the book store, which isn't very often, because I have a Kindle, which makes it kind of difficult to just browse for books because while I can look around on the Kindle it's not the same as just walking around a Barnes & Noble and seeing the book covers and happening on a book that looks interesting because I stopped to look at another book that looks interesting.

While I love my Kindle and can't imagine going back to reading books, publishers should come up with a way to still browse and recreate the bookstore experience because that's important. At least to me. And I'm who counts.

So neglected is the short story as an art form, in fact, that a Google search of "Best Short Stories 2010" produces no top-10 lists of the Best Short Stories from this year -- an amazing thing, when you consider that we as a society are so crazy about naming Bests of The Year that we have Best Of lists featuring Jennifer Lopez's cellulite.

The closest I could find to a "Best Short Story 2010" list came from "Story," a site that says it's

the campaign to celebrate the short story. We believe that the short story is one of the most exciting and important literary forms, that can and should reach the widest possible readership. We believe that the short story matters.

I believe that, too -- and I believe it because I came across a series of amazing short stories... that I'll get to in a moment, after I tell you, vis a vis The Best Short Story of 2010,

What Everyone Else Said, and by "everyone else" I guess I mean "Story" the site, which awarded a couple of Bests this year, giving the BBC National Short Story Award to a story called "Tea At The Midland" by David Constantine, and allowing you to read the story for free on that site (or download it, same thing.) Story also gave the "National Short Story Prize" for 2010 to a story called "It's Beginning To Hurt" by James Lasdun.

I haven't read either of those... yet... but I probably will, and I'll also bookmark and read "Insatiable," by Hilary Davidson, the story that won the "Spinetingler 2010 Best Short Story On The Web" prize. Here's the opening lines of that story:

My wife is hunting for another man.

I watch her as she circles the ballroom, her black hair pinned up with a diamond clip I gave her three years ago. She's flaunting her body in a black silk dress that caresses every tanned curve.

And I'd start reading it now but it seems to me that it's probably NSFW.

Why I Assume They All Said That: I'm not sure, actually, why people picked those stories, as I haven't read them yet and don't have a feel for them. In the BBC award case, the author's bio begins as follows:

David Constantine, an award-winning poet, translator and master craftsman of short fiction, saw off strong competition, including the prize’s youngest ever shortlisted author, to take the plaudits and a cheque worth £15,000.

The winning story, entitled ‘Tea at the Midland’ is a moving and bittersweet story about the end of a relationship set against the backdrop of the sea. It was praised by the judges for its rich interweaving of dialogue and poetic imagery.

So it seems that there's a highbrow background -- and that short stories continue to intermingle with poems (which increasingly are simply free verse portraits, if not actual short stories themselves) and that having a touch of poetry in a short story (or a touch of story in a poem) is what hoi polloi are looking for.

What I Thought They'd All Say:
Did you know that James Franco didn't just get his grandma to insult fans this year in support of what sounds to be the most boring movie ever, but he also appeared in a soap opera, had a solo art exhibition, and wrote a short story collection and had a story appear in Esquire, which I assume is a magazine?

James Franco is the kind of actor critics adore and the rest of us ignore, and no matter how frantically he tries to get us to look at him, we all keep looking away and wishing that Freaks and Geeks hadn't gotten canceled because that was the last role we liked him in.

But fame being fame, once you hit the big time you're allowed to do anything, and writing a book is anything -- so James Franco, critical darling and host of the next Academy Awards (when we'll get to not pay attention to him at the same time as we get to continue ignoring Anne Hathaway), got to write a book of short stories, and I assumed that someone somewhere would put that on a Best Of list because, well, he's James Franco.

What They All Should Have Said: This is the part where I tell you about the amazing short stories I got to read recently, after listening to a podcast of This American Life's Comedians of Christmas episode. That episode featured two short stories read by Edith Zimmerman, who writes very short stories and features many of them on her website.

Zimmerman's stories are wondrously crafted miniature tours de force, tiny anecdotes that hint at a larger story, or stories, behind the barest glimpse we get of the world opened up in the story; it's like Zimmerman has quickly opened the shutters on someone's house, let us see a vignette of that house, and then slammed them shut again to let us speculate about what it all means.

But she does it with a quirky, almost-mean sense of humor mixed with the slightly-macabre, making it all reflective of what it might be like if Shel Silverstein was the chief writer for Charles Addams' series of cartoons.

Here's Zimmerman's story The Clean House, which appears in full on her blog, too:


I wish I could invent a house that I only had to clean once and it would stay clean forever. Every so often I’d test it by sprinkling little bits of dirt on the floor, but it’d always just disappear instantly. And even if I dumped out an entire bag of soil, it would all just magically vanish. But then eventually I’d think, “Where’s it all going?” and I’d keep thinking about it until it really started to bug me. Then I’d just be thinking about it all the time, feeling really uncomfortable, until one day I wondered what would happen if I covered myself in dirt and threw myself on the floor. So I would, and I’d stand at the top of the stairs, and I’d take a deep breath, and I’d jump off, head first.


If short stories are turning into poetry and poetry into short stories, then Edith Zimmerman is leading the revolutionary metamorphosis. In the stories I've read so far -- I pick a couple a day and read them, savoring them and spreading them out the way Charlie treated his chocolate bar, because I want them to last -- that same sense of wondrous mystery and mischievous larking appear, whether it's the ongoing adventures of "Chopped-Off Head Girl" or the teacher (in the story read on This American Life) who bakes cookies for her class, only to get some unwelcome information about social mores.

And best of all, you can read them quick - -before the boss gets back.

Prior Installments:

Best Book I Read In 2010.

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