Books
10:08 am
Fri January 11, 2008

New Stories from the South: 2007?The Year's Best

Short story anthologies are stepchildren in the publishing world. First, they are, I think, unfairly associated with the classroom. That's always too bad. And one is more likely to read a collection by an author one already knows and admires, say John Updike or William Gay. People also favor collections that are thematically based?hunting stories or stories set on Cape Cod, or stories about dogs, although there should be a moratorium on those.

New Stories from the South 2007 is the twenty-second in this hugely successful series from Algonquin Books. Convincing the Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American author Edward P. Jones to edit this year's volume was not easy. After all, choosing and introducing stories is tedious and relatively unrewarding work, and successful authors have their own books to write. Jones agreed for two reasons. First, small magazines had been the first to say yes to his short fiction, and second, New Stories from the South had been first to anthologize one of his stories, and it had meant a lot to him.

Short story anthologies are stepchildren in the publishing world. First, they are, I think, unfairly associated with the classroom. That's always too bad. And one is more likely to read a collection by an author one already knows and admires, say John Updike or William Gay. People also favor collections that are thematically based?hunting stories or stories set on Cape Cod, or stories about dogs, although there should be a moratorium on those.

"Best Of" stories are perceived as not sexy, but that is just dead wrong. Consider this volume. One-hundred-nineteen journals were canvassed to begin with. Kathy Pories, the Series Editor, gave Jones probably a hundred? Two hundred? And then he chose eighteen. Think of the winnowing, the culling that went on, by the magazine editors, then Pories, then Jones. These are good stories. Of course, different people's tastes come into play. Jones declares he favors longer stories, not the short shorts or flash fiction very much in vogue. He likes stories that build, not with just one anecdote or incident, and stories in which the "world, for even one character, has shifted." So do I.

The longest of these stories is forty-six pages, the shortest nine. Most are about sixteen pages. Room enough for development, for things to happen.

And, as one observes over time, Southern literature is mostly serious business, that is, decidedly not comic. In the James Lee Burke story "A Season of Regret," a mild-mannered writer-teacher has to subdue the killer in himself, although he would be killing in a good cause. "Beauty and Virtue" by Agustin Maes is an almost unbearable tale of a psychopath who rapes and kills little girls. "Life Expectancy" by Holly Goddard Jones is the story of a high school girls' basketball coach with a broken heart. Theo has impregnated his student, Josie, and she rejects him. He suffers, and the writer who finds him "despicable" sees that her challenge is in getting the reader to care about him. Actually, it is a pretty good rule of thumb never to be contemptuous of anyone else's pain.

"Dogs with Human Faces," by Stephen Marion, is also dark, but contains a moment of hope. Dogs are being euthanized at the animal shelter, but then a few, miraculously, come back to life, so to speak, because the drugs have been administered incorrectly. They'll die tomorrow, probably, but not today.

George Singleton and Daniel Wallace, thank goodness, can be relied on for humor. Wallace's story "A Terrible Thing" begins, "Before I met the woman who would become my wife, I went out with women who were in some way disfigured, girls to whom terrible things had happened." Of course, his perfectly beautiful wife learns about this and wants to know why.

George Singleton has written a spoof of the low-residency online master's program, this one in Southern Culture from the fictitious University of Mississippi-Taylor. When the narrator offers to have a transcript sent, the UM-Taylor "registrar" takes his payment and replies that she and the professors believe in "a person's word being his bond . . . and that the program wouldn't work out for me if I was the sort who needed everything in writing."

Yes, there is something for everyone in this volume, just as there is surely a master's for everyone, online.

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