Great American Short Stories – Corinne Demas (2005)

Not having had a lot of positive experiences in the past with short stories, I was curious how this book would pan out. Suffice it to say that this was a better reading experience than before – perhaps I had just chosen annoying writers before.  (I am looking at you, John Cheever and John Irving.)

So – bought this book earlier in the year and thought it was a pretty good selection of American “classic” short stories. In the past, the short stories that I have read have always ended too early – as though the story wasn’t finished in some way. In the intro to this anthology, editor Corinne Demas describes the short story referencing Poe in that a good short story should be able to be read in one sitting, and so the majority of the stories here can be done like that (depending, of course, on how fast you read).  I would also add that the end of a short story (for me) should not leave you hanging too much. I am all for post-modern endings, but not endings that end just because….

This anthology is pretty inclusive, although based as it is on nineteenth century authors, it’s automatically heavier on white males although, to be fair, I don’t think this is a fault of the editor. I think that that is really what has been considered the Western Canon in the past, and although I don’t particularly agree with the homogeneity of it, you get what you get from what’s available. There is an entry from Charles Chesnutt (one of the first Af-Am fiction writers to be published by The Atlantic monthly) and a couple of (white) female writers.

However, moving on to the stories themselves, I enjoyed it overall. There were a few I skipped over (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Melville). Hemingway and Fitzgerald are authors that I don’t particularly enjoy, and I had already read Melville’s story. Some of the stand-out stories for me included Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” and that Cask story, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (new author to me), Sherwood Anderson, and Ambrose Pierce. I hadn’t read any of these writers’ short stories before (and some were completely new to me as writers) and I enjoyed their work. Poe is especially good, I thought.

I found that the best way for me to enjoy this book was to pick it up, read a few stories, and then put it down for something else. I don’t really like to plough my way through story after story, just because I like continuity between stories, and with these being complete short stories in and of themselves meant a change in strategy. I am quite surprised at how much I enjoyed these stories actually – I think that I had been so burned by the crap put out by Irving and Cheever that I had sort of lumped all short stories into the same pile. How wrong I was.

Now I am wondering if there is a twentieth century equivalent of this collection (or even a twenty-first century). (Dates are when the authors are born, not necessarily when the story was written.) I am sure there are loads of good anthologies out there for more modern authors – any recommendations? Or is there a good book of short stories by one writer out there that you would recommend? Just no Cheever and Irving (in case you couldn’t pick up on that). 🙂

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