Book review: The Best American Short Stories 2018, ed. by Roxane Gay

posted: February 22, 2020

tl;dr: Guest editor Roxane Gay achieves her aim by serving up twenty political short stories...

In her opening essay for The Best American Short Stories 2018, guest editor Roxane Gay describes how she was deeply affected by the 2016 U.S. presidential election, stating that “the world feels like it is coming apart”. She scrapped her original syllabus for a post-inauguration graduate-level writing workshop and, as “a small act of defiance”, focused it on “writing the political novel”. When given the opportunity to make the selections for the 2018 volume of The Best American Short Stories, Gay relished the opportunity to feature a more diverse set of authors and character identities, especially in comparison to the 2010 volume edited by Richard Russo, which Gay criticized because “too many of the stories focused on rich white people”.

I enjoy reading stories from people of different backgrounds than myself, so on one level I have no problem with Gay’s stated aim for this year’s volume. I’ve long ago realized that the guest editors of The Best American Short Stories series don’t often take the series’ title seriously: they choose the stories that they like and want to feature. Perhaps the series should be renamed “American Short Stories That The Guest Editor Wants You To Read”. Looking at my review of Russo’s 2010 volume, I wasn’t thrilled by his selections either.

I do believe, however, that short stories can be judged on the quality of their writing: how creative they are, how engaging the stories and characters are, how innovative they are, how strongly they evoke emotions and reactions, and how well they educate and convey truths about the human condition. Gay believes this, too, and states that her twenty political short stories are always brilliant and creative. That is where we disagree. There are some excellent stories, but I feel there is a higher than normal percentage of duds. This is the same criticism I had of Russo’s volume.

My favorite stories from this year’s volume:

“The Art of Losing” by Yoon Choi: a touching multi-generational Asian-American immigrant story in which an elderly man with Alzheimers is left in charge of his grandson; it expertly explores both the grandfather’s state of mind and the relationships among his family members.

“The Brothers Brujo” by Matthew Lyons: a story with elements of fantasy about a dysfunctional, broken family (a physically and mentally disabled father with two sons) who are outcasts from the town they live in except when the family’s magical powers are needed.

“A Big True” by Dina Nayeri: another immigrant story, this time about an Iranian-American immigrant and his newly befriended immigrant friend of uncertain heritage, which illustrates how some immigrants feel compelled to behave in their new country.

“Suburbia!” by Amy Silverberg: from the beginning there is something strange about this coming-of-age story of a young woman leaving her suburban family home and embarking upon her adult life; I found the ending to be quite creative.

There were some other stories worthy of inclusion, but, in my humble opinion, too many of the rest had flaws or didn’t otherwise impress me as being fine examples of the art of storytelling. As always, your opinions will almost certainly be different than mine.