Compiling a "Best of" collection is a risky business. I have never been asked to do such a thing, but can guess what pressures the compiler must consider. There is the problem of "making a book," which usually necessitates some variety as to subject matter and style—not all experimental, not all conventional realism. Then there is the issue of a mixed representation of authors—not all well-knowns, not all unknowns.
Foremost, of course, there is the issue of subjectivity. Everyone has his or her own particular preferences about favorite kinds of stories, favorite styles, approaches, etc. I have read all five volumes of The Best British Short Stories and have enjoyed the experience. I admire and respect Nicholas Royle's editorial expertise and appreciate his efforts to stimulate interest in the short story among British writers and readers.
However, as my last post indicates, I do not always have the same opinion of some of the stories in the 2011 collection as he perhaps does. Of course, although I have read thousands of stories in my career, I have not read the hundreds of stories he read from which he chose the twenty in the collection. So I cannot question his judgment that he has chosen the twenty best stories published in England in 2010.
The best I can do in this final post on the 2011 edition of The Best British Short Stories is to come clean about my own personal preferences about some of the stories—those that I liked and those that I did not particularly like—and try to explain why.
Lee Rourke's "Emergency Exit" is a second-person point of view story that places the narrator in a no-exit situation seeing himself as if he were outside himself, feeling unsettled and not caring what he is doing. His detachment from reality is suggested by his noting that the Emergency Exit sign is in Helvitica or maybe Microsoft Sans Serif. He feels empty, as if he does not exist, as if nothing exists. A man's eyes are like "two dark pools of nothingness." "Finally, you feel nothing." Everything is without consequence or meaning. "I don't know where I'm going," he says. The story reads a bit like a classroom exercise in which the professor has asked students to write a story about meaninglessness. It raises the old conundrum of whether one can write about meaninglessness with the story becoming meaningless.
"Foreigner," which springs from the Falklands War, is a relatively transparent story about the horrors of war and thus lends itself to generalized polemic. Inevitably, in such a story, the central character recalls killing an enemy soldier and cannot get it out of his mind. Also inevitably, men talk about wars being about freedom, while mothers say their son did not die for freedom . "There was nothing noble about the way he was sacrificed," a mother says, putting polemical statements in the mouths of characters. And as the central character recalls killing an enemy soldier, he has a taste in his mouth like a "rotting tooth." Such a story makes set pieces and clichés seem inevitable as the woman says about her lost son, "Our marriage is past. Even Alex is in the past now. And we've got to live in the present." Getting tangled in such generalities then leads to more clichés, and bad metaphors like "the word cracked like ice beneath too heavy a weight." The story illustrates an important truth—that just because the story deals with an important subject does not make it an important story. War stories are often guilty of this, for war is such a huge and important subject. But it does not make for an important story unless the language controls it, as it does, for example in American writer Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried."
Sometimes stories just want to be clever and smart and satiric. In Adam Marek's "Dinner of the Dead Alumni." England's Trinity College at Cambridge is celebrating the 350th anniversary of its most famous alumnus, Isaac Newton, and the 100th anniversary of Ludwig Wittgenstein's attendance at the college. This gives Marek the opportunity to make use of some research and evoke ghosts of AA Milne, Jawaharlal Nehru, Aleister Crowley, John Dryden, and Francis Bacon. This context backgrounds a story about the narrator recalling an old girlfriend telling him that for every person there is a partner so perfect that if you touch that person you'll both have an immediate simultaneous orgasm. Although this seems like a most inconvenient gift, he yearns for it, for "an orgasm that one did not have to work for, that came unsolicited at some unsuspecting moment, would surely be the most wondrous of all." The story exists for the two concepts. It is clever, but is that enough to create a good story?.
Sometimes stories just want to play around with writing conventions. Philip Langeskov's "Notes on a Love Story1" is a very brief story about a man who has just got his first short story published in in Paris Review; when he shares this news with his girlfriend they see a huge flock of geese. It is the eleven academic style endnotes that make up the real story. Some just supply information, e.g. who is George Plimpton and William Maxwell? But most of them provide personal information about the narrator/author and his relationship with his girlfriend. It strikes me as a gimmick that does not seem essential other than to suggest that the narrator is first and foremost a writer.
The fact that I like SJ Butler's "The Swimmer" probably gives me away as a reader who prefers stories driven by an emotion, a mysterious obsession and written in a lyrical fashion without lots of explanation or ideology or sociology. The story is about a woman who decides to go swimming in the river that she can see from her study. I like the prose that creates her situation:
"Down here at water level, she realises, not only is she invisible to the rest of the world, but it is invisible to her. The tops of the banks are at least ten feet above her so all she can see is the river, the banks and the sky. Her focus narrowed, she begins to notice tiny details; here where the river is kinked around a root, there are weeds with narrow dark green leaves. In places the banksides have been scraped back to bare earth by the spring floods , and high up there are clusters of miniature animal holes"
During her swim, she sees a swan: "She had never before realised the sheer size of a swan. Down here, on its level, she is insignificant." The woman begins to spend more and more time in the river, becoming more and more obsessed with the swan. Many days later, she swims nearer to the swan and sees it is trapped in a nylon fishing line. She swims round and round the swan unraveling the thread, until she frees the bird and it drifts away from her in the current. She lets the current take her too and catches a faint glimpse of the swan a white puff in the distance. "And at the next bend she cannot tell it from the mist rising from the water."
Call me a romantic and be damned. But I like this lyrical obsessive connection between the woman and the water and the swan. I don't know anything more about the woman, nor do I need to to participate in her magical and mysterious union with a rhythm and reality of the natural/ world.
I also like Heather Leach's "So Much Time in a Life," mainly because its fairy-tale language lures me in: "To begin with there were three children. The first, a girl with hair so dark and wet that, as she came out of me, it looked like a seal pelt: the sleek fur of a creature slipping from its underwater world onto the soft rock of my breast." The story plays a bit with point of view: "When is the moment when she becomes I? Is this it? They say that most people hate it, the author stepping into her story, spoiling the fictional dream. I hate it too, but here she is, here I am, breaking, breaking, breaking the frame." The story is, like a few others in the collection, about the writing process, but here, rather than being just a gimmick, it seems right for a story that is about the relationship between reality and the life of the imagination, a story about a woman creating her children and losing them, about a woman's netherworld of what is real and what is imagined.
Alan Beard, "Staff Development." Just too much meaningless language and meaningless sex.
Kirsty Logan, "The Rental Heart" A clever trope derived from a futuristic technology of being about to rent a heart, but the story exists only for the extended metaphor.
I liked Bernie McGill's "No Angel, "from the first sentence: "The first time I saw my father after he died, I was in the shower, hair plastered with conditioner , when the water stuttered and turned cold." I liked the rest of the story because of the restrained way it deals with death in Northern Ireland. But, sometimes I like a story because it strikes a personal note. I liked this story because my mother-in-law, a wonderful woman who came to America from Belfast after WWII to marry an American soldier she met at a dance, had just died at age 90 when I read it. She was a wonderful woman who my wife and I cared for the last few years. Purely personal reason, but unavoidable.
John Burnside, "Slut's Hair" is another favorite for me because of my empathy with a woman who is married to a brutish husband who insists on pulling out one of her bad teeth with a pair of pliers. The woman feels helpless against the man, so she creates something to save from him, since she cannot save herself—an imaginary mouse she constructs out of a fistful of dust that her mother called "slut's hair."
Sometimes I read a story that I like, but am unable to say why, for example, Alison Moore's "When the Door Closed, It Was Dark" about a young British au pair girl who is hired by a family in a foreign country. There is a baby in the family she is to help care for, but the mother is mysteriously not there. The atmosphere is oppressive, even threatening, and the story is loaded with premonitions about something happening to the baby, but even though I feel the story is too self-consciously wired, there is something about the vulnerability of the young woman that arouses my sympathy, and then the expected unexpectedly happens at the end. Hard to resist.
I don't care for stories that feel they have to explain everything. Sally Vickers's "Epiphany," for example, "He had mourned his absent father, fiercely, inconsolably, endlessly, desperately." "The note of whimsy was terrible." "Charlie…felt a further rush of absolving relief." "He felt nothing. Not even contempt." "He could never have envisaged this hesitant man with the unsettle squeak and tremor in his voice. Sharply, fervently, he wished this newly recovered parent to the bottom of the sea." Just too much explanation of feelings.
I am going to try to talk about other volumes in the Best British Short Stories series in future blogs, but I will probably only focus on those that are my favorites. My mother always said, "If you can't say something nice about some thing, don't say anything at all." That isn't easy, Mom, but I will try.