If you’re going to be an author, there are two things you need to do on a regular basis: Read, and write. One of the best ways to study the short form is to pick up anthologies. It’s a good way to sample one story by an author before you go out and purchase an entire collection, plus you also get a variety of stories in a particular genre. Let’s look at annuals first, those anthologies that come out every year, and then move on to individual collections.
1. Best American Short Stories (annual), Heidi Pitlor, series editor
This may be the most widely read annual out there. With stories culled from some of the top literary magazines out there (such as the New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Atlantic) it’s important as an author of literary stories to know what is going on right now in contemporary literature. The biggest and best are in these anthologies, everyone from George Saunders and Mary Gaitskill to Sam Lipsyte and Alice Munro. What’s also compelling is that there are often selections that are taken from smaller journals, such as Hobart getting two stories in the 2012 edition. Guest editors also run the gamut from Stephen King and Raymond Carver to Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates.
Recommended for: authors who write literary fiction, are in MFA programs, and those that want the best of the New Yorker without the subscription.
2. Best American Mystery Stories (annual), Otto Penzler, series editor
What’s fascinating about the BAMS versus the BASS, is that these are the same elite authors you’ll find in our first selection, but on the crime and mystery side of the aisle. Often stories will be selected for BOTH of these anthologies in the same year. If there is great writing that is being done that is just a little bit darker and more mysterious, it often makes it into this anthology. You might see neo-noir authors such as Dennis Lehane next to literary voices such as Holly Goddard Jones, Joyce Carol Oates next to Michael Connelly. A good story is a good story, and these stories sometimes take more risks than the BASS. Past guest editors have include Lee Child, Lisa Scottoline, and Lawrence Block.
Recommended for: literary-minded voices who also enjoy a bit of darkness and crime in their writing, those looking for more mystery than introspection, and people who are constantly solving the movie in the first five minutes.
3. The Best Horror of the Year (annual), edited by Ellen Datlow
If you want horror, then Ellen Datlow is the person to consult. One of the reigning masters of dark fiction, her horror anthology covers a wide range of horror from the quiet to the strange to the classic. Horror is more than just Stephen King and Peter Straub (although they’re often represented here too). It’s a hot niche that is constantly morphing and evolving. If you write dark stories and haven’t heard of Laird Barron, John Langan, Joe Lansdale, and Stephen Graham Jones, then you don’t know your own genre — so hop to it.
Recommended for: authors of dark fiction, fans of horror films, those with skeletons in their closets, and Scorpios.
4. The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror (annual), edited by Paula Guran
Similar to the previous anthology, this annual edited by Paula Guran takes on horror as well as dark fantasy, which allows for more surrealism, more myth and fable, and more of writing that is less grounded in reality. You’ll see a lot of the same names (and sometimes, stories) in this book, but you’ll also get authors like Neil Gaiman, and other writers of the fantastic. Which can make for a more varied read. Both of these dark anthologies have only been around for a few years, but they are both indispensible to fans and authors of these genres.
Recommended for: those who dabble in the occult and the dark arts, fans of magical realism gone awry, and anyone who knows what The Human Centipede is.
5. The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy (annual), edited by Rich Horton
Taking another step away from horror and toward the fantastic, this anthology also includes science fiction. So you’ll see work by Kelly Link alongside fiction by Ursula K. LeGuin, Jay Lake next to Nick Mamatas. Most authors of speculative fiction tend to write in many of the genres, so if you’re writing horror, you may be writing fantasy, as well as science fiction — or some hybrid. What’s exciting about science fiction and fantasy is that we’re seeing more and more of it seeping into the literary world. It’s less about dragons and swords than about how things might tilt on an axis at the drop of a hat, the same problems that we see in 2014, in the dark words of a fairy tale, a near future dystopian farm, or a distant planet. Relationships and empathy cross all boundaries — human as well as alien.
Recommended for: anyone who grew up reading Ray Bradbury and/or Robert Heinlein, fans of Blade Runner and Star Wars, and anyone who has stared at the ceiling as they tried to go to sleep thinking about time travel and parallel universes.
6. The O’Henry Prize Stories (annual), Laura Furman, series editor
One of the things that I like about the O’Henry anthology is that the stories are selected by a jury of three. It can often lead to a more interesting mix of stories, the less obvious choices, and big publications that the BASS selects — although, you won’t see the O’Henry ignoring the New Yorker. But imagine a jury of Sherman Alexie, Stephen King, and Lorrie Moore versus one that has Dave Eggers, Joyce Carol Oates, and Colson Whitehead. This is literary fiction, of course, and a nice balance to the BASS. I mean, if a story gets into them both, you really have to make the time to read it, right?
Recommended for: fans of the twist ending, warm characterization, and variety in their literary fiction, including smaller indie publications, such as Tin House, Fence, and One Story.
7. The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses (annual), edited by Bill Henderson
Taking a step even further off the beaten path is The Pushcart, highlighting the best of the small presses. Now on volume 38, what’s great about this anthology is that we’re getting tons of great writing from lesser-known authors, as well as smaller magazines and journals. There are certainly big names as well, but there is definitely more emerging talent in this anthology than most. If you’ve sent your work to Threepenny, Zoetrope, Willow Springs, PANK, or Juked, then you know what I’m talking about here. It’s a great chance for authors who are just staring to get attention to publish alongside some of the literary masters. Which is pretty exciting, I think.
Recommended for: authors who are looking for small presses that are publishing quality work, anyone who knows what a Zyzzyva is, and those who want to support the small presses.
8. New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best (annual), Kathy Pories, series editor
Some of the most exciting work in fiction today is happening in the South, whether it’s gothic, grotesque, or crime. Unfortunately, the last issue of New Stories from the South came out in 2010, although there has been no official word that the series is done, after 25 years of publishing. Either way, pick up old copies if you must, the voices are still strong and original, with work by authors such as Ron Rash, George Singleton, Dorothy Allison, and Wells Tower. I hope they reinstate this series, as it’s such an original mix of voices.
Recommended for: fans of Justified and True Detective, those who enjoy rural versus urban fiction, and anyone that has ridden a horse, milked a cow, or gathered eggs in the early morning darkness.
9. The Best American Nonrequired Reading (annual), edited by Dave Eggers
If you’re looking for something different, this is the anthology to pick up. Not only are these not the same old publications and voices, but this anthology covers a wide range of formats as well. Edited by Dave Eggers who has been a polarizing voice since A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, this year’s edition will, sadly, be his last turn as the editor — but 13 years is a pretty good run. With a table of contents that includes categories such as “Best American Yada Yada Yada,” “Best American Tattoo Stories,” and “Best American Comic That Ends in Arson,” I think you see what I mean here. Working with his charity, 826 Valencia, Eggers sits down for a week and talks to local high school kids, and they pick the stories and ephemera from a wide range of submissions. Quirky doesn’t come close to covering this anthology, which also features an excellent mix of short stories, and will continue on with Daniel Handler at the helm.
Recommended for: those looking for a decidedly different approach to “the best” of anything, fans of Eggers (both his writing and publishing work), as well as people who consider themselves “alternative” in any way.
10. The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, edited by Tobias Wolff
Although this book came out 20 years ago (1994), it still feels like a contemporary mix of essential literary fiction. This is a book that every MFA program should teach. Just take a look at some of the authors: Mary Gaitskill, Tim O’Brien, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Barry Hannah, Denis Johnson, Dorothy Allison, Richard Ford, etc. I can’t think of a better way to condense essential literary stories into one book than this: “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” “The Things They Carried,” “A Romantic Weekend,” “Emergency,” and “Tall Tales From the Mekong Delta,” for example. This is an MFA primer for under $20, and the voices are a great mix of dark and light, realist and speculative. This is the book that showed me what literary fiction could really do.
Recommended for: the literary student on a budget, the author who doesn’t believe anything in the New Yorker is good, and those who like the black sheep of the literary family.
11. The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, edited by Ben Marcus
And then take a step forward another 10 years to 2004, and there is this excellent collection of literary fiction. You can see how the next wave of authors started to emerge here, not so much the new breed, but the evolution of what came before it. When you’ve finished with the Vintage anthology, this is the natural progression, with stories by authors such as George Saunders, Wells Tower, Mark Richard, Aimee Bender, Brian Evenson, David Foster Wallace, and William Gay. This collection is definitely more experimental in nature, compared to the Vintage. It is another book that should be taught widely, with stories such as “The Paperhanger,” “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” “Tiny, Smiling Daddy,” “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt,” and “Sea Oak” leading the way. You can see from the titles alone that this story taps into the surreal, and magical, in much greater numbers.
Recommended for: the more adventurous literary author, as well as students who are looking for a perfect blend of genre and literary fiction.
12. Do Me: Tales of Sex and Love from Tin House
One of the most difficult topics to write about is sex; what turns one person on, will leave another person cold, or worse, make them laugh. So when you have the opportunity to cull stories with lots of heat from the award-winning Tin House journals, take it. There is a wide range of writing in here, stories as well as essays, and they run the gamut from introspective to deviant to remorseful. There are stories from Denis Johnson, Miranda July, Steven Millhauser, Carol Anshaw, and many others. If you just want to get off, this isn’t the erotica you’re looking for. But if you want to see how to handle sex, in all of its various permutations, there is a lot to study here.
Recommended for: authors looking for a little more heat in their fiction, fans of Tin House and Raymond Carver, and anyone who has read or seen Secretary.
13. Supernatural Noir, edited by Ellen Datlow
It’s not surprising that Ellen Datlow has two entries on this list. To be honest, she could probably have a few more. What’s so unique about this anthology is how it taps into the previously well-read genre of noir, and then kicks it up a notch by adding in the supernatural. Embracing the evolving movement of neo-noir and the new weird, Datlow has selected some of the best and brightest currently writing slipstream — genre-bending fiction that wallows in the darkness. Much like any time you see Datlow’s name, pick it up, you could say the same thing for some of the authors in this anthology: Brian Evenson, Joe R. Lansdale, Paul Tremblay, Laird Barron, Melanie Tem, John Langan, Nick Mamatas, and Caitlin R. Kiernan. If you read and write dark fiction, these names should be familiar to you by now. Definitely not the classic noir you’ve come to know, this is an excellent variation on the familiar.
Recommended for: bored fans of noir, authors interested in the supernatural and new ways to write it, as well as anybody that owns a fedora, or has ever muttered “Nevermore” under their breath.
14. Doubletakes, edited by T.C. Boyle
What’s interesting about this anthology is that Boyle has chosen TWO stories from each of these authors in order to show voice, range, and also to allow him to exert more teachable moments, which he touches on in the introduction to each author. The focus is on literary fiction, but there is an exciting mix of voices in here — Aimee Bender and Amy Hempel, Italo Calvino and Jorge Louis Borges, George Saunders and Roald Dahl, Carver, and Cheever and Coover. If you enjoyed some of the other literary anthologies on this list, and want to read more by those authors, this collection covers a lot of well-known voices. You’ll also notice more of an international flavor with this collection. The only tricky part here is that this book is hard to find. I can remember buying it for my own MFA program, and it was not easy to find a reasonably priced copy — it’s currently $100.54 on Amazon, and $48 on Abebooks — and that’s for the paperback.
Recommended for: literary authors with a little extra money to burn, fans of T.C. Boyle, and twins.
15. The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, edited by Richard Bausch
If ever there were a bible of literary fiction, this is it. Currently on the seventh variation, another MFA mainstay, this thick book (1,700 pages) is a very challenging read. It’s alphabetical, starting with Lee K. Abbott, and ending with Richard Wright, with stories dating back to 1835. You can start with Edgar Allan Poe and “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1840), touching on “Heart of Darkness” by Conrad (1902), as well as “The Metamorphasis” by Franz Kafka in 1915. Travel through the 1920s with Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” skip ahead to the 1950s and Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” Flannery O’Connor’s 1960s story “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” and then hit the 1970s with Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” moving on to the 1980s and Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” 1990s “Brother Grasshopper” by John Updike, and concluding with only a few in the 2000s, such as “Intervention” by Jill McCorkle. It’s fascinating to see what worked in each decade, and how the written work progressed. There are also some compelling essays in the back of the book. It’s obviously not the most current anthology out there, but one that should be on your shelves, nonetheless.
Recommended for: literary authors looking to study the history of the short story over the past 150 years or so, and anyone looking to strengthen their forearms.
16. High Risk, edited by Amy Scholder and Ira Silverberg
If you’re looking for transgressive writing, this is the place to stop. Just like the title suggests, these stories, essays, and poems take risks — sadomasochism, prostitution, incest, drug use, bondage, transsexuality — all with a mixture of grace and brutality, humor and heat. With authors such as Kathy Acker, Dorothy Allison, William S. Burroughs, Dennis Cooper, and Mary Gaitskill, I think you can see why this anthology has such appeal. Transgressive fiction rages against the machine, outcasts looking for a place to fit in, the word normal losing all meaning and weight.
Recommended for: deviants, swingers, freaks, geeks, and suburban trixies looking for a thrill.
17. The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer
If you thought the Norton was a massive tome, you obviously don’t own The Weird. This mammoth book is over 1,100 pages, and weighs enough to hold any door open for days on end. Subtitled “a compendium of strange and dark stories” the VanderMeers have put together a very exciting collection of truly original fiction. Like the Norton, this book goes back over 100 years, to 1908, selecting roughly one story a year all the way up to 2010. Lovecraft and Bradbury sit alongside Borges and Barker, King and Oates sharing space with Murakami and Mieville (China, that is). This book showcases the strange, in every possible mutation, tapping into literary fiction, as well as fantasy, science fiction, horror, transgressive, magical realism, and the grotesque. It’s a must-have book for anybody that writes dark fiction.
Recommended for: fans of the surreal, past subscribers to Weird Tales, and authors looking to spice up their speculative fiction.
18. The Best American Noir of the Century, edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler
By now your bookshelves may need shoring up. If you are a fan of noir in the least, film or literature, this is a collection you have to own. A mere 730 pages, this is a beautiful book, edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler, masters and gatekeepers of this genre. This collection dates back to 1923, and touches on all of the essential voices: James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane, Big Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, Harlan Ellison, Lawrence Block, Dennis Lehane, William Gay, and Elmore Leonard, to name a few. There are urban and rural stories, classic and neo-noir, Southern gothic and literary too. It really runs the gamut, and shows you what noir can be.
Recommended for: those who wear sunglasses and trench coats even when the sun is shining, members of the neighborhood watch group, and fans of classic and contemporary noir.
19. Stories: All-New Tales, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio
This collection came out only a few years ago (2011), and with Gaiman and Sarrantonio at the helm, we get a fascinating mix of literary, transgressive, and speculative fiction in this book. And on top of it, it’s all original fiction, not reprints, which is pretty rare. This is imaginative, fantastical fiction. Just take a look at this eclectic mix of authors: Joe Hill, Chuck Palahniuk, Joe R. Lansdale, Walter Mosley, Jodi Picoult, Peter Straub, Lawrence Block, and of course Gaiman himself. There’s something for everyone here.
Recommended for: authors and fans of speculative fiction, Neil Gaiman, and those looking to study contemporary, popular authors.
20. Esquire’s Big Book of Fiction, edited by Adrienne Miller
Another huge anthology, this time filtered through the world of Esquire magazine. Clocking in at almost 800 pages, and dating back to 1933, this collection of Esquire fiction is an excellent documentation of American literature in print. Raymond Carver was an unknown author when Esquire ran “Neighbors” in 1971. Barry Hannah’s stories in Airships were considered radical when they appeared in the pages of Esquire. And Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilamanjaro” was famously cruel to F. Scott Fitzgerald. There is writing by David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Tim O’Brien, Antonya Nelson, Denis Johnson, Vladimir Nobokov, Richard Ford, T.C. Boyle, Truman Capote, Louise Erdrich, Don DeLillo, and many others. It’s really a who’s who in short fiction — and well worth owning.
Recommended for: subscribers to Esquire (and Playboy), those who enjoy a martini in the summer and a manhattan in the winter — and bullfighters.
21. Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience, edited by Stacy Bierlein, Gina Frangello, Cris Mazza, and Kat Meads
Now this is an interest twist on the typical anthology — women writing stories about men, and their sexual experiences — as men. Yes. There’s definitely enough talent in here to keep your interest, not to mention the editorial staff. But what I found most interesting was to see how these talented authors saw men, what they chose to focus on in their approach to male sexuality and desire, and how they wove that need into their fiction. Aimee Bender, Jennifer Egan, and Susan Minot are just a few of the voices that shine in this collection. Whether you are male or female, there’s a lot to be learned from this group of stories.
Recommended for: tops and bottoms, men looking for answers, women dying to ask questions, and Geminis.
Richard Thomas is the author of three books—Transubstantiate, Herniated Roots, and Staring Into the Abyss. He is also the editor of three anthologies out in 2014: The New Black, The Lineup: 25 Provocative Women Authors, and Burnt Tongues with Chuck Palahniuk. In his spare time he writes for The Nervous Breakdown, LitReactor, and is Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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