The Best American Short Stories

January 29, 2012
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“The Best American Short Stories”—a how-to for making our stories our best

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

February 2012

". . . “a great piece of writing is one you feel on your skin.”"

In her foreword for The Best American Short Stories, 2011, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the editor, Geraldine Brooks, says “a great piece of writing is one you feel on your skin.” It has to drum up your heartbeat, make the back of your neck prickle, bring tears to your eyes, even tears of laughter. She compares a short story to a well-told joke. The characters have to be swiftly developed, the language terse, the timing impeccable. “There is a setup, a reveal, a reversal, and a release.” A great thing to remember whatever you are writing! But in a novel, you can get away with meandering, a flabby sentence or two. Not so in the short stories. At least not the “best.”

One effective way to have a unique short story is to write against the form. If you’re writing something eerie, do it in a cool dispassionate tone (the attitude the author expresses toward the subject) as Steven Millhauser did in his short story Phantoms, in which he does an objective evaluation of a man in a town that has ghosts hanging around. If you do a futuristic or speculative piece of fiction such as Escape from Spiderhead by George Sanders, you have to make sure that the characters are heartbreakingly real. Schmaltzy even. In “The Sleep,” Caitlin Horrocks uses an urbane, sophisticated tone for her satire about a town who decided to hibernate through winter.

There’s been a trend toward plotless short stories. Usually a reviewer calls them “luminous.” When I see that word, I stay away. All of these stories have a definite plot, as satisfying as hearing the statement followed by argument (the but or yet line) of in sonnet or the three movements of a concerto. What a relief for me to read real stories, stories I understand, stories that I can walk away with, remembering the character and what happened to him.

Gwendolyn Brooks decries the modern way of getting into writing. You sequester yourself at a University in an MFA program and you’re taught to write. She recommends that you go live somewhere exotic for awhile, immerse yourself in a different universe, and then write. She thinks there are way too many stories taking place in one’s kitchen.

She also thinks there are way too many stories about adultery. Specifically and hilariously (p. xvii) she writes “Enuf adultery eds. Too many stories about the wrong cock in the wrong cunt/anus/armpit/Airedale.” And she says that some love stories, at least, can end well. Ah, imagine!!

"Even a great concept will not save you if the reader doesn’t feel the story on his skin."

If you can come up with an ingenious idea, it helps. In Housewifely Arts, a single mom takes her young son to find her dead mother’s parrot because she wants to hear her mother’s voice again, even if it’s from his feathered throat. But the story doesn’t remain concept. Every line, every word is built to show the dead mother’s disappointment with her daughter, the daughter’s desperate wish to give her frail son a better life, and goes further to make a case of the love and longing that exists even in terrible relationships. Even a great concept will not save you if the reader doesn’t feel the story on his skin.

Intensity is another quality that will pull your story out of the slush pile and into print. In A Bridge Under Water by Tom Bissell, the newly married couple, the woman pregnant, are at such odds on their honeymoon in Italy that you are on edge thorough out the story. Titles count. Bissell plays with the cliché, “water under the bridge,” which implies forgiveness (something that has been let-go of), to A Bridge Under Water which implies collapse, ruin. Every word counts! Punctuated by brief, poignant moments of love, this couple fights over everything. Bissell lets you see the couple’s gnarly dispositions, the woman’s dissatisfactions with herself. “Looking into the anime faces of these American girls’ innocence was to discover new anxieties and the stubbornness of old ones,” and the man’s. “I’m not trying to be interesting,” he said with a real snarl. Then he calmed down or at least hid his anger more cunningly.” Would they even have gotten married if she weren’t pregnant. We know the ending from the title, from each ironic, but bitter fight, and yet, by the intensity of the writing, we have to follow every word. This story is set in Italy, but with its undercurrents and innuendos, it reminds me of Hemmingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, which brings me to the next point.

Great literature often echoes well…great literature. Gurov in Manhattan by Ehud Havelzelot, plays off of Chekov’s The Lady With The Dog. Dmitri Gurov, the main character in Chekov’s story, is an older married man who becomes intrigued with a young woman named Anna who has a Pomeranian. Sokolov, an older man who has been ravaged by cancer, has an aged wolfhound, left by the woman who abandoned him—Kelly, whom he refers to as Anna. The story ends up to be a meditation on aging and the persistence of love. So if you’re stuck, take a classic story and put your own material to it.

Even if a story isn’t based directly on a classic, you sense the importance of the classics to the writer, how they are part of the life of the writer’s mind. In La Vita Nuova by Allegra Goodman, a young woman who has been jilted practically at the altar, brings her wedding dress to work to have her pre-schoolers paint it. It’s a story of heartbreak, but of recovering too. In it, she quotes Dante. “O you on the road of love pass by/ Attend and see/ If any grief is as heavy as mine.”

"…reread the classics and “the best” modern stories you can find."
Go back and read and reread the classics and “the best” modern stories you can find. Then, take a deep breath, and sit down, if you dare, and write “the best” story you can.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro





Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension. Visit her at: or


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