Anthologizing the last fifty years of American short stories, editor John Freeman developed a unique lens for how everything happening in the nation was being reflected in our fiction. After reading and selecting from almost two thousand stories, he created a representative literary collage that is unlike any other anthology of the form. He kindly agreed to answer some questions for MAYDAY about how the book came to be.
Cal Shook: In your Introduction to The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story, you mention that it took two years to read and select the stories for this anthology, though I imagine you’ve been thinking about the project for much longer. Can you talk a little about the genesis of the book—why creating it felt essential to you?
John Freeman: Great writers reframe time, don’t they? I grew up reading short stories by writers from the 1950s and 1960s and loving them: Eudora Welty, James Baldwin, J.D. Salinger. I became a reader in the 1980s and 1990s, so all of them were alive. And they appeared in virtually every short story anthology I read. Out of their stories a certain American stage-set emerged. You might say it was a fierce and unforgiving place, one of unforgiving lonelinesses. Anyway, time passed and in the mid 1990s I began to read Jhumpa Lahiri’s work and it was like a breath of fresh air in the form, and the warm (if melancholy) imaginaries she created. It happened again when I first read Ted Chiang. And again with Lauren Groff. I had experienced this before, reading Sandra Cisneros and Denis Johnson, Louise Erdrich. What I’m saying is at some point it occurred to me that the short story—especially in the US—is like a piece of long-form news. You have to keep up with it. And it wants to keep up with you. After all, most writers publish stories before their collections are out. Stories appear in magazines (next to news) and in journals (next to poetry, which is another form of news). In the U.S., where there’s a greater mix of people writing than in most countries, a story refreshes the American language – in public. Novels, the best of them, might take years to write. Stories come out and tilt the stage set of reality as the show is being performed. What makes an anthology interesting is not just what it says about the form, the sound of the language, but the way it reflects or refracts the country, too. There are a lot of short story anthologies out there, and I love many of them for directing me to writers I hadn’t read before. But I was surprised how few of them—basically none—had Lahiri, Chiang and Groff in them, let alone Manuel Munoz, or Julie Otsuka, or Stephen King. Writers who’d taken the form and just cracked it wide open.
CS: This book will mean so much to its readers, and especially to lovers of the short story form. But it also offers incredible insight and education for writers. As you pieced all these great works together, did you think in any special way about the writers in your audience?
JF: Well, writers read and talk about stories the way athletes watch sporting matches. Muscles ghost-firing, imagining, probably, what it would feel like to do it, to write that way, to make those decisions. Those moves. For this reason, I wanted the book to pull from a variety of genres. Most writers out there do not write in the genre we call literary fiction. They write speculative or science fiction, fantasy, horror, or romance. And virtually everyone who does write literary fiction began their life in books, reading someone like Ray Bradbury, or Octavia Butler, or Agatha Christie. So I wanted to see what would happen if I read around and through all the best stories of the last fifty years in all genres – how would realism look then? Would it seem more like a fantasy? I also wanted to include a variety of lengths and modes. As an editor at Granta and more recently at my own journal, Freeman’s, the story I most often get is a twenty-two-page story with a reveal on page fourteen and a climax on page nineteen. What if this all happened in 350 words, as in George Saunders’ story, or if we began with the aftermath, as in Alice Walker’s really brief fiction? I also wanted to include stories that were funny, strange, or just gave pleasure. It shouldn’t feel like work to read a story. It should bring you right in, and yes, even entertain you.
CS: The first story in the book is Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson”, in which a group of children learn about the racial extremes of economic inequality. It also happens to be an amazing Lesson in craft—truly one of the all-time most effective short stories. At what point in your process did you know you wanted this story to start off the book?
JF: I knew Bambara would be the first story from early on, because I had decided one of the most effective ways for this book to separate itself from the ways of the past (from the America of the past) would be to begin in 1970. How are people writing after all those protests, the war going poorly, all those assassinations. And the 1970s turned out to be a great era for the story. So many wonderful writers emerged in that time, like Walker, like Louise Erdrich, like Bambara. Gorilla, My Love, her debut collection, was published in 1972. There’s about five classics in that collection, of which “The Lesson” is my favorite. It’s been in anthologies for a while, but what if it batted lead-off? What does that say about what follows? To me Bambara is the writer out of which our modern short story derives, just as much as someone like John Cheever or Eudora Welty. The way voice drives some of her stories, the layerings of irony, the sculpted compressions made from sound and from her use of interior time. She’s a master and I think over time that will only become clearer and clearer.
CS: You’ve been so committed to collaboration in your recent books (Tales of Two Americas, Tales of Two Planets, There’s a Revolution Outside My Love) and I wonder if you felt that collaborative spirit also informing this project in some way, as you selected for the anthology on your own.
JF: With a project like The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story, collaboration means a different kind of listening. For Tales of Two Americas, I had to listen to what writers I contacted were thinking about and seeing and feeling for that book to truly deal with how this country is hurting. That was only more true with There’s a Revolution Outside, My Love, and working with Tracy K Smith—who brought in some wonderful writers herself—allowed that book to take on the sound of a kind of choral inquiry. It turned into a kind of music, which made sense as Tracy had just finished working on a libretto and some poetry. For the Penguin book I knew I’d have to read one or two thousand stories to do it well. As in, it wouldn’t be a good book if I assumed, from the get go, that I knew who belonged in it. So I asked people for recommendations, read all of the other anthologies in the space, and even followed some of those endless Twitter threads down very long rabbit holes of recommendations. Lisa Lucas started one a few years ago that was quite helpful, as there amidst recommendations to the work of Alice Munro, who is great, and Lorrie Moore, also great, were gems like Charles Johnson’s “China,” which wound up in the book.
CS: You must have gotten so many suggestions from friends about what to include. I imagine those were fun conversations to have—but maybe also tricky, some of them?
JF: Yes I did, and I read them all—mostly recommendations from teachers of high school and college. I couldn’t really ask people who wrote short stories seriously, as that felt a bit mean: Hey, I’m making an anthology, you’re not going to be in it, but who should I include? Talking to teachers revealed to some degree the limitations of working within an anthology. Teachers have the option of teaching just one or two stories—or, say, a forty page story, like those fabulous near-novellas by Kelly Link. She is a particular kind of genius at her best, at 14,000 to 25,000 words. Anyway, I struggled in those moments, since a story like that can wind up taking up one eighth of the book. Susan Sontag’s story in my book is quite long, so is Andrew Holleran’s magisterial “The Penthouse”, but each time I read them they glinted in a new way, and both of them were short enough to consider proper stories. Still, I kept coming across wonderful very long stories, and it made me realize that way out in the 15,000-plus word territory there’s a mountain range of lovely work by American writers. By the end of making this book I had a whole separate list for a book of the American novella. Maybe I’ll assemble that one day.
CS: Were you surprised sometimes, by the stories you ended up choosing? Maybe going with different pieces than you planned from certain authors—or falling for a story unexpectedly?
JF: The first story that just knocked me over was Dorothy Allison’s “River of Names.” The way it builds and wends around itself, talking to you as a reader as it marshals and polishes the teller’s pain. It’s extremely modern in its concerns, and one of the most elegantly made stories I’ve ever read. How in the world had I forgotten she was this good a story writer? Charles Johnson was similar. He hasn’t written many stories, but wow, the ones he has are phenomenal. I had to read a lot in that sense to see around my blind spots. One of the most interesting tasks I took on was reading all of the Best American collections from 1970 forward. It reminded me how steady good story writers are—people like Walter Mosley, who isn’t in here, but is a fantastic story writer. Out of that search I came across Percival Everett’s “The Fix,” which made my hair stand up. It’s like something Poe would have written.
CS: I love what you wrote in the introduction about “How much more fresh air there is in the American short story… when it isn’t toward an American Dream.” Would you mind saying a bit more about that?
JF: Oh, thank you. I think the American Dream takes up a lot of oxygen in US culture, where exceptional results — If Barack Obama is president, we’re a post-racial society! — are often used to discount people’s pain, suffering, and basic needs. Without this constant, increasingly frayed melody, the country would have to address how unequal it is, how often unfair. To my mind, one of the byproducts of this fantasia is a pervasive loneliness and rage. And the roots of these feelings go much deeper than the product cycle. Or even each election cycle. Anyway, to me the best American stories emerge from this rich psychological terrain. Like Louise Erdrich’s beautiful and haunting, “The Red Convertible.” Or Grace Paley’s “Conversations with My Father.” They are stories that acknowledge the friction of the imaginary and the real, which to me is one of the collision points that our American culture—through its encouragement into fantasy—often creates.
CS: The last stories in the anthology seem to shift from the experiences and agonies of the America we’ve known, to the crises (I think you actually use the word apocalypses) that are looming. Would you say that’s accurate? And do you think of that as a kind of forecast for what our fiction will (and should) concern itself with in the decades to come?
JF: I didn’t plan it that way, but yes, as we move into the present, stories which are engaged with the destruction of our climate begin to appear. Ted Chiang and Lauren Groff’s stories, Claire Vaye Watkins’ story, to a certain degree. There are so many crises in America, it’s difficult to know where to begin. For so long the country has turned a blind eye to so many of them, and this is the topic of Ursula Le Guin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” As in, whose suffering will be discounted so a certain fantasy of life can be maintained? I think, given the state of the country, that game is impossible to play now. There are no more “over theres” to be doled out so one can have a moral EAZ-Y pass through life.
JOHN FREEMAN is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary annual of new writing, and executive editor at Alfred A. Knopf. His books include How to Read a Novelist and Dictionary of the Undoing, as well as Tales of Two Americas, an anthology about income inequality in America, and Tales of Two Planets, an anthology of new writing about inequality and climate crisis globally. He is also the author of two poetry collections, Maps and The Park. The former editor of Granta, he teaches writing at New York University.
CAL SHOOK is a fiction editor at MAYDAY, enrolled at NYU Writers in Paris. You can find her short fiction in the Fall 2021 issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review.