Picking Stories with a Little Help from Friends

One of the questions I am sometimes asked is how I go about selecting stories for the Listen Here Short Story reading series in New Haven. In an ideal world, I wish I could say, “Oh, that’s easy. I just read a bunch of short stories and pick what I think are the best of them.” If only it were that simple!

No, selecting stories for Listen Here is a far more complicated affair than first meets the eye. Like any “program,” Listen Here has a well-defined structure, and any object that is “structured” is, ontologically speaking, defined by limits. The limits of Listen Here are very real and are what ultimately shape the criteria upon which I depend for selecting stories

The most important criterion for selecting stories is quality, and while we all might agree that quality is a necessary condition, it is not a sufficient one. Selection depends heavily on the taste of the selector—that’s me—and I like to think that I have pretty good taste in stories. But I’m hardly infallible (papal authorities aside, who is?). Guidance from others is not only useful but efficient. Translation: weeding through the short story collections of individual authors can be an enormous time-waster. Each season of Listen Here requires approximately 24 stories, which means I’ll normally read at least twice that number.

But rest assured, I’d be running through many more if I didn’t depend in turn on other literary tastemakers. Lack of infinite reading time demands the pre-screening offered by short story anthology editors, and so to them I am often eternally grateful.

Short story anthologies come in several flavors. My preference runs to contemporary story collections. For these I commonly look to the latest annual collections of Pushcart Prize winners, O Henry Prize recipients, and Best American Short Stories selectees. What I like most about these collections is the opportunity to read short stories of merit by authors of no reputation…but more on that later. Another anthology type I place within this camp is that of the little magazine that has compiled its ostensible best, whether we’re talking Granta, Story, or McSweeney’s. Since both types tend to draw from the same well, I’ve not found much distinction between the two.

A less preferred but nonetheless useful type of anthology is that organized by subject, genre or geography. These can vary considerably. For example, my collection of 100 Hair-Raising Little Horror Stories has yielded two or three really good reads while the rest founder under the conventions of the genre. On the other hand, Brad Morrow’s literary The New Gothic, with only 20 or so stories has been a real gold mine because the stories on average are just, well, better.

Unevenness aside, anthologies organized by a common theme or trait aid in organizing the each night’s reading, where stories are brought together in ways that are sometimes obvious and sometimes not. So Irving and Ilana Wiener Howe’s collection of classic collection Short Shorts provided everything I needed for the night we had devoted to extra short stories (ranging in reading length from 8 to 15 minutes). Or the aforementioned anthologies of tales of terror have taken care of our Halloween week readings.

The one type of anthology I rarely read is that devoted to a single author. Doing so can, in fact, lead to some mighty discouraging results. For example, my copy of the Complete Short Works of Mark Twain has made it pretty clear that Mark Twain was not much of a short story writer. (On the other hand, he is a master of the short sketch, which is not the same as a short story.) Others whom I’ve tried and failed include Arthur Conan Doyle (too long and and Ray Bradbury. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ tales are the only ones worth reading but these are often too long for the program and, upon re-reading, many of them just aren’t as good as they originally seemed when I first read them in high school; Ray Bradbury—another writer whose stories I read voraciously—presents different problems: at times, too stridently lyrical or downright cutesy, others too obvious in ending or lightweight in overall effect. Now don’t get me wrong: there are winners from these gents: Doyle’s “The Red Headed League” is still a great story, in part because its absurd premise manages to be so weirdly humorous, too; Bradbury’s “Have I Got a Chocolate Bar for You!” is still one of my favorite tales of humor (and don’t even get me started on The Martian Chronicles, which, even dated, is still one of the most powerful, thematically rich, best-written works of science fiction).

But I am not convinced that plowing through the nearly 30+ stories of the superhuman Holmes or the over 100+ stories of the bountiful Bradbury is an apt use of precious time when variety of author and topic at a constant level of quality is required—which is why in the end story selection ends up being a fundamentally communal endeavor. For nearly all of my selections depend upon the some editor who had the good sense to whittle down stories that he, she, or they (if a board did the selecting) thought worthy of republication. In brief, I couldn’t do it without them.

So here’s to those literary tastemakers. Without you, Listen Here would not have been possible.