The Best American Short Stories 2020 contains literary fiction, science fiction, and magical realism published between January 2019 and January 2020. Guest editor Curtis Sittenfeld and series editor Heidi Pitlor have represented work from eighteen publications. The following authors are featured: Selena Anderson, T. C. Boyle, Jason Brown, Michael Byers, Emma Cline, Marian Crotty, Carolyn Ferrell, Mary Gaitskill, Meng Jin, Andrea Lee, Sarah Thankam Mathews, Elizabeth McCracken, Scott Nadelson, Leigh Newman, Jane Pek, Alejandro Puyana, Anna Reeser, William Pei Shih, Kevin Wilson, and Tiphanie Yanique. In these pages, we see writers taking risks and approaching themes and characters in surprising and original ways. While each story ultimately contributed to the overall success of this anthology, a few standouts are highlighted here.
I always enjoy when authors approach topics in surprising ways. Andrea Lee’s “The Children” is about class, race, foreignness, injustice, and in her own words, “desert island fantasy.” In this story, two callous meddlers take interest in finding a foreigner who has fathered numerous children with Malagasy women. However, embedded in the subplot, there is a serial killer loose on the island, severing heads of Malagasy men who have worked for foreigners. By bookending her story with these horrific events, Lee provides much needed catharsis for the reader, as it is evident the Malagasy women may never receive justice.
Many stories in this anthology feature teenage and young adult characters and explore the vulnerability, hesitation, fear, and uncertainty young people feel. One that will stay with me is Selena Anderson’s “Godmother Tea.” In this story, a young woman grapples with failure, love, and disappointment as she navigates adulthood. This navigation is made trickier by a very opinionated auntie hovering in the background, a woman who is ready to throw food to get her point across.
“Halloween” by Marian Crotty centers on what happens after a seventeen-year-old high school student falls in love with a college girl. Crotty does not rely on using her characters’ sexual orientation to propel the plot. Instead, she captures the confusing, bittersweet moments felt in many young, first love relationships, thus validating the experiences of young people in the LGTBTQ+ community.
“Kennedy” by Kevin Wilson is about two boys who protect each other from a troubled and sadistic school bully. It terrified me thoroughly, and the final phone call between the protagonist and antagonist will continue to haunt me. But at its heart, this is a story about the friendship and love that underlies the relationship between the two male characters. Highlighting this relationship freshened the familiar bully-victim storyline and enriched the emotional depth of this narrative.
Even stories that peer into the far future contained present-day concerns. “Sibling Rivalry” by Michael Byers asks us to imagine a future where artificial people exist. In doing so, we must define humanity. If artificial humans’ biology and behavior are the same, what really will define the difference between robot and human? I was uncomfortable not knowing the answer. With an ending that kicks the reader in the teeth, Byers’ words will resonate with me for time to come.
I also appreciate the heavy presence of female writers, many relatively new, and female characters present in this anthology. I enjoy stories with flawed but strong female characters. In Emma Cline’s “The Nanny,” we meet a young woman dealing with the aftermath of a tabloid scandal. In the contributors’ notes, Cline acknowledges that tabloids have a built-in moral code. She breaks the readers’ expectations of this code by not casting her central character as a victim. Instead of a cliched narrative about a nanny who instigates an inappropriate love affair with a married man, we find a story that contains a more important commentary on class and wealth. Cline is not writing “the bad nanny”; she’s warning us about abusive power.
I always love when characters surprise me. In “This Is Pleasure,” Mary Gaitskill humanizes a deplorable and predatory male protagonist. The plot was thrilling and uncomfortable, and the female protagonist just gave me the icks. Gaitskill’s female protagonist’s moral culpability is quite apparent. She perpetuates dangerous, misogynistic, and illegal behavior by not readily rejecting the male protagonist’s friendship (the second voice who tells this story). This story nods at the real-world problem we face where we have seen women defend guilty men. Gaitskill tackles head-long the idea that women are sometimes complicit in crimes committed against other women, and this was refreshing to read.
Overall, this anthology felt balanced and connected. Many of the stories explored characters’ idiosyncrasies, and after reading them, we are called to reflect on our own. In this year’s collection, writers address mythology, families in ruin, prejudice, death, magic, class issues, predatory harassment and the #MeToo-Movement, finding meaning, unrequited love, violence, and vulnerability of adulthood, among other concerns. Despite the diverse topics and characters, each writer made sure to address matters most important to the human experience.
Having diversity in publishing is essential, and I believe this anthology has done well to incorporate a wide variety of voices and experiences. As a related side point, while it is imperative to make space for stories centered on race issues, it is also important not to expect POC writers only to write stories and characters centered on race issues. This anthology validates that there is a place for all voices to discuss a wide variety of experiences and gives space to any great writer who writes any great story. I agree with Sittenfeld who shares that without a multiplicity of viewpoints—not just in terms of race but also in terms of sexuality, geography, and age—this anthology would be considerably less interesting (xx). Because of the multiplicity of voices present in this fiction, as in life, we can find the beauty and truth inherent in the human experience.
ISBN: 978-1-328-48536-6 (hard cover) and 978-1-328-48537-3 (paperback).