"The Best American Short Stories of the Century brings together the best of the best - fifty-five extraordinary stories that represent a century's worth of unsurpassed accomplishments in this quintessentially American literary genre. Here are the stories that have endured the test of time: masterworks by such writers as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Saroyan, Flannery O'Connor, John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver, Cynthia Ozick, and others. These are the writers who have shaped and defined the landscape of the American short story, who have unflinchingly explored all aspects of the human condition, and whose works will continue to speak to us as we enter the next century."--Jacket.
There were so many of my favorite short stories that were part of the anthologies that could have been selected though listed at the back of the book: "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin, "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver, "Babylon Revisited" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Snows of Kilimanjaro" by Ernest Hemingway, "Haircut" by Ring Lardner, "The Magic Barrel" by Bernard Malamud, "Shiloh" by Bobbie Ann Mason, "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe" by Carson McCullers, "People Like That Are the Only People Here" by Lorrie Moore, "Everything that Rises Must Converge" by Flannery O'Connor, "My Friend Flicka" by Mary O'Hara, "A Telephone Call" by Dorothy Parker, "Act of Faith" by Irwin Shaw, "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck, "The Catbird Seat" by James Thurber or Tillie Olson's "I Stand Here Ironing." And, sadly, though I can't say I'm surprised, no short stories by the well-known science fiction authors who I truly believe wrote some of the best short fiction of the 20th century--and some of them did make it into the yearly anthologies. Yet Updike didn't choose any such story--so no Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Ursula Le Guin or Theodore Sturgeon. Almost nothing that could be called a genre story, no love stories, little humor or anything that's upbeat and I can't say any story had a great twist. Nor were there any horror stories--and given that the American short story got its foundation from stories such as Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the horror tales of Edgar Allan Poe and stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne such as "Young Goodman Brown" and "The Minister's Black Veil" that's a crime. In the end, especially reading one story after the other, I felt the collection too often came across as bland and predictable.
So, if you're thinking of getting a one-volume collection of the canonical American short stories of the past century, or the best or the most entertaining and memorable that could make you a fan of the form, this isn't the book. But if you want a collection of 56 strong short stories of literary fiction of the kind you find in The New Yorker, well, almost all of the stories included are well worth reading with little moments to savor and writing techniques to learn from. About the only time I thought "My God, what was Updike thinking?" was his inclusion of Richard Wright's ode to the Communist Party, "Bright and Morning Star" (1939), a crude propaganda piece. There were certainly stories herein I thought as memorable and impressive as the stories not included I listed above. My top ten:
“A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell (1917) - both great psychological study and whodunnit--one of the few that could be seen as a "genre" story.
"Here We Are" by Dorothy Parker (1931) - featured winning humor and was all the more appreciated because there was so little of that in the book.
"Death of a Favorite" by J.F. Powers (1951) - probably the closest thing to speculative fiction in the book, it was a humor piece from a cat's point of view. I probably liked it more than it deserved simply because it was so different than the usual formula literary fiction.
"The Ledge" by Lawrence Sargent Hall (1960) - horrifying and sad but beautifully written.
"Defender of the Faith" by Philip Roth (1960) - Great characters--it redeemed Roth after my introduction to him through his execrable The Plot Against America. This was one of the few stories in the anthology that surprised me, that didn't head where I was expecting after reading the first paragraph.
"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by Joyce Carol Oates (1967) - I'd tried novels by the author but had never found her to my liking, so I was surprised to find this a standout. The protagonist Connie is too-stupid-to-live--but I have to admit this is one of the most memorable stories in the book, and probably the most often anthologized.
"The Key" by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1970) - starts depressing and sad but ends humane and warm.
"A City of Churches" by Donald Barthelme (1973) - weird but certainly striking and unusual.
“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien (1987) - lyrically written war story. One of the few in the anthology I had read before.
"In the Gloaming" by Alice Elliott Dark (1994) - ripped my heart out and moved me close to tears.
I found it interesting that most of these short stories covered rather depressing topics. In fact, I'd say death is a topic in most of them. Still, I found most of these stories quite readable and am a bit more appreciative of the short story form.