Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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Exciting news! Our handy page of the best stories in The New Yorker (according to Houghton Mifflin, anyway) has been greatly expanded. Today I discovered this rather remarkable website, overseen by one William G. Contento, which lists the contents of a great many fiction anthologies, Houghton Mifflin included.

Most of the years between 1939 and 1976 are now represented. (Either the anthologies did not publish a “Notable” list or Mr. Contento chose not to include them. I suspect the latter—I wouldn’t want to type all that stuff in, either.) This explains why the new batch of lists looks rather skimpy alongside the more recent lists. If you go only by the stories that were actually included in the anthologies, there has been little change since 1939. Four was about the most you could expect in the 1940s, and it’s about the most you can expect now.

The new lists are very interesting, I think. Irwin Shaw comes up a lot. Some names are conspicuously missing, notably J.D. Salinger and Vladimir Nabokov, although it’s possible they were chosen in years that are still missing. John Cheever and John Updike are represented. Matthew Yglesias’s grandfather makes the list.

The most intriguing name on the list, in my opinion, is Mary Lavin. I had not heard of her until today, but she must have been a very impressive woman indeed, overseeing a farm and raising three daughters on her own during the time her stories were written. A mere glance at the lists will disclose that she was very, very esteemed. Consider this: Over a period of eighteen years, she wrote just fifteen stories for The New Yorker—and yet only Updike, Alice Munro, and Louise Erdrich were able to have more of their New Yorker stories selected, in the years for which we have data.

In any case, decades have elapsed. It’s up to you to decide whether such resonant names as St. Clair McKelway, Hortense Calisher, Lyll Becerra de Jenkins, Carlos Bulosan, and Louis Bromfield have been forgotten justly or criminally. —Martin Schneider


Hey Martin - I know Calisher is just a rhetorical example — and I know exactly the feeling of opening up a prize anthology from a bygone era and being amazed and touched by the transitoriness of literary fame — but I feel the urge to leap to her defense. (This, in spite of the fact that I can’t claim to have read much of her work, and I didn’t much care for what I did.)

She has a name you’d expect to find only in the earliest volumes of Best American Short Stories, back in 1915 or 1916 or so, but she began her prolific writing career in the 1950s, and her most recent book was published in 2004 … Judging from what I’ve found on line (including a fragment from her 1987 Paris Review interview), hers may be a case of writing in an unfashionable vein, rather than one deserving of obscurity. And in some quarters, she’s hardly obscure. Certainly, the way her work is described makes me think I should explore it further.

I couldn’t agree more! Discovering the hidden treasures is what this is all about! It’s more than possible that she is one of those.

Lyll Becerra de Jenkins was an extraordinary journalist, writer of fiction and teacher of writing. She wrote three books — The Honorable Prison, Celebrating the Hero, and So Loud a Silence. Her short stories, such as Tyranny, which later evolved into the prize-winning YA fiction, The Honorable Prison, were masterful. During a time when everyone from Latin America was writing in the style of the magical realists, she set herself apart. A resident of New Canaan, Connecticut, where she emigrated with her North American husband and five children, she seeped herself in the writing of the Brits and North Americans and developed her own distinct voice and approach to story-telling. Frances Kiernan of The New Yorker, who was her editor in the 70s, said her writing had “unique tension,” a flamenco style.

Arya BretonMarch 18, 2009

I was having a little fun at the expense of her name there, Arya. But wow! That is truly interesting information! Emdashes is all about recovering those artifacts from the past that might otherwise be lost, so I’m thrilled to see this kind of comment. I’m sure at least one of the people here at Emdashes will track down her work as soon as possible! Thanks again!

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