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‘The Penguin Book Of The Modern American Short Story’: New Story Anthology Edited By John Freeman

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John Freeman

When John Freeman edited the Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story, he cast a wonderfully wide net to cull this collection. This anthology offers works by writers of color, new voices, forms, and styles. Favorite authors of classic works are included with perhaps stories not usually anthologized. This collection also boasts works of science fiction, horror and fantasy. Lovers of short fiction anthologies will enjoy this wide-ranging collection and its diverse offerings.

John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary annual of new writing, and executive editor at Alfred A. Knopf.

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Highlights from the interview with John Freeman

On the short story
I think we're both here because we are those people who can't help but pick up books of short stories like this, to see if we've read one of them before. But I feel like the short story gets a bit of a bad rep. You know, we learn it and we are taught it in school. And we're often given stories with lessons that we're supposed to extract from those stories. And a good story has many lessons, including the first story in this book, which is about school kids being taught a lesson [Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson"]. But in fact, they glean another lesson from a trip to a high-end toy store in Manhattan and the kids are from a poor neighborhood. And that I think the trip is meant to make them respect wealth. But in fact, it makes them realize that they will always be treated the way they are treated if they don't speak up for themselves. And I think in a short story form, if we reduce it to just lessons, we end up with something much less mysterious. And so I wanted a book of stories that felt big and as wide as America, as deep, with as many types of people, as many backgrounds, but that was also just fun to read.

On including works of sci-fi, fantasy and horror in the collection
The American continent, our history in this country, is so wild and brutal and strange and full of wonder that to me, it seems completely natural to have horror stories and science fiction stories. I think in the future, I don't think Stephen King will be considered the American Poe of the 20th Century, but I think it will be close. And if you look at the way that certain populations of the country have been treated and have had to live, and how much of the country has been poor for decades now, especially during the period that this book falls, and that's not the topic of his story here, but it is the topic. I think of many other stories in the kind of horror aesthetic make a lot of sense, that there's something monstrous about life. Similarly, I think that writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, or Ted Chiang, who is a wonderful short story writer, I recommend him extremely highly. And I think movies are being made of his short stories now at the rate that they were recently for Philip K. Dick stories from the 1960s. Le Guin and Ted Chiang have a lot to say about the morality of how we occupy our environment, what that says about our time here and what bargains we make and who, and what we're not listening to. And it's not a question of politics or shoe-horning politics into a story. I think it's a question of just dealing with what life is and what part of our life is living on a planet and in a state of danger or a state of distress. And I think you have to kind of reach beyond the realm of realism, just to describe what that feels like.

On striving to create a cohesive and inclusive collection
Growing up the way that the story of America was taught to me through the stories of America that I read, it was always through some filter of the American dream, and it suggested that everyone was kind of reaching up and gravitating toward light. And of course we all want better things for those we love and to be around those we love, but in the long run, America can be quite a cruel country to some degree. And the fantasy that all of us will be lifted up from our circumstances and achieve, or be granted better lives is to some degree that which does not mean that living in America is only a dour, terrible joyless experience. It is not. It is a place full of wonder and excitement and drama, culture and music and fellowship and all sorts of things. But when the stories that the country tells about itself, are primarily those in which a dream is achieved, while many people who live within that country do not experience that per se, you have to wonder what is being done in the telling of the stories. Is it giving someone hope or is it simply a kind of trickery? And I wanted, when these stories came together, to have something that felt a little bit more like the life that is lived on the ground in the country, even if it's in the imaginations of the writers who live on the ground, so to speak, and I wanted to end with Manuel Munoz's story, ["Anyone Can Do It"] not only because it was such a fabulously crafted work of fiction, but also to reiterate in some fundamental way that the lives of anyone who is living in the United States is worthy of a story.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.