Best of the West: New Stories from the Wide Side of the Missouri, an annual anthology of exceptional short fiction rooted in the western United States, debuted in 1988 and continued publication until 1992. Recognizing that the West remains rewarding territory for literary explorations, James Thomas and Seth Horton are now reviving the series in Best of the West 2009.
Thomas and Horton combed some 250 literary journals and magazines to gather these eighteen stories published since the fall of 2007. They come from both emerging and established writers, including Lee K. Abbott, Louise Erdrich, Dagoberto Gilb, Antonya Nelson, Joyce Carol Oates, and Annie Proulx. Like Bass, the editors believe "the Western short story" inhabits a wide territory; the subjects in this collection range from illegal immigrants tending illegal crops in California's national forests, to mismatched Mormon missionaries on the conversion trail in Nevada, to a Native American college student exploring her sexuality, to Papa Hemingway's meditations as he loads the shotgun in his Idaho cabin. As these stories make clear, the West continues to shape our literary landscape. Thomas and Horton have preserved the best of that work in this vital anthology.
In The Portable Western Reader, William Kittredge writes that he knows he is in the West after crossing the Missouri River, but he struggles to articulate exactly what constitutes the differences between the regions. As editors of Best of the West: New Stories from the Wide Side of the Missouri, we share Bill's dilemma. The subtitle of this series indicates that we define the geographical boundaries of the West rather broadly, but of course the more difficult challenge is how one describes the uniqueness and diversity of the region's literature. Indeed, while discussing the stories for this volume, we often came across this simple but profound question: "Everyone knows what the West is, but what in the hell is it?"
The first volume of Best of the West appeared in 1988 and asserted that the West is as much a state of mind as a geographical region. Now, in 2009, we hold this concept to be truer than ever. The characters in the stories collected here seem to tell us that the possibilities of the West are as expansive as the landscape. This West is a place where cowboys wear tennis shoes and bankers wear cowboy boots, a place of mountainous imagination and ambitions as high as the Wyoming sky.
For this volume, we researched more than two hundred and fifty literary journals. Of the thousands of stories that we read, only a handful were permeated with an ethos of the "Old West," a term that historians of the region have used to describe a mythical space that existed mostly in dime novels and movies, where Anglo men, symbols of the country, "heroically" came of age against a backdrop of Mexican and Native American "savagery." Instead, what we have discovered in our research are many protagonists who fail to attain the goals they have set for themselves. We have found stories that emphasize gender issues, suburban topography, environmental degradation, economic injustices, and ongoing cultural disruptions. Regionally, we have read about a West that is intimately linked with Latin America and, to a lesser extent, the Pacific Rim and Canada. Though much of this work has been exciting in that it challenged us to rethink the cultural contours of the region, it is also important to note the most disturbing feature of our research, which was that African Americans and Native Americans, both as authors and characters, were heavily underrepresented.
If contemporary Western writers, then, eschew static and premodern interpretations of the region in favor of approaches that are tentative, partial, and in flux, we hope the Best of the West series might serve as a useful archive to reflect these many voices. In this sense, a closer look at our publication history is relevant to these prefatory considerations of Western literature.
The Best of the West began as a yearly anthology of short fiction, publishing contemporary authors whose work was exceptional, in five distinct volumes from 1988 to 1992. The first two volumes were published by Peregrine Smith Books in Salt Lake City, one of the largest and best publishers in the intermountain West. The series then migrated to New York City, where W. W. Norton published the next three volumes. Now, after a hiatus of seventeen years, the series has returned to the West, and we are absolutely delighted to be in the capable hands of Casey Kittrell, our editor, at the very prestigious University of Texas Press in Austin. It is our hope that this series will continue both to help Western writers—who have often been marginalized in the marketplace—find as wide an audience as possible, and to help interested readers discover new and established voices of the region.
All of which leads us back to answer the question: What is the contemporary West? It is an important question to consider for, after all, if George W. Bush's "cowboy diplomacy" has taught us anything, it is that Western images and metaphors continue to haunt and illuminate our cultural constructs. The stories that we have selected, as well as the introductory essay by Rick Bass—one of the most gifted Western writers of our time—serve as partial answers. The West, its distinct geography and geology, its inhabitants—both animal and (especially) human—its social history, and its identifiable cultures are all of considerable national (and indeed, international) interest. In literary terms, and specifically regarding short fiction, we believe that what we write, what we imagine, is only a reflection of who we think we are, that the characters we create are really only an invention of a society in which we think we live. This, of course, is what literature is all about, inventing and reinventing our world and ourselves.
Here, then, are eighteen stories that explore the fictions and realities of the West.