A collection of American short stories since WWII

October 11, 1992|By Tim Warren

THE GRANTA BOOK

OF THE AMERICAN

SHORT STORY.

Edited by Richard Ford.

Granta Books/Viking.

710 pages. $27.50. In such a volume of short stories as this, two questions invariably occur. One is how the authors were chosen. The other, equally open to discussion, involves the criteria for selection of the stories themselves.

Ultimately, anyone compiling an anthology of short stories will displease readers expecting that a certain writer be chosen, or those who feel one overwritten piffle was included at the expense of another marvelously wrought contribution to literature. But part of the second-guessing comes more from a love of the genre than any pique; at the same time, such masters of the trade as Peter Taylor and Eudora Welty have written stories that show a wide range of style and voice. Intelligent editor's notes can illuminate the reader, perhaps explaining that, say, although Raymond Carver wrote several more famous stories, another was chosen because it revealed a different, lesser-known side of the writer.

That we don't learn much about the thinking behind the authors and stories included is the only real flaw of "The Granta Book of the American Short Story." It's an impressive volume, featuring stories by 43 authors published since World War II -- from Jane Bowles' "A Day in the Open" (1945) to Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" (1990). Editor Richard Ford, himself a superb short-story writer, notes in the introduction: "They are for the most part literary stories, by which I mean not necessarily that they will send you away thinking, but that they aspire to the condition of literature . . ."

Some of the stories are classics and have been reprinted many times, such as Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" and Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." Some are by authors known primarily as short-story writers: Mr. Taylor ("Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time), Ms. Welty ("No Place for You, My Love"), John Cheever ("O City of Broken Dreams") and Mr. Carver ("Are These Actual Miles?"). Others are by writers more considered novelists: James Baldwin ("Sonny's Blues") and Bernard Malamud ("The Magic Barrel"). Then there are the few gifted ones equally adept at short and long fiction: John Updike ("Here Come the Maples") and Joyce Carol Oates ("Upon the Sweeping Flood").

In the spirit of this exercise, I found a few choices debatable: Amy Tan (an excerpt from "The Joy Luck Club") rather than Alice Adams, Cynthia Ozick, Wright Morris or, especially, William Maxwell? But I can't say there's a really questionable choice of an author.

In his long, somewhat rambling introduction, Mr. Ford writes about the short story as a genre, the evolution of the American story (particularly the changes in the 1960s when writers such as Donald Barthelme came along); what exactly is an American short story ("is it a story in which America's the setting?"); why people write stories, and what he finds makes a story distinctive. That's a lot of ground to cover, but when he finally gets to commenting on the ones he chose here, he grows positively eloquent:

"The stories I've included are finally simply ones I like -- stories that have altered my appreciation of what a short story might surprisingly contain or be about; stories that by their brilliance have seemed to sanction the entire endeavor of being a writer; others that have shined like beacons out of my memory and upon rereading shine still."

Still, Mr. Ford is maddingly unspecific. He does allow that because of the author's refusal, he could not reprint J.D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," and that other stories were not included because they might have made the book too long. But I suspect readers might have appreciated a little commentary from him on his choices.

Take his Cheever selection. "O City of Broken Dreams" is a fine story, but why was it chosen over such classics as "Goodbye, My Brother" or "The Country Husband"? Or why not Mr. Carver's "Cathedral" or "Where I'm Calling From," rather than "Are These Actual Miles"? This volume doesn't have to be a "Greatest Hits," but a two-paragraph introduction before each story would have added more than some of the general observations in his introduction.

Still, this is a valuable and useful book. "These are wondrous stories that follow," Mr. Ford writes near the end of his introduction, and he is absolutely right.

Mr. Warren is book editor of The Sun.

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