The Christmas-story genre presents writers with a daunting and irresistible challenge. The creation of a classic promises annual renewal of fame. But the writer is in competition with a 2,000-year tradition. It's not easy to come up with something new.
"A Literary Christmas: Great Contemporary Christmas Stories" showcases writers writing "against" the conventional glad tidings and goodwill. They evoke the Christmas spirit by strategy and subterfuge.
Paul Auster gets at the writer's dilemma in "Augie Wren's Christmas Story." Assigned to write a Christmas story, Mr. Auster "spent the next several days in despair, warring with the ghosts of Dickens, O. Henry and other masters of the yuletide spirit."
Visions of mush and treacle danced in his head: "And yet, how could anyone propose to write an unsentimental Christmas story?"
Mr. Auster's solution employs the convention of retelling someone else's story. In exchange for a free lunch, Auggie Wren tells him about chasing a shoplifter from his store, recovering the man's wallet and impulsively returning it on Christmas Day.
The address is an apartment in "the projects." Inside is a blind woman who mistakes Auggie for her shoplifter-son. Auggie plays along, makes the old lady's Christmas and steals a stolen camera on his way out. From this unsentimental tale, Mr. Auster wrings a bittersweet drop of joy.
Grace Paley tells her story, "The Loudest Voice," from the point of view of a Jewish girl recruited to play the leading role in the school Christmas pageant. Her mother is scandalized. Her father shrugs and says: "What's the harm? Does it hurt Shirley to learn to speak up?"
Exhilarated by her performance, Shirley prays at night for "all the lonesome Christians" and expects to be heard. "My voice was certainly the loudest."
Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff offer darkly humorous, iconoclastic stories of disastrous Christmas get-togethers.
"Xmas," by Thomas Disch, is an unrelenting story of Christmas loneliness. A man who has "run out of friends" buys himself presents, places them around the tree and invents fictional friends to attribute them to.
"Christmas was coming at him like the searchlight in pursuit of an escaped convict, ready to expose the mess he'd made of his life." Making a sacrifice of his turkey, stabbing rather than carving it and then throwing it away, he survives the blessed day.
Christmas is an ambiguous time. Our culture suffers from the loss of belief. And each of us at Christmas experiences a poignant reminder of the loss of innocence. In its place we acquire a worldly cynicism that can't help viewing Christmas as a crass promotion by merchants on the make.
"A Literary Christmas" deals with those themes and offers a wonderful way to get acquainted with some of the world's best contemporary authors. Out of these somewhat dismal visions of Christmas twinkle a few modestly bright lights.
Title: "A Literary Christmas: Great Contemporary Christmas Stories"
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly
Length, price: 321 pages, $15 paperback