“Of skillfully constructed tales . . . there are very few American specimens.”
—Edgar Allan Poe

During the 1920’s and 30’s, it was possible for a talented young American author to earn a living publishing virtually nothing but short fiction. Scribner’s, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and numerous other widely circulated magazines all aggressively sought fiction that was not too radically experimental; they regularly published the short stories of such prominent writers as Ring Lardner, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and of such lesser lights as Erskine Caldwell, George Milburn, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

During the 50’s and 60’s, many of these “general interest” weeklies and monthlies either folded or stopped giving space to fiction. Today, no more than a dozen widely circulated “glossies” continue to pay good money for readable short stories, and several of these are choosy about what they will and will not buy. Playboy, for exam children; it prefers “offbeat” fantasies and sardonic accounts of young rakes cavorting with pliant females in exotic locales. Cosmopolitan, I presume, wants pieces about youngish women “on the way up”: women who wear designer lingerie, ask for piña coladas, and melt quivering into the sturdy arms of suave chaps with graying temples.

Despite the shrinkage of opportunities, more Americans than ever before are writing stories and seeing them in print. University-sanctioned creative writing programs now train many if not most of our ambitious fictioneers; university-sponsored literary journals with limited circulations publish much of their work. In the main, these periodicals are devoted to publishing mature, well-made fiction; and, over the course of a year, the better ones—including Antaeus, Prairie Schooner, and the Iowa Review—do bring out stories that involve a fairly wide variety of characters, settings, and narrative techniques.

Still, certain types tend to recur; a certain tone prevails. The stories published in our highbrow quarterlies tend to focus predictably on flustered academics and frustrated graduate students; on writers muddling through midlife crises; on unconvincing, oddly sentimentalized blue-collar types who drive pickups, wear caps with adjusto straps, and bear names like Burt, Chick, and Yolanda. Caterers, bookies, labor negotiators, fighter pilots, and liver specialists rarely appear; and neither, unfortunately, do satire, anger, or mirth. Perhaps because so many of today’s writers hold shaky

teaching posts in the far from airy groves of academe, so many of today’s short stories are a bit too routinely morose and as narrow and as safely impersonal as, say, a structuralist approach to Byron’s Oscar of Alva published in the PMLA. As John Updike puts it in his Introduction to The Best American Short Stories 1984, very few of our contemporary short fiction writers attempt “a bravura style”; they are, in the main, “as tight-lipped as card players on a losing streak.”

The Best American Short Stories series, begun in 1915, was edited for many years by Martha Foley and her husband Whit Burnett. When Miss Foley died in 1977, the series fell under the supervision of Shannon Ravenel and assorted “guest editors,” of whom Updike is the seventh. Given Updike’s well-known penchant for arresting metaphors and elegant syntax, the 1984 volume unsurprisingly contains several pieces that do attempt “a bravura style,” and none that can be placed squarely in the Raymond Carver-Frederick Barthelme school of ho-hum minimalism. What is more, nearly all are-like Updike’s own stories—”traditionally” plotted and thick with the details of everyday life. Updike admits that while he was at tempting to select the 20 “best” stories from the imposing stack sent to him by Ms. Ravenel, he was much more concerned with finding selections that were well-detailed and well-paced than with ensuring “equable distribution of theme, milieu, or authors by sex or degree of fame.” “I tried to enter each microcosm as it rotated into view,” writes Updike, “and to single out those that somehow, in addition to beginning energetically and ending intelligibly, gave me a sense of deep entry . . . into life somewhat below the surface of dialogue and description”—a sense of entry that “corresponds to the sensation we get in looking at some representational paintings that render not merely the colors and contours but the heft and internal cohesion of actual objects, which therefore exist on the canvas not as tinted flat shapes but as palpables posed in atmosphere.”

Perhaps the most satisfyingly detailed story in Updike’s anthology is Lee K Abbott’s “The Final Proof of Fate and Circumstance,” in which a young Texan—a former frat man at TCU-talks lovingly of his “daddy,” a true-blue good ol’ boy who is nonetheless “in touch with his several selves,” and who retains his ability to delight in life even after suffering a number of jolts and disappointments. This piece employs language that is, in appropriate places, impressively metaphoric; it also vividly recreates the gaudy, spacious, chrome-laden atmosphere of the 1950’s. That same atmosphere is also nicely conveyed in “Gent,” Rick De Marinis’s witty and well-phrased account of an adolescent boy’s adapt ing to life in a house headed by his mother’s third husband, an “odd. looking” man whose mottled bald head “looked like a map of Mars—the rosy, unknown continents floating in a white, fleshy sea.”

Because he admires “those relatively rare stories that are about people at work,” Updike includes in his collection one piece, Stephen Kirk’s “Morrison’s Reaction,” that shows us a harried dentist employing chisels and carbide burs and other tools of the tooth-and-gums trade as he drills and yanks away at the ill-kept choppers of an unusually obnoxious patient. Be cause Updike is also interested in questions of ethics and spirituality, he gives space to several stories whose principal characters are—surprisingly religious. In Mavis Gallant’s splendid “Lena,” for example, we encounter a self-absorbed but not unappealing old woman who had converted to Roman Catholicism “after hearing Jacques Maritain explain neo-Thomism at a tea party,” and who proceeded to use her faith, as Updike observes, “to suit her earthly purposes and vanity.” In Andre Dubus’s equally fine “A Father’s Story,” we observe a New England Roman Catholic scrupulously examining his conscience after sheltering his college-age daughter from the consequences of her own drunken frivolity.

At least three other pieces in the Updike collection are distinctive enough to merit special mention. Lowry Pei’s “The Cold Room” renders well that chilly climate of anger and guilt that always accompanies the col lapse of romance; its description of a research lab’s cold storage room—a room filled with the frozen carcasses of dogs-lingers long in the mind. Cynthia Ozick’ s moving, tragicomic “Rosa” focuses on an aging Jewish woman who grew up in a climate of civility in Warsaw, and who finds her self, at 60, living beneath a scorching sun and amid insensitive vulgarians in a seedy neighborhood in Miami. Nor man Rush’s “Bruns” is effectively set amid uneasily mingling Blacks and whites in the south of Africa; it contains, in addition to some fine comic portrayals, one very funny scene in which a fly enters the nostril of a rather pompous and paunchy fellow and turns him into a snorting, stomping comic machine. As the narrator of “Bruns” dryly reminds us: “You inhale a fly and the body takes over.”

George E. Murphy’s The Editors’ Choice consists of 18 stories that first appeared in such diverse publications as Esquire, Ms., Tri-Quarterly, and Vanity Fair. They are all entirely competent, but taken together form a slightly less distinctive volume than The Best American Short Stories 1984. In fact the “interchangeability of milieu or persona” that Updike admits to finding in much contemporary short fiction is much in evidence in The Editors’ Choice. Alice Adams’s “Alaska,” David Leavitt’s “Counting Months,” Mary Hood’s “InexorableProgress,” and Beth Nugent’s “Tough as a Man” all feature neatly trimmed sentences and carefully clipped snip pets of dialogue; all center on women who are rather pathetic, on the skids; all emphasize images of physical or mental decay; all are flat, polite, vaguely futilitarian in tone; all then possess some of the principal attributes of what D. Keith Mano has neatly labeled “literary conference writing: the kind you get grants for—or are in  residence at every Liberal Arts U to do.”

But two stories-Margaret Atwood’s “When It Happens” and Janet Beeler Shaw’s “A New Life”—do stand out. “When It Happens” captures uncommonly well that sense of apocalypse that in these uncertain times continues to swirl, gather force; moreover, it very effectively combines the dark suspense of one of Rod Serling’s better “Twilight Zone” scripts with the deft use of language that, in Atwood’s work, is not uncommon. Mrs. Burridge, its principle character, is an elderly, apparently Canadian housewife who prepares to face a future that will not be as “orderly” as the past-a future that she is convinced will include an armed revolution in North America, and consequently, just as in “the last war,” shortages of food and gasoline and heating oil. Mrs. Burridge, who lives in the country, has seen the “anxious, closed look” on the faces of the women at the general store; she knows they are “frightened of something but won’t talk about it”: she has sensed every where “an air of helplessness.” When “it happens,” she is certain, “the television, which right now is filled with bad news, of strikes, shortages, famines, layoffs and price increases, will become sweet-tempered and placating, and long intervals of classical music will appear on the radio.”

Set in present-day Kansas City, “A New Life” describes how a young mail clerk called Kristin winds up abetting her friend Ronna’s affair with a genial young policeman who in his off-hours travels everywhere-even to his trysts—with his infant son snug in a baby sling and pressed against his chest. Ronna says things like “everything is relative” and-in Nikes and sweat pants-strives to be well-toned, cool. Kristin drives a Fiesta, but is not very happy: she thinks a bit too much, and is not entirely at ease in a society where the old standards of behavior continue to crumble. In one scene that effectively captures something of the anxiety and the nostalgic yearning for a more coherent world that is common among members of the Baby Boom generation, Kristin pictures her mother and her grandmother uncomplainingly performing domestic duties in a house where little girls play with dolls and where, in the backyard, a pet collie dozes beneath ragged lilacs. Kristin thinks of her mother and her grandmother as “sturdy” women who lived “without illusions,” and who “could not abide ambiguity. How, Kristin wonders, “had her own life become so confused and uncertain?”

The world of Kristin’s grandmother was in many ways the world of 19th century Europe-a world that seems as far from our own as Newark is from Neptune. Nineteenth-century Europe was, after all, largely agrarian and largely, conventionally Christian; it was a world where time-honored social codes were still firmly in place, where words like “honor” and “virtue” and “valor” were widely used-and with out irony. AB Robert Beum notes in his Introduction to Classic European Short Stories, “innocence, wonder, ideality” still prevailed in “the old world,” and that world-though increasingly shaken by the pronouncements and practices of scientists, industrialists, and social revolutionaries-remained largely intact through the first decades of this century.

There are 20 highly individuated stories in Beum’s fine anthology. Most were written in the 19th century. None, as Beum notes, promotes “social consciousness, equality, or economic development.” None appears to be simply an exercise in self-therapy; none overtly posits the notion that life is “unintelligible or unmeaningful.” All do, in fact, “explore the truths of personal experience richly, openly, and with consummate artistry”; and all encourage in the reader the same “sense of wonder” that promoted their own creation. Most of the stories were produced by writers who in their own days enjoyed considerable popularity—writers who had kicked around a bit and who took it for granted that they were writing not only for relatives, professors, and fellow scribblers, but for men and women whose occupations and backgrounds were fairly di verse and who tended to expect from a novel or a short story a linear plot line, something of “a point,” and characters who were a good deal more intriguing than the man next door.

Tolstoy and Maupassant are, along with Balzac (“A Passion in the Desert” and “The Red Inn”), Checkov (“At Home” and “The Kiss”), and Merimee (“Mateo Falcone”), among the best-known writers represented in Classic European Short Stories. The Tolstoy selection, “God Sees the Truth but Waits,” focuses on Ivan Dmitrich Aksyonof, a young Russian shop owner who is sent to prison for a murder he did not commit, but who—even after 26 years in Siberia—maintains his faith in God while controlling his hatred for the man who framed him. This story, parable-like in its structure, stresses the later Tolstoy’s firm belief in the importance of forgiveness and in the eternal viability of the Sermon on the Mount

Beum includes three stories by Maupassant: “Mademoiselle Fifi,” “Moonlight,” and “Love.” Set in France during the Prussian occupation of the 1870’s, “Mademoiselle Fifi” is Maupassant’s tribute to the patriotism and courage many of his countrymen showed during that period of adversity. In it, a Prussian officer impugns French womanhood while proposing a toast at a bawdy drinking party and is promptly knifed by a patriotic whore who flees and is sheltered—and later feted—by the village bourgeoisie. In “Moonlight” a fusty, misogynous priest unexpectedly discovers, in the quiet of a clear, warm night, the beauty in nature that he has long ignored. In “Love” a man “fond of shooting” recalls how, as a youth on a hunt, he watched a grieving drake circle over the body of his downed mate, repeatedly emitting “heart-rending” laments and reproaches. Maupassant was obsessed with exploring the elemental passions; but of course his own prose was almost always controlled and his tone clinically aloof. Indeed, by adopt ing an ironic rather than a didactic stance and by producing prose that was fairly lean as well as vivid, Maupassant—along with Checkov—virtually invented the modern short story; these pieces show him at his clear-eyed, unsentimental best.

Beum’s opening selection, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Olalla,” has been neither widely analyzed nor anthologized; but then, in this century, too much of Stevenson’s work has been dismissed as merely trifling—as the 19th-century equivalent of the sort of bloody melodramatic stuff that Stephen King now cranks out to keep the yokelry agape. In fact, Stevenson was keenly interested in ideas, and the bulk of his essays and stories were designed not only to amuse and amaze his readers, but to make them think. Along with such brilliant essays as “Aes Triplex” and “Pulvis et Umbra,” “Olalla” reveals that Stevenson—a close follower of the scientific debates of his day—was especially drawn to the crucial question of the nature of man. He understood that those attributes that we cherish as civilized, as being—in the best sense-human, are neither easily attained nor terribly secure from assault; that in fact there are many Mr. Hydes among us who would quite happily assume the habits and values of beasts.

“Olalla” is told by a young Scots man who, following the advice of his physician, moves to a residencia in Spain for what is supposed to be a long period of rest and relaxation. But the residencia, he finds, is more like a haunted house than a health spa: much of it is dark and musty and infested with “bloated” tarantulae and with “big and foul” flies that buzz “heavily” about cobwebby rooms. Its inhabitants are also weird: there is the presiding Señora who spends her days “luxuriously folded on herself and sunk in sloth and pleasure”; there is her son, who is also debauched and “shuttle-witted” and fond of torturing squirrels. Olalla, the Señora’s daughter is, however, gracious and kind as well as beautiful. She understandably loathes her family and fears its connection to a notoriously diseased ancestral tree. Those ancestors degenerated, Olalla explains, because “the breath of weariness blew on their humanity and the cords relaxed; they began to go down; their minds fell on sleep; their passions awoke in gusts, heady and senseless like the wind in the gutters of the mountains; beauty will be handed down, but no longer the guiding wit nor the human heart; the seed passed on, it was wrapped in flesh, the flesh covered the bones, but they were the bones and the flesh of brutes, and their mind was the mind of flies.” 

“Olalla” cannot be ranked among the very best stories of all time; like The Bride of Frankenstein it makes too ample use of Gothic props and conventions. It is, however, well-plotted and-because of its message—not without power. If nothing else, it is energetic and colorful—refreshing at a time when so many of our short stories, assembled m climate controlled workshops by well credentialed professionals, have all the glow and gusto of the classified ads in The Paducah Times


[The Best American Short Stories 1984; Edited by John Updike; Boston: Houghton Mifflin]

[The Editors’ Choice: New American Short Stories, Volume I; Compiled by George E. Murphy Jr.; New York: Bantam/Wampeter]

[Classic European Short Stories; Edited by Robert Beum; La Salle, IL: Sherwood Sugden]