It was E.G. Wodehouse, I think, who once told an anxious would-be writer of fiction that literary success was the result of careful adherence to a few very simple rules. Find a desk, Wodehouse suggested, and stock its drawers with sharp pencils and plenty of paper. Pull up a chair. Then, “Put your bum on the chair. And keep it there.”

Of course, would-be writers—particularly the less gifted ones—are always looking for a less sweaty path to wealth and celebrity. The shelves of our public libraries are full of handbooks that purport to reveal—in avuncular tones—the central tricks of the writer’s trade. Perhaps the most amusing of these is James N. Young’s 101 Plots—Used and Abused. Young worked as a fiction editor at a time when short stories were accorded prime space in such general-interest periodicals as The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s. Like any editor. Young routinely shoveled his way through great stacks of unsolicited material; in due course he became something of a connoisseur of the hackneyed plot.

Among the old stories Young embalmed in 101 Plots is the one about the two bandits who together pull off a great heist, but who both—at a celebratory dinner in a secluded spot—”die of poisoning, each having poisoned the other.” Here too is the account of the puny fellow named Percy who impresses a young woman with his strength and valor until his alarm clock sounds and he discovers that, alas, it was all “only a dream.” “Be careful not to trick the reader too much,” Young notes. For “readers get their dander up when a writer takes unfair advantage of them.”

101 Plots first appeared in the mid-40’s. These days, one rarely comes across the sort of stale and corny tales that Young warned against. Many of today’s published stories eschew story line in favor of the conveyance of voice, character, and atmosphere; many of these predictably resemble in structure and theme the sort of midnight jottings that one might expect to find in the private journal of a lonely teaching assistant who has spent the day reading Kafka and scribbling “awk” and “frag” on too many unintentionally Kafkaesque freshman themes.

Such “serious” fiction can then be as hackneyed as anything that poor Young had to pore over. Indeed, perhaps the time has come for an updated version of 101 Plots—a version tided, say, It’s Been Done and aimed at the many creative-writing majors who have read the likes of Anne Beattie and Raymond Carver and understandably said to themselves: “Geez, if they can do it, anybody can.” This volume would urge the neophyte authors not to portray yet another trapped housewife or frustrated academic; to steer clear of images of dead dogs in suburban driveways and dying insects dragging themselves across bedroom floors; not to pack too many short, present-tense paragraphs with brand names and the titles of pop songs; to go ahead and employ adjectives and adverbs not found in the pages of TV Guide.

The 29 stories that Peter Ackroyd collected in P.E.N. New Fiction I are not the products of American grad students of creative writing. They were written for a short-story contest sponsored by the English branch of P.E.N., the international writers’ society. Most of these pieces take place in British and Irish settings and are largely free of the fatigued tone and monochromatism that one finds in the Garver-like minimalist efforts that continue to turn up in American “little” magazines and literary quarterlies. Tract houses, fast-food joints, pick-up trucks, and vaguely rendered characters named Chick, Webb, and Jewel are all refreshingly absent.

Unfortunately, only about five of these stories achieve real distinction. These are Desmond Hogan’s “Ties,” Thomas McCarthy’s “Mammy’s Boy,” Clare Boylan’s “Villa Marta,” Ronald Hayman’s “Urchins,” and Meira Chand’s “The Gift of Sunday.” But these pieces are vivid and smooth and memorable enough to make P.E.N. New Fiction I a worthwhile choice for library patrons who continue to find that—in airplanes, laundromats, and swimming pools—a fine short story can make a splendid companion.


[P.E.N. New Fiction I, edited by Peter Ackroyd (New York: Quartet) $14.95]