BOOK REVIEW / Brief encounters, strange meetings: Nicolette Jones tries the season's best shorts

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PUBLISHERS have been known to declare that short stories are uncommercial and that people want only novels. But anthologies of short fiction are back in fashion, perhaps because stories are suited to our pressurised lives: you can read an entire tale on the bus or in bed or at the hairdressers.

You might think the safest bet is something that offers 'the best', such as Best Short Stories 1992, edited by Giles Gordon and David Hughes (Heinemann pounds 14.99), the seventh of their annual picks of the year. Certainly there are wonderful stories in it, such as the late Angela Carter's 'Lizzie's Tiger', a child's-eye view of a circus, or Stephen Gallagher's suspenseful evocation of anxiety in a holiday home, 'The Visitors' Book'. And the book encompasses established names - Salman Rushdie, Fay Weldon, William Trevor - as well as notable newcomers: Matthew Kramer's 'The Sandcastle', for instance, is, like Carter's, a memorable tale of menaced innocence. But not all of this book is so moving: Brian Aldiss's 'Foam', for set in a projected totalitarian state where memories are stolen and sold, was, for me, baffling and dull.

I am, though, resistant to science fiction. For those who feel differently, The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Short Stories ( pounds 16.95), edited by Tom Shippey, who wants to bring literary respectability to the genre, is ideal. It even contains much to convert sceptics, with its survey of highlights from Wells and Kipling, via Arthur C Clarke and J G Ballard, to David Brin.

Another trawl through the classics of a genre is Eric Tripp's Sagebrush and Spurs (Bellew pounds 14.95), a collection of Western short stories, steeped in cowboy nostalgia for those who grew up on Jack London and Zane Grey. God, edited by Stephen Hayward and Sarah Lefanu (Serpent's Tail pounds 11.99), is not the earnest, evangelical volume it sounds, but contains meditations, contemplative and funny, Anglican to Zoroastrian, with writers such as Michele Roberts, Christopher Hope and Jane Rogers.

Sheridan Morley's The Methuen Book of Theatrical Short Stories (pounds 15.99) includes Somerset Maugham and Saki, Noel Coward and Oliver Goldsmith, but it's not all historical and cosy: Colette's backstage picture of a ballet dancer is really about illegitimacy and exploited youth, while Ian McEwan's 'Cocker At The Theatre' describes how two actors simulating sex at a rehearsal get carried away.

Bloomsbury's annual Soho Square, has the merit, like Granta, of offering a preview rather than a review of published work, and is a fine mix of poems, stories and non-fiction, with illustrations. The look alone of Soho Square V (pounds 13.99) would tempt you to browse or buy. Edited by Stephen Kromberg and James Ogude, its theme is new writing from Africa, and it suggests a great burgeoning of talent.

My favourite collection, though, is Joan Smith's Femmes de Siecle (Chatto pounds 11.99). These are stories written by women in, alternately, the 1890s and the 1990s - both eras, Smith claims, much concerned with the Woman Question. Comparison suggests that we are the more pessimistic: in the 1890s, the stories of economic dependence and social disgraces nevertheless looked forward to a brighter age. Edith Wharton, in her painful portrait of a doomed affair, 'Souls Belated', or 'George' Egerton in 'A Nocturne', about a gentlewoman fallen on hard times, seem to intend their stories as agents of change. Now, in Shena Mackay's 'Glass', say, in which a woman agonises over whether to commit herself to a relationship, or in Moy McRory's interview with a sperm, 'The Coming Of Sound', the vision is bleaker. The scope of these stories goes far beyond the issue of woman's role, however, and all are sustained by the quality of the writing.