Books: Cultural snacks and Euro-pudding

Andy Beckett finds sustenance in the new story collections
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THE short story suits our accelerated times. It's a cultural snack you can eat between tasks without spoiling your schedule, a way to try out authors and genres with minimal commitment. But this contemporary product suffers from a contemporary problem: people quickly get bored of it. Books of short stories are classic Christmas presents, welcome at the time, briefly interesting, then left on the shelf.

How can the compilers hold our attention?

Giles Gordon and David Hughes assume their good taste will do the job: Best Short Stories 1994 (Heinemann £15.99) is their ninth annual compilation, cautiously heavy with established names. William Boyd tells a droll, cunningly shifting tale of two bored students (diffident Englishman, confident American) in the South of France, competing to pick up the ultimate femme despite the torpor brought on by "the invisible rain of ultraviolet". Ben Okri constructs a daringly beautiful prose-poem about the slaughter in Rwanda, seen through the eyes of a dying man. Not all their choices are as sound: Fay Weldon lends her name and little else with a sour Prague story, as subtle as its use of McDonald's as a metaphor. The book's themeless eclecticism leaves such choices undefended.

Two other collections fall further into this hole. The Alphabet Garden (Serpent's Tail £8.99) is 12 stories, commissioned, written and published by 12 publishers in 12 languages simultaneously. Dreamt up at the Frankfurt Book Fair, it is a grand, bland Euro-idea. The stories say little collectively, except that some rather average European fiction - Brian Leyden's yearning for America from "the muddy lanes of Ireland"; Annie Saumont's vision of Arcadia smashed by civil war - can be diverse, which is something likely to surprise only tourists from South Dakota. Leopard III (HarperCollins £9.99) is slightly better, being themed around the idea of frontiers, but its concept and execution are too vague. Jonathan Raban captures the empty pleasantness of modern Seattle ("perpetual breakfast-time at some airport Sheraton"); Jean-Paul Sartre muses about Fate as he finds surprises in the twisting streets of 1950s Venice; but the disparate contributions do not add up to a clear picture of what frontiers were or are.

Alternative Loves: Irish Gay and Lesbian Short Stories (Martello £7.99) goes in completely the opposite direction, narrowing its focus almost to the width of self-parody, but it works. Ray Lynott has a defrocked priest guiltily daydreaming about a sun-drunk boat trip with a weathered seaman, years before. Colum McCann creates a sad San Francisco exile, gathering breakfast for an Aids-thinned partner who can barely eat it, before going to work at a fish-gutting factory. The other stories similarly affect, then provoke.

The Second Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories (Penguin £6.99) and The Oxford Book of New Zealand Short Stories (Oxford £7.99) are good for similar reasons. Both capture the sense of a culture and its literature developing across time. The first collection shifts from Dylan Thomas' rich evocation of the "fug and babel" of an annual drinking expedition to Catherine Merriman's contemporary picaresque, reminiscent of Duncan McLean, as Welsh teenagers back from the Glastonbury Festival steal motorbikes and a sheep for a barbecue. The second collection starts with Janet Frame, and country kids daring each other to investigate the strange smooth vastness of the local reservoir which, like the country, had "an appearance of neatness which concealed a disarray too frightening to be acknowledged''. It ends with Peter Wells sending a far-gone Aids victim - the disease appears all over these collections - to shock the Auckland bourgeoisie at a suburban nursery.

Both collections make their points concisely, unlike the bloated Lavender Mansions: 40 Contemporary Lesbian and Gay Short Stories (Westview Press £11.50). Its grand survey is empty of excitement, star names included. A much-trailed Armistead Maupin contribution turns out to be a flat two- page Coming Out letter from one of his characters. Most of the book is taken up by pieces like Barbara Wilson's leaden, dourly inward-looking story of two lesbian academics flirting at a conference, in which the worthy but caricature protagonists are "actively committed to the lesbian- feminist movement ...and lucky enough to have increasingly meaningful professional lives". Only a delicate David Leavitt story makes reference to something (a love triangle) outside the self-referential enclave.

The Oxford Book of Women's Short Stories (Oxford £17.99) is equally door-stopping but more extrovert, because its purpose is simply to redress the gender imbalance in most short story collections. Virginia Woolf has a vain MP discover his dead wife's adultery through her diary; Margaret Atwood leaves a neurotic postgrad in mid-winter Massachusetts to "wallow uniterrupted in romantic gloom"; Sylvia Plath ponders the death of an elderly neighbour through a child's eyes. Here, the quality of writing does excuse arbitrary selection.

Alice Walker thinks she's brilliant enough to be arbitrary too, by including odds and ends from her first short story onwards in Alice Walker: The Complete Stories (Women's Press £15.99). This certainty is misplaced: that first story, "To Hell With Dying", is little more than a gauche childhood memoir about an eccentric old guitar player, likely to charm only the converted. And some of the other pieces are equally unflattering, like the overbearing letter scolding a friend who came to a feminist fundraiser dressed as Scarlett O'Hara: "I will talk you out of caring about heroines whose real source of power...comes from the people they oppress". Without the space here to create a world, her plain, declarative sentences sound pompous; the stories are mostly ordinary fragments, strung together on the necklace of Walker's reputation.

The Collected Stories of Max Brand (University of Nebraska Press £32.95) suffers the opposite problem: it's an expensive fraction of a massive but forgotten oeuvre. Max Brand was one of 20 pseudonyms used by pulp fictioner Frederick Schiller Faust, a German immigrant who published 900 short stories in the genre magazines of interwar America. Hugely popular then, Faust is obscure now, despite a dramatic life from a poor birth in California's Central Valley to death as Harper's war correspondent at Anzio in 1944. His 1936 "Wine On The Desert" is a chilling mini-Western (he wrote hundreds), circling around a dusty vineyard and death from thirst, and "The King'', written after years sucked dry as a Hollywood screenwriter, is as creepy as Barton Fink. The short story compilers could always siphon off a few of these.