The New Granta Book of the American Short Story, ed Richard Ford

Reviewed by Mark Bostridge
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The Independent Culture

There's a story about Ring Lardner, told of him (or against him) by his editor, Harold Ross, that claims his method of writing a story was to put down a few wildly distinct phrases on a piece of paper, leave them to stew, then go back later "and fill in the spaces". Admittedly, any writer who calls his first collection How to Write Short Stories is probably askin g for it, but true or not, such whimsicality about the form is notably absent from much of Richard Ford's formidable New Granta Book of the American Short Story.

This collection is the follow-up to a similar tour d'horizon that Ford compiled in 1992, and it collects 44 stories, a good 80 per cent of them written in the past 15 years. There's a dusting of work from the acknowledged luminaries – Cheever, Carver, O'Connor, Welty – and some solid work from current high riders such as TC Boyle and Lorrie Moore. Fourteen of the writers who made the cut in 1992 reappear here, with different stories . "My design," writes Ford, "has been to present and encourage the work of the young, to refresh the readership of significant writers absent from the first volume and finally to honour those American writers ... whose work continues to renew itself and to make a significant and lasting contribution to our literature."

It's a laudable collection, presenting the work of a number of young writers whose work is largely unknown in America, let alone Britain. But the effect of this bias to novelty is uncanny. Many of these newer stories are unmediated state-of-the-nation stuff, the badge and blazon of creative writing courses that tell you to write what you know. They're stories with Issues – Aids, alcoholism, integration, 9/11 – and despite the multiplicity of voices, there's a certain family resemblance between some of these machine-tooled first lines and the artful fade-outs. Partly it's the ill-assimilated legacy of Carver, the patron saint of the modern American short story; partly, the similarity that comes with taught discipline (it's hard to read a closing line like "They wept together, for the things they now knew" without thinking that the writer might have killed a few more of her darlings). Either way, against such earnestness, the sly psychological acuity of a story like John Cheever's four-page "Reunion" seems like a message from another planet.

But there are excellent things here. ZZ Packer's surreal tale of a boy helping his drunkard father to sell birds at a civil rights march stands out, as does a hallucinatory Oirish vignette by TC Boyle in which a sozzled ex-pat has his sins stomach-turningly replayed to him in public by a cackling Virgin Mary. Many of the writers, such as Mary Gaitskell, who contributes a chillingly hard-edged story of psychopathy and sexual colonisation, deserve a wider reputation on these shores. In its weirdly unbalanced way, in fact, the New Granta Book is quite a triumph. But it's very much the New one, and anyone in search of the full spectrum should invest in its companion volume as well.