As surely as the seasons change, the great cycle that is the state-of-modern-writing debate is turning another revolution. It's time to put away the death-of-the-short-story articles and dust off the short-story-revival, if two recent collections are any indication. Last month's, edited by Zadie Smith, rounded up young Turks. This latest is more representative of the elder statesmen. What they both show is that the short story is alive and well and mostly living in America.
Not that you would immediately guess it, to read Richard Ford's introduction. In it, he laments "the cold, suffocating hands of the American writing-program industry on our faltering national literary 'product'; [and] the sad decline of the traditional story form". If such an authority as Ford insists that American literature is being straitened by a creative writing sausage factory, it would take a brave critic to contradict him. But if that is the case then he must have searched long and hard to find 44 vibrant, shocking, fresh and classic stories such as he presents here. Some of these are new enough to have evaded inclusion in his 1992 collection, The Granta Book of the American Short Story: the most recent were published in 2003. Others were written as far back as the 1950s; on reflection, he decided, they ought to be anthologised, after all.
Ford glancingly acknowledges the luxury of going back to re-collect stories, 15 years on but he seems largely to agree with the choices he made then: 14 of the original authors appear again, with different stories. After a somewhat complicated attempt to define what makes a good short story (defining the essence of good literature is, after all, so much more difficult than identifying what is bad), he concedes that "My tastes, of course, have been at work."
It is tempting, then, to see this as a collection of The Granta Book of American Short Stories Most Likely to Impress Richard Ford particularly when he praises "Work", by Denis Johnson. The story begins: "I'd been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I'd ever known, for three days under a phoney name, shooting heroin." Ford enthuses: "This is an opening that would thrill Chandler, and thrills me." Perhaps the writing-programme "industry" ought to reassess its advice. But of course his choice encompasses an amazing breadth of skill and experience: the subtlety of Eudora Welty in "Ladies in Spring"; the stark brevity of John Cheever's three-page "The Reunion", which begins: "The last time I saw my father was in Grand Central Station"; the tragic weariness of Grace Paley's "Friends", in which a dying woman "leaned her big, soft, excavated body against the kitchen table to make [our] sandwiches".
If there is a theme, it is of death, separation and loss a theme also identified in the works of Granta's 2007 Young American Novelists, two of whom (ZZ Packer and Nell Freudenberger) appear here. Since most of these stories were written before 9/11 and the second Iraq war, "when we Americans, with good reason", writes Ford, "sense that our country is on the brink of even more ominously large events", this must either be in the mind of the editor or the reader.
If there is a fault in this thrilling and hugely encouraging collection, it is that clumsy typos spoil some really brilliant moments. Such as in "The Artificial Nigger" (there is also a slightly nasty pre-PC theme, let's face it) by Flannery O'Connor (1948), when a grandfather betrays his small grandson to leave him scared and alone in a big city. "He felt Nelson's ringers [sic] fall out of his flesh."
Others will inevitably argue about omissions: Vonnegut? Malamud? Ford pre-empts this with an admission. Once, he writes, his friend "Ray" Carver sent him a story to look at which he just didn't get. "He never failed to telephone me when that particular story, 'The Calm', won one prize after another." Time will surely reveal gaps in this energetic collection. But then, Ford can just collect another one.
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