THE SHORT STORY has always been a poor cousin to the novel, the sort of genteel, snooty cousin who shudders delicately at the manners of its vulgar kin. The novel is rich and famous but it's a roughneck, altogether too noisy, too coarse and too common to suit the fastidious tastes of the story. The novel is too much in love with life, which it often resembles; the story, far purer, carries the torch for art.
In recent years the story has become more retiring than ever; to put this less tactfully, it has been force to retire. The mass magazines which once published short stories have either folded or cut back on the space devoted to fiction (there are, of course, exceptions, most notably The New Yorker). These days the writer the short stories depends upon the little magazines for his market, and, like the poet, he can be sure that he will never become famous. The only thing smaller than his audience will be his income.
So the short story has gone off the gold standard. Both Joyce Carol Oates and William Abrahams, the editors of these excellent collections, acknowledge the importance and vitality of the little magazines; they consulted more than a hundred before making their selections. Little magazines have always been hospitable to innovation and experiment, and with more of them being published than ever before, the short story has not only survived, it has flourished.
For much of this century the story was the most conventionalized and even ritualized of forms. Most stories were cobbled on the last used by Joyce in Dubliners, and their most conspicuous structural feature was the epiphany, the moment of insight or revelation to which all elements of the narrative led. During the last two decades, in the freedom of the little magazines, the form has been revamped, revolutionized, and virtually re-invented. Of the many innovations, perhaps the most significant and pervasive is the primacy given to the distinctive, individual voice. Open either of these collections to almost any page, read a line or two, and you will hear the inflection, the cadence, the naunces of a voice that could belong only to one writer.
"What do you do about death -- in this case, the death of an old father? If you're a modern person, 60 years of age, and a man who's been around, like Woody Selbst, what do you do? Take this matter of mourning, and take it against a contemporary background. How, against a contemporary background, do you mourn an octogenarian father, nearly blind, his heart enlarged, his lungs filling with fluid, who creeps, stumbles, gives off the odors, the moldiness of gassiness of old men. I mean! As Woody put it, be realistic. Think what these times are."
That, of course, is the inimitable voice of Saul Bellow, whose story," A Silver Dish," is the show-piece of both collections. It is the first-prize story in the O. Henry collection (though it is traditional, the awarding of prizes in a volume of this kind strikes me as a barbarism; it creates a competition that is illusory and insidious), but the voices of many other stories are equally unmistakable. Readers will recognize the deceptively polite, old-fashioned voice of Peter Taylor; the patient and perfectly composed sentences of Jean Stafford, each one drawing the bowstring tighter until the arrow, released at last, flies straight to its target; the unflinching colloquial precision of Ann Beat-tie; the tough, clenched voice of Leonard Michaels, a voice like a fist but capable, when you least expect it, of opening gently. Among the new voices -- and seven of the 22 stories are by writers who have not yet published a book of fiction -- Helen Chasin's is the most astringent, a dose of straight iodine, and T. Gertler's is the most resonant and laden.
Oates' Best Stories offers, in roughly the same proportions, the pleasures of familiarity and discovery. I. B. Singer's voice is as sly, devious and brilliant as ever; William Styron indulges his taste for the sesquipedalian ("a basic fetor, namely the axillary and inguinal smell which that squeamish decade christened B. O.") as well as the profane; Paul Bowles is characteristically lucid and characteristically sinister; the volume even contains a story by Flannery O'Connor: "Since he had been here, he had only got pale, or rather yellow with brown spots, whereas at home, his spots had been red and purple." She is the only writer who could sound simultaneously so savage and so ingenuous, and she is still very much a contemporary. New writers represented in this collection include Jayne Anne Phillips, whose confident prose moves with explosive speed, and Robley Wilson Jr., whose droll indirections ambush the reader.
Both collections, is short, are rich, varied and worthy. They will convince anyone who reads them that we have today more accomplished writers than ever before. Those who are melancholy about the state of fiction seem to be those who are forever expecting the great American novel. For them I have a suggestion: Read one of these collections as if it were the great American novel. Listen to the different voices, think of the enormous range and diversity of experience, give in to the multiplicty of spells -- no single writer could invent anything like it. Both of these collections are, in all but the commerical sense, blockbusters.