In his thoughtful introduction to this collection of the 20 stories he chose as last year's best by American and Canadian writers, John Updike addresses himself to the question, much discussed in literary circles, of the shrinking popular market for short fiction. He notes that by comparison with a half-century ago, a writer cannot expect to support himself by selling stories to mass-circulation magazines as Faulkner and Fitzgerald (and many others) did, and he makes this astute observation:
"Now, for the bright young graduates that pour out of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and its sister institutions, publishing short stories is a kind of accreditation, a certificate of worthiness to teach the so-called art of fiction. The popular market for fiction has shriveled while the academic importance of 'creative writing' has swelled; academic quarterlies, operating under one form of subsidy or another, absorb some of the excess. The suspicion persists that short fiction, like poetry since Kipling and Bridges, has gone from being a popular to a fine art, an art preserved in a kind of floating museum made up of many little superfluous magazines."
Thus it is that of these 20 stories, 14 originally appeared in quarterlies: The Georgia Review (two), The Crescent Review, MSS, Antaeus (two), Ascent, CutBank, Black Warrior Review, The Greensboro Review (two), The Paris Review, Stories and The Yale Review. Five of the others appeared in The New Yorker, and one in Esquire. The tone of the stories reflects the audience to which they are addressed; they tend to be elliptical, terse, "literary," as is the vogue in the writing schools these days.
The best of them, though, are very good indeed, and the best come not from The New Yorker -- with the exception of "Glimpse Into Another Country," by the estimable Wright Morris -- but from the quarterlies. This probably has less to do with a swell of talent in the writing schools than with Updike's careful process of selection; in reading through the stories he sought out "those that somehow, in addition to beginning energetically and ending intelligibly, gave me a sense of deep entry, of entry into life somewhat below the surface of dialogue and description," a criterion that automatically excluded stories in the diffident, minimalist style favored by devotees of Ann Beattie and the Barthelmes.
Interestingly, though probably not significantly, many of the stories are about death, but for the most part not lugubriously so. Dianne Benedict's "Unknown Feathers," Mary Ward Brown's "The Cure," Mavis Gallant's "Lena," Mary Hood's "Inexorable Progress," Susan Minot's "Thorofare," Jonathan Penner's "Things to Be Thrown Away" -- all deal in one way or another with what Hood calls "the inexorable progress toward the dark, the sealing, the losing sight of, the closing." But there's not much sobbing or sighing here; as the drunken old doctor says to the ailing woman in Brown's story, "What's you've got, Auntie, is the same thing I've got -- old age. There ain't but one cure for it." Confronting their characters with that cure, these writers tend, like Brown's doctor, to let them "get . . . back up for a while."
Not surprisingly, given the relative youth of many of the authors, children figure importantly in several of the stories. One of the best of these is Jeanne Schinto's "Caddies' Day," wherein a rather obnoxious little girl gets an emphatic if ultimately gentle comeuppance at the hands of a few bored and horny men. James Salter's "Foreign Shores" seems to revolve around a 5-year-old boy and his au pair caretaker, but as Updike correctly notes, the real center of business is his divorced mother.
In Rick DeMarinis' "Gent," another mother is the center of attention, and what her 12-year-old son learns about her gives him no comfort; this funny, troubling, haunting story is Updike's real discovery, the story that for me makes the whole endeavor worthwhile. But two others get honorable mention: "Morrison's Reaction," by Stephen Kirk, a hilarious account of a long day in the dentist's chair, and "The Cold Room," by Lowry Pei, in which a confused young man realizes that he has fastened his romantic interests on the wrong woman and hastens, if guiltily, to attach them where they belong.
There's nothing cosmic to say about this group of stories, and Updike wisely refrains from trying. The best of them are intelligent, imaginative and handsomely written. They deserve to be read by a wider audience than the quarterlies reach, and Updike deserves our gratitude for finding them.