The Long View of Brief Encounters; Short Stories

Article excerpt

Byline: PHILIP HENSHER

The short story problem is, surely, one of the most baffling in the contemporary market for literature. Every reader loves a good short story; almost every writer loves the challenges of writing one. Yet they don't sell. There is a mere handful of outlets for single short stories in this country, and that handful, such as the splendid London Magazine, struggles along. Publishers will, if they absolutely have to, publish a volume of short stories as long as the writer has already established a reputation as a novelist, but with no hopes of any great sales.

A dismal picture, but one considerably redeemed by this excellent pile of anthologies and collections. They are perfect summer reading; if, like me, you mentally translate `a perfect book for the beach' into `a perfect book if you are recuperating after a lobotomy', perhaps this is the solution. A short story can be just the right length between dips in the sea, and imposes none of that holiday feeling of guilt, no sense that you really ought to be getting on with Proust. All these

collections can be packed by the most casual reader, as well as by one determined to get from cover to cover.

Richard Ford's Granta Book of the American Short Story ([pounds sterling]9.99/ N&D Bookstore price: [pounds sterling]8.99) is, by now, almost an indispensable volume in itself. It is a colossal book and contains not only classics by the great, but also perfect stories by lesser-known writers and - my personal test for a really good anthology - some fine oddities. Raymond Carver's laconic `Are These Actual Miles?' is a particular delight, drawing a quick ecstasy out of nothing much. I'd have liked a few more eccentricities; T Coraghessan Boyle and Donald Barthelme, who can be wonderfully nutty, contribute a couple of disappointingly conventional pieces. All the same, not one to be without.

Similarly, Peter Kravitz's Picador Book of Contemporary Scottish Fiction ([pounds sterling]8.99/[pounds sterling]8.49) ranges widely, and includes an alarming number of duffers among its stars. There are 47 writers here; 15 would have been quite sufficient. But alongside the conventional gritty realism of Bill Douglas's `My Childhood', there

are delicious surprises like Candia McWilliam's demure and unpredictable `Seven Magpies'.

Lorrie Moore's knockout Faber Book of Contemporary Stories about Childhood ([pounds sterling]7.99/[pounds sterling]7.49) is the product of one of the best short story writers and, on this evidence,

a magnificent editor. It's a very parochial anthology - I'd heard of less than half of the contributors - but she makes a strong case for almost all of them.

Childhood has been a favourite subject of short story writers for well over a century, but it is a difficult subject to handle originally. …