American Short Story Masterpieces
The excellent becomes the permanent. —Aristotle

When we began the work of assembling short stories for this book, one of our criteria—unspoken, but there nonetheless—was that a story’s narrative interest would be one of the deciding factors in our selections. We also felt that we were not out to be democratic in our selections, or even representative. There was only so much space in the anthology, after all, and a limit to the number of stories we could include. Decisions had to be made that were not always easy. But aside from this, however, we were simply not interested in putting before the reader further examples of what some have called “postmodern” or “innovative” fiction, and others have hailed as “the new fiction”—self-reflexive, fabulist, magical realist, as well as all mutations, offshoots, and fringe movements thereof. We were interested in stories that had not only a strong narrative drive, with characters we could respond to as human beings, but stories where the effects of language, situation, and insight were intense and total—short stories which on occasion had the ambition of enlarging our view of ourselves and the world.

A tall order, indeed. But isn’t it true that with any great, or even really good short story (or any other singular work of literary art), just something like this does often happen? We think the thirty-six short stories included herein are ample evidence that it is possible for stories to produce such salutary effects; and in our selections we aimed for work that aspired to nothing less—stories of consequence that in some important way bear witness to our own lives. In any event, in light of our sensibilities and according to our criteria, time and again we found ourselves moved and exhilarated as we read and selected the work that follows.

It’s our view, and one not lightly held, certainly not defensively, that the best short stories of the past thirty years can stand alongside the best of those of earlier generations—the several generations of writers represented, say, in Short Story Masterpieces, that excellent book edited by Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine.

In its way, this present collection may be seen as a companion volume to that earlier book. Most important in this regard, the bias of this collection, as in the other, is toward the lifelike—that is to say, toward realistically fashioned stories that may even in some cases approximate the outlines of our own lives. Or, if not our own, at least the lives of fellow human beings—grown-up men and women engaged in the ordinary but sometimes remarkable business of living and, like ourselves, in full awareness of their mortality.

In the past thirty years there was, on the part of many writers, a radical turning away from the concerns and techniques of realism—a turning away from the “manners and morals” that Lionel Trilling correctly saw as the best subject matter for fiction. In place of realism, a number of writers—writers of considerable skill and stature, some of them—substituted the surreal and the fantastic. A smaller and less-talented group mixed the weird and far-out with a relentless and sometimes disquieting nihilism. Now it seems that the wheel has rolled forward again and fiction that approximates life—replete with recognizable people, and motive, and plot, and drama—fiction of occurrence and consequence (the two are inseparable), has reasserted itself with a reading public that has grown tired of the fragmentary, or bizarre. Fiction that asks that the reader give up too much—in some cases deny what reason, common sense, the emotions, and a sense of right and wrong tell him—is seemingly in retreat these days.

No one should be surprised then at the resurgence, not to say new dominance, of realistic fiction, that most ancient of storytelling modes. This book might be seen as a celebration of, and a tribute to, the lasting power of narrative short fiction. We further feel we have gathered together some of the best stories recently produced by this oldest of literary traditions, work that we like to think has as good a chance as any, and better than most, of withstanding “the tooth of time.”

A notable difference between Short Story Masterpieces and this book is that fully a third of the thirty-six stories in the earlier collection are by writers from England and Ireland. When we were establishing some ground rules to determine how we planned to go about selecting stories for this anthology, we decided early on to include works by American writers only. There was, we felt, plenty of significant work on this side of the Atlantic from which to choose. We also decided not to include stories by writers who were already included in Short Story Masterpieces. Thus, Peter Taylor, Eudora Welty, and John Cheever, some of whose best work was published after 1954 (the year Short Story Masterpieces appeared), were reluctantly left out.

In one respect, at least, it would seem that life was simpler in the literary world of the early 1950s: Warren and Erskine didn’t have to talk about “postmodernism” or any of the other “isms”—including “realism.” They didn’t find it necessary to explain the reasons that lay behind their choices, or articulate their methodology. They simply discussed good and great stories—masterpieces, by their definition—and masters of form. The word masterpiece meant something in those days and signaled a benchmark of excellence that most readers (and writers) could agree on. No one had to debate the concept itself, or the wisdom of applying such a term to select examples of serious imaginative writing. The editors found two dozen stories by American writers, spanning fifty years or more of American life and literary endeavor, and they put these stories alongside a dozen stories by their English and Irish counterparts of roughly the same period. They had their book. We limited ourselves to American writers only, as has been noted, and our selections cover thirty-three years—1953 to 1986, to be exact—surely the most climactic, and traumatic, period in American literary history. Traumatic, in part, because it has been a time during which the currency of narrative fiction has fluctuated wildly and been variously assailed from several quarters. Now is as good a time as any, perhaps, to try to reestablish the term masterpiece as it applies to singular stories with a narrative durability, within a discernible narrative tradition.

As we considered the merits of each story, we asked ourselves at how deep a level of feeling and insight the writer was operating. How compelling, and coherent, was the writer’s sincerity (Tolstoy’s word, and one of his criteria for excellence) toward his material? Great fiction—good fiction—is, as any serious reader knows, intellectually and emotionally significant. And the best fiction ought to have, for want of a better word, heft to it. (The Romans used the word gravitas when talking about work of substance.) But whatever one wants to call it (it doesn’t even need naming), everyone recognizes it when it declares itself. When a reader finishes a wonderful story and lays it aside, he should have to pause for a minute and collect himself. At this moment, if the writer has succeeded, there ought to be a unity of feeling and understanding. Or, if not a unity, at least a sense that the disparities of a crucial situation have been made available in a new light, and we can go from there. The best fiction, the kind of fiction we’re talking about, should bring about this kind of response. It should make such an impression that the work, as Hemingway suggested, becomes part of the reader’s experience. Or else, and we’re serious, why should people be asked to read it? Further—why write it? In great fiction (and this is true, and we mustn’t fool ourselves that it’s otherwise), there is always the “shock of recognition” as the human significance of the work is revealed and made manifest. When, in Joyce’s words, the soul of the story, its “whatness leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance.”

In his “Introduction to the Works of Guy de Maupassant,” Tolstoy wrote that talent is “the capacity to direct intense concentrated attention on the subject . . . a gift of seeing what others have not seen.” We think the writers included in these pages have done this, have directed “intense concentration” on their subject, seeing clearly and forcefully what others have not seen. On the other hand, considering some of these stories and their insistence on depicting the “familiar,” we think something else is just as often at work—another definition of “talent,” perhaps. We’d like to suggest that talent, even genius, is also the gift of seeing what everyone else has seen, but seeing it more clearly, from all sides. Art in either case.

The writers in this book have talent, and they have it in abundance. But they have something else as well: They can all tell a good story, and good stories, as everyone knows, have always been in demand. In the words of Sean O’Faolain, a contributor to the earlier book, the stories that follow have “a bright destination.” We hope readers will be affected by more than a few of these and will perhaps find occasion to laugh, shudder, marvel—in short, be moved, and maybe even a little haunted by some of the lives represented here.