Best Stories of the Century? Not Quite, but Close Enough

The Best American Short Stories of the Century , selected by John Updike. Houghton Mifflin, 775 pages, $28. Never mind

The Best American Short Stories of the Century , selected by John Updike. Houghton Mifflin, 775 pages, $28.

Never mind that short stories have been more or less profitably published since Nathaniel Hawthorne’s day. Never mind that the O. Henry Awards, named for a master of the form, have ferreted out distinguished works and future stars for 100 years; that many of our greatest modern writers crafted their best work in short story form (think John Cheever, Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor); that The New Yorker has for most of its life epitomized the discovery and dissemination of short fiction, as have a range of magazines including Atlantic Monthly , Ploughshares , Esquire , The Paris Review and Harper’s .

Never mind all that. Suddenly, the short story is news. The imminent publication, by Knopf and Viking, of collections by unknown writers Nathan Englander and Melissa Bank–both acquired for healthy six-figure sums–has literary agents smelling big money for their seemingly smaller clients, and editors reconsidering a form that had lately been consigned to the backwater of university presses. Francis Ford Coppola’s new magazine, Zoetrope , dedicated exclusively to the short story–from which Ms. Bank, among others, was launched–has affirmed the new glamour of short fiction. Nowadays, stories are as hot as an editor’s fingers scribbling in the company checkbook.

The most highly regarded of the annual short story anthologies–because of the range of selection, the adroit balancing of established writers and fresh talent, the stature of its permanent and guest editors–is The Best American Short Stories , which has been published annually since 1915. With the idea of getting a jump on millennium fever, the 1999 volume has been dubbed, in a masterful stroke of marketing genius, The Best American Short Stories of the Century .

Are these really the best of the century? Well, no. They are, in fact, editor John Updike’s selection of the best of 85 years’ worth of Best American Short Stories volumes. Does it matter that some of the stories are with hindsight not their authors’ best efforts? Not really. The 55 stories here, from Benjamin Rosenblatt’s “Zelig” (1915) to E. Annie Proulx’s “The Half-Skinned Steer” (1998), are seductive and highly satisfying; the overall effect of reading such a collection is one of fantastic discovery, as well as pride in the American genius for the form. I felt a little like I was watching a (long) history of the movies, starting with scenes from flickering black-and-white silents and only gradually coming upon the Technicolor studio greats.

Mr. Updike (who notes in his introduction that he feels the importance of short fiction as a means by which we communicate and share our daily lives has diminished–and he’s right, of course) instituted strict guidelines for his choices. Certain canonical authors–such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Katherine Anne Porter, and Eudora Welty–had to be included. Stories had to reflect the century’s passage of time, and had to treat either North American characters or events on this continent. And yet, he notes, “I tried not to select stories because they illustrated a theme or portion of the national experience but because they struck me as lively, beautiful, believable, and, in the human news they brought, important.”

The result is a most interesting mix of good and great, of obscure writers and much-anthologized classics, of literary curios and polished diamonds. In publishing circles a “gotcha!” game has of course sprung up, identifying famous authors excluded from this collection. And in a volume with such a definitive title, the absence of any work by J.D. Salinger, Irwin Shaw, Peter Taylor, Paul Bowles, Ray Bradbury, Nelson Algren, James Thurber, William Maxwell or John Steinbeck, to mention some stellar no-shows, is regrettable. John O’Hara and Mary McCarthy never made it into the Best American Short Stories , and so do not appear now. The all-star no-shows listed above were each selected for inclusion more than once in their day, and were contenders for this new collection. Alas, they didn’t make the final, no doubt painful, cut. But what Mr. Updike has chosen offers such riches that I can only regret, for the pleasure of reading prose this good, that this is not a two-volume set.

What a range of American lives is displayed here! Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers” (1917) tells of conspiratorial compassion when a husband’s abusive behavior results in his murder. Dorothy Parker’s frothy “Here We Are” (1931) plays with wedding-night jitters. Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith” (1960) examines religious identity during World War II. Alice Adams’ “Roses, Rhododendron” (1976) considers the very subtle sides to friendship. We read here of the horrors of death by cancer and AIDS and the sickening feeling of finally facing one’s own emotional weaknesses and character flaws, of the powerful gift of love a child’s death provides her parents, of social disjointedness, of small-town snobbery and generosity, of the terrible demands of one’s peers, of how very quickly one’s frailties will overcome strength.

Our finest writers lead the parade: Robert Penn Warren on a poor country family, Bernard Malamud on the effects of war and dislocation, Raymond Carver, J.F. Powers (“Death of a Favorite” is narrated by a cat), Joyce Carol Oates, Willa Cather, Vladimir Nabokov. But there are other pleasures in store, including the oft-touted and here genuine excitement of discovery. One of the book’s best stories is Lawrence Sargent Hall’s 1960 tale, “The Ledge.” A riveting account of the terrifying last night in the lives of a fisherman and his two boys, it packs a menacing emotional pull with beautifully controlled, moving prose. Hall is not much read today, if at all. This story should invite reconsideration. And the biographical data (or lack thereof) provided about other similarly forgotten writers is fascinating. Alexander Godin (“My Dead Brother Comes to America,” 1934) worked as a bottler in a chemical plant; Mary Lerner (“Little Selves,” 1916) was published here and there. About both, the notes simply say, “Nothing more is known about him/her.” Mary Ladd Gavell’s “The Rotifer” (1968) was her only published story; it appeared posthumously as her memorial in Psychiatry , where she was the managing editor.

Another thrill comes from rereading masterpieces of the genre. To fall into John Cheever’s “The Country Husband” for the umpteenth time is to realize again how very great a writer he was, how rare and how extraordinary was the grace of his sentences, the clarity of his understanding of his characters. I can say without hesitation that Cheever’s collected stories, which won a Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Award in 1979, qualifies as an alternate, one-man version of The Best American Short Stories of the Century .

Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Farmer’s Children” (1949) shines with a cold savage beauty. Her account of the death of two small children in a barn on a twinkly frozen night is a stunning example of prose at its best, and is alone worth the price of this book. And then there’s John Updike’s own entry, “Gesturing” (1980), a tale of the rise and fall of the Maples, his favorite maritally challenged protagonists. “Gesturing” is a reminder, if any is needed, of how fortunate we readers are that he is a writer who, with no visible effort and seemingly endlessly, decade after decade, can transmit a momentary thought into the most graceful, eloquent sentences imaginable.

In sum, this is a terrific collection that ought to be read by anyone interested in good writing or curious about the 20th-century American social scene. The inevitable moments of tedium–not all of the stories are brilliant, not all of the writers memorable, and certainly the book should be taken in small sips, not in large gulps–are far outweighed by the accumulated treasures Mr. Updike has assembled. And its greatest gift is to send us scurrying to the shelves for larger collections by individual writers found here.

Best Stories of the Century? Not Quite, but Close Enough