Book Review: Three Anthologies

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I have been on a short story kick. For the past two months I have bounced back and forth between three anthologies simultaneously: The Oxford Book of Short Stories, 1981 edition, edited by Sir V.S. Pritchett; The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories, 1989 edition, edited by William Trevor; and The Best American Short Stories of the Century, 1999 edition, edited by John Updike and Katrina Kenison.

If these seem somewhat dated today, that’s an accurate reflection of my reading habits. It’s also an accurate reflection of my reaction to the selected stories and to much of modern literature generally.

The two Oxford anthologies cover an enormous swath of time. The generalized collection includes authors from practically all the English-speaking countries, beginning with Sir Walter Scott’s The Two Drovers, written sometime prior to 1827, and ending with John Updike’s Lifeguard, written in 1961. The Irish collection goes back even further. It officially begins with Oliver Goldsmith’sAdventures of a Strolling Player, probably written sometime around 1760, but it actually begins with an introductory sampling of the traditional folk tales that were the bread and butter of the Irish seanchaí (storyteller) back when snakes were still such a great nuisance to the inhabitants of Ireland, tales that reflect the everyday influence of fairies and ghosts and mermaids and other, more sinister beings. The American collection is restricted, as its name implies, to the twentieth century and begins, appropriately enough for a nation of immigrants, in New York with Benjamin Rosenblatt’sZelig, written in 1915. It ends in San Francisco with Pam Houston’s The Best Girlfriend You Never Had, published in 1999.

Let’s get the basics out of the way: all three of these anthologies deserve a place on your shelves, and all three deserve to be read closely, cover to cover, and all three will repay you with laughter and tears and delight. And in all three you notice changes that reflect the societal changes of the passing eras. The most obvious examples are the stories that reflect the influence of psychiatry, explorations of influences that wouldn’t have been explored a few generations earlier; racial issues, primarily in the American anthology; the Irish “troubles,” both those of the early years of the twentieth century and the later troubles that occupied the last forty years of that century, in the Irish anthology; the worldwide cultural changes that came with the sixties; and the worldwide cultural changes that have come with new waves of immigration. Those last two are to be found in all three volumes.

But what struck me most was the tone of the later, most modern stories in all three anthologies, stories that might be classified as—take your pick—postmodern, surrealistic, or deconstructionist. (That last term was applied frequently to Donald Barthelme, but when I asked his most famous and most successful student and protégé, Thomas Cobb [Crazy Heart, Shavetail, With Blood in Their Eyes] to define the term, even he couldn’t.) There were some that still retained the traditional storyteller’s quality (Annie Proulx’s The Half-Skinned Steer contains elements of the deliciously terrifying ancient Irish folktales; it comes from her 1999 collection of stories, Close Range, that included Brokeback Mountain as well as a cowboy re-telling of the traditional Irish folktale, The Cow that Ate the Piper) but many of the modern stories did away with any kind of traditional plot structure, taking instead an almost documentary approach to a traditional literary form. This is not new. Again, the short stories of Barthelme (his A City of Churches is included in the American anthology) are a good example, but these techniques are very much a question of taste as well as a test of the skill of writer. Some are profoundly moving, while some made me wonder, as I do frequently with some of our most critically ballyhooed modern novelists, what the hell I was wasting my time for.

You can do away with some of the traditional elements of story-telling (plot structure, narrative arc, character development) just as you can do away with some of the traditional visual elements of art (minimalism is a good example) or the traditional auditory elements of music (John Cage once wrote a piece that consisted of a full orchestra sitting in absolute silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, something that would have made me ask for my money back) or some of the traditional elements of movie-making (think of Barry Levinson’s Diner), but it takes a skilled artist to successfully get away with such breaks with tradition. Some pull it off. Some do not. Curiously enough, some of the earliest Irish folktales also lack traditional elements, but they make up for it with religious or moral admonitions, and clearly were intended for those purposes as much as to entertain.

You can tell I am an old-fashioned, hidebound traditionalist. I would rather read Oliver Goldsmith than Donald Barthelme any day, but given the scope of all three of these anthologies, if you can’t find stories here to love, stories that delight and give pleasure, you won’t find them anywhere.

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