Saturday, January 14, 2006

Review: The Oxford Book of Short Stories

The Oxford Book of Short Stories ed. by V. S. Pritchett. Recommended.

In his introduction to The Oxford Book of Short Stories, V. S. Pritchett discusses the short story's "relatively new and still changing form," an odd statement since one could make a case that the short story is ancient, whether in oral or written form. For his anthology of short stories written in English, Pritchett draws on approximately two centuries and writers from several countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, India, and New Zealand.

Pritchett suggests that an anthology is bound to be a matter of personal taste. When I began reading this particular anthology, I learned that Pritchett is a much-respected short story writer, so it's to be assumed that his opinion and his taste are to be respected. Given the difficulties of editing an anthology, which he mentions in the introduction and which include copyright issues as well as the length of a story and how much it has been anthologized, Pritchett has done an adequate job of representing the short story in a relatively short volume.

For me, the problem with this volume—and the "still changing" form of the short story—is alluded to in the last paragraph of the introduction, where Pritchett says, "A modern story comes to an open end." In my opinion, this approach helps to negate the beauty and the power of the short story as distinguished from the novel, that is, "the novel tells us everything, whereas the short story tells us only one thing, and that, intensely."

This point is easily illustrated in great short stories, like Sir Walter Scott's "The Two Drovers" and D. H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner (both surprising choices because they are so often included in anthologies). Unlike Pritchett (and, I would suspect, many others), I do not see "Grace" as a story in which James Joyce's "genius was first signalled"; rather, it's a pointless exercise in tedium, like watching people you don't know doing nothing interesting, that left me feeling I couldn't justify the time wasted reading it. There is nothing "intense" about "Grace," nor about Pritchett's own contribution, "Many Are Disappointed," which is an apt description of my reaction.

When a short story is "intense"—and good—the reader cannot be left feeling indifferent by an "open end." Stories like "The Rocking-Horse Winner," with its straightforward narrative and fable-like simplicity, evoke strong feelings of horror and dread, despite the commonplace setting and people—a household perpetually in growing debt, like so many, and men who indulge in casual horse betting, like so many. The normalcy of the tone underscores the weirdness of the tale. Other stories, like "The Coup de Grâce" (Ambrose Bierce), "Sredni Vashtar" (Hector Hugh Munro, also known as Saki), "An Official Position" (W. Somerset Maugham), "The Woman at the Store" (Katherine Mansfield), "Various Temptations" (William Sansom), and "Parker's Back" (Flannery O'Connor), seared lasting impressions into my mind due to the richness of setting, characterization, situation, and plot. This is the type of story that makes this anthology worthwhile.

Between these gems of the craft are weaker stories that made little if any impact on me. For example, John Updike's "Lifeguard" seems to be a pointless exercise in the author's own wit. The much-touted (and frequently anthologized) "Hills Like White Elephants" (Ernest Hemingway) is also cleverly told and shows the potential of the short story, but left me cold and indifferent. (In fact, I've read this story many times in anthologies and never remember what it's about.) "The Tent" by Liam O'Flaherty shows an "intense" moment, but falls flat. The weaker stories fail to capture the imagination, the heart, or both.

The best stories seem to be those that make use of either quirky humor or underlying suspense and horror. Despite its dark theme, Bret Harte's "The Iliad of Sandy Bar" is humorous, with its two protagonists doing their best to outdo each other after what appears to have been a simple disagreement. Mark Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," also a favorite of anthology editors, is dry, witty, and folksy and is a good introduction to Twain. Many of the other stories mentioned, plus stories like Robert Louis Stevenson's "Thrawn Janet," are dark, unsettling, and disturbing. You cannot read them and be unaffected.

Indeed, The Oxford Book of Short Stories highlights why the short story format is ideal for humor and horror; these are life's moments of intensity that deserve to be told and heard. For this reason, the stories of the apparently mundane with an open end are the weakest, failing to leave a lasting impression or make an impact.

For someone interested in a very limited overview of the short story in English, this is an adequate book with which to start. I would recommend choosing an author whose story strikes you, for example, a John Cheever ("Goodbye, My Brother") or a Stephen Crane ("The Open Boat") and exploring their work in more depth. Find out what moves you and read more of it.

Sunday, 8 January 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

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