I just bought The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, edited by Ben Marcus. When I saw the names listed on the cover (Lydia Davis, Aimee Bender, A. M. Homes, Ann Cummins, Gary Lutz, George Saunders) I sprang at the thing and rushed to the cash register. When I got it home, though, I realized that I’ve already read most of the stories by my favourites. But there are plenty of other interesting pieces by writers I am less familiar with. And the introduction, written by Marcus, is terrific. I’m having trouble finding a bit to pull-quote, I like the whole thing so much. What I most admire, I think, is his commitment to stylistic diversity. He writes:
I tried to include a single vigorous practitioner of each thriving literary style I could identify, which doesn’t mean I was trying to label everyone I read, but rather that some voices sounded louder, purer, more forceful, and lasted longer in my head, while other stories seemed to be sharing a single voice. It is hard, when reaching deeply into the current American short story, to ignore certain collective passions, techniques, or beliefs of what a story should be and how it should operate. There are movements and schools, camps and gangs. I did my best to read their best work: the realists, the metafictionists, the lyricists of the south, the brainy storyless writers who obsess over information, the writers using nonfiction forms for fiction’s purposes, the child-voiced writers who eschew all forms of knowingness, the patient, detail-oriented slice-of-life writers, the domestic minimalists, and the fabulist maximalists (yes, there are other groups, and no, I don’t really subscribe to these labels). In doing this reading and research, in asking for lists of writers from everyone I knew, I often discovered that my favorite writers from the various camps were all awkward members of any one group, not comfortably situated in a single rigid aesthetic, but rather embracing or originalizing several styles at once. In short, they helped to make these subcategories meaningless.
What I found in my reading was an amazing range of styles, beliefs, methods, ideologies, and instincts. Writers are reaffirming tradition, ignoring it, or subverting it. Where once we could have observed a divide between the kind of fiction we call realist and that which we might call innovative or experimental — anthologies themselves have often reinforced these divisions, seeking ever-more specific stylistic categories — now there are writers synthesizing the heartfelt and cerebral approaches, the traditional with the innovative impulse, with astonishing results. But let’s admit right now that these categories can have a crushing effect: they are first of all inexact, they reduce the aim of the writer, they can have derogatory overtones, and they can unfortunately shape a reader’s impression of the work before even one word has been read. This is true not just of terms like postmodern, or realist, but also lyrical, souther, gothic, minimalist, metafictional, academic, or naive.
This seems such a refreshing antidote to editors and critics who feel compelled to prescribe certain literary styles.
I am also pleased to see that there is a good balance between male and female writers in this anthology. Fourteen of the stories are written by women. Fifteen are by men. Quite often, I think, male editors tend to favour work written by men, most likely unconsciously. Since I tend to favour stuff written by women, I’m apt to do a quick sex-check when I pick up an anthology like this one, or a literary journal.