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I don't like to think of myself as doctrinaire about anything but certain ethical matters and perhaps the superiority of dark to milk chocolate. But I realize that I do have one unalterable rule that I wish I could also demand of others: When I teach a writing workshop, we must read published work on the grounds that, no matter how accomplished we may think ourselves to be, we need better writers in the room than even the best of us.
This anthology and the previous edition (only a few of whose stories are repeated here it's well worth having as a companion volume) present perfect examples of occasions for teaching and learning. Of course this collection will gratify even the casual reader, one who, like most moviegoers or opera aficionados, appreciates exceptional accomplishment without particularly caring how its effects are achieved. It is not a textbook. But its genesis as a response to the question put to hundreds of writers/teachers who also instruct by enthusiasm and example Which stories do you assign, return to, find especially effective as models, stimuli, provocations? makes it unusually useful for students in search of both inspiration and on-the-ground technical instruction.
After all, as I insist to my students, they will not always have teachers to guide them in that long future that awaits them after they've paid off their loans. Yes, assuming they continue to write, their work will be read, appreciated, and criticized by friends and let's hope by editors and a world of readers. But before that, when they sit down to evaluate their own fi ction, they need to be able, themselves, to interrogate and probe and poke and be skeptical, and so back a step, before that in the generative and then the writing stage, it would be hugely useful to be able to do the same to a body of the most celebrated work being published today. And not just to read critically: to read practically. To assemble a tool kit, or amass a set of skeleton keys that will open just about any door.
One of the more successful of the low-residency graduate writing programs even demands of its students that they make what are called "annotations" as they move through their studies; that is, they must choose a technical question they'd like to pursue and search in their reading for a variety of possible solutions. I still find myself doing exactly that, and I can't imagine I'll ever stop: Quite consciously, I'll anatomize some aspect of a story or a novel, not to imitate it (although that's a fine way to imbibe a given piece's style and structure) I am talking about taking stories apart like watches, studying the kinds and sizes of the parts they contain, and the way those parts move and affect one another.
So, to mix metaphors (sample question: Can one do that?), what are the kinds of things an attentive reader might ask, either to follow a road or to break away from it and pave a new one? (All right: too many metaphors. Find your own.)
Everyone agrees that any story can be told in dozens of ways, though each makes it a diff erent story. But for many student writers, first thought is assumed to be best thought. It usually isn't. I begin again and again and again because my first thoughts are usually banal and verbally slack. What can we learn, then, by studying opening paragraphs word by word? The reader starts with no more of a preconception of what's to come than the title might provide. If we think of ourselves as sleuths amassing clues not yet about the large thematic questions, at the macro level, but, rather, at the micro level, where we are being led we can learn what we need to by parsing who is speaking, and when, at what distance in time and space, in what kind of language and in what tone, on what occasion or for what reason at this particular time, before the significant action or after it...on and on and on. Often it turns out that the important dynamics of the story are all there already. So much is evident before a single page is turned that I have sometimes filled whole classroom hours talking, more fruitfully than one might guess, about the first hundred or so words. It takes patience to squeeze out of every syllable the effect it is intended to have on the innocent reader, but it is not an idle exercise. Try it (and also ask what would be different if the opening were constructed otherwise):
"We didn't in the light; we didn't in darkness. We didn't in the fresh-cut summer grass or in the mounds of autumn leaves or on the snow where moonlight threw down our shadows."
"At six Mr. Frendt comes on the P.A. and shouts 'Welcome to Joysticks!' "
"Those are the offices and these are the cubicles. That's my cubicle there, and this is your cubicle."
These opening sentences are fraught with overtones and undertones; they are not doors to be sped through but, implicitly, plans for the entire building.
And the questions proliferate: What can we learn by studying the pace at which a story unfolds? How fast does it move? Is the speed of its deployment of detail consistent or does it contract and expand, rush forward, slow down, opening up from time to time like a climber coming to a level place and resting? How does the language hurry us along or slow us down? Does the plot seem to be taking place before our eyes or in retrospect, or in unreal purely literary time? What creates its intensity (if indeed it is intense)? The jam of words? ["Boys enter the house, boys enter the house. Boys, and with them the ideas of boys (ideas leaden, reductive, inflexible), enter the house."] The elision of connectives? (Ditto.) The absence of detail or explication? ("At first he was just losing weight, he felt only a little ill, Max said to Ellen, and he didn't call for an appointment with his doctor, according to Greg, because he was managing to keep on working at more or less the same rhythm, but he did stop smoking...") a single sentence that ends far down the page, and while you're there, consider the generality of the title.
A measured, deliberate opening can yield to great passion and mystery but so can an apparently casual one. ("Well, we had all these children out planting trees, see, because we fi gured that...that was part of their education"...and "Never marry a Mexican, my ma said once and always.") How does the transition to something far less off hand take place? In stories as mad as George Saunders's "Sea Oak" or Robert Olen Butler's "Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot," how does the author fracture the conventional surface? Is there a refrain that returns and returns? (Melanie Rae Thon's " I'm your worst fear" or Jamaica Kincaid's "this is how...this is how...this is how...")
The questions, the contrasts the possibilities are almost infinite, but to read as a writer is to investigate them with an urgency different from that of the reader who might (or might not) take notice of an effect and move on. These are functional methods, available for us to pick up, turn over in our hands, weigh, and use.
And, finally, the bigger question and the most diffi cult: What makes almost every story here unique? What has all this technical expertise to do with the unreplicable intensity of stories experiences that are one of a kind? They are, after all, not clocks or watches, not simply cunningly calibrated machines. The only way I know how to say it is that, whatever they have chosen to be, they are consummately that. They are extreme. They proceed with the conviction that their means and ends are inseparable, and they take chances; they exaggerate, they make vivid their choices; they dominate us. To quote from my introduction to the first edition (yes, you can steal from yourself; I recommend it): "Where is the force of personality in (your story)? Do you convince us that this is the way it must be? You are an actor now: Inhabit your role. Fiction is not for the faint of heart."
Copyright © 1999, 2007 by Lex Williford and Michael Martone
Rarely has the world changed so much from the first edition of an anthology to the second, one published at the end of a millennium and the next beginning the new. In 1999, when the first edition of The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction was published, no one had ever heard of Osama bin Laden or Brokeback Mountain. Almost a decade later, both inhabit the everyday vernacular. The idea that two Wyoming cowboys could fall in love or that two great towers could fall seemed impossible then, but what began as a somewhat obscure story in The New Yorker, published in the first edition of the Scribner Anthology, and later written for the film by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, has won three Academy Awards, and people in line to fly across the country think nothing at all of x-raying their shoes.
Like democracy, when it works, the most compelling fiction often responds to the deeper implications of world events slowly, sometimes taking years to articulate the incomprehensible, the unsaid perhaps even the unsayable at any given moment in history until writers with distinctive voices and stories find a way to bring to consciousness what people were thinking about all along but were too afraid to say aloud. For this reason, it would be an exaggeration to say that this, the second edition of The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, has changed as much as the world it comes into. But it has changed significantly.
This anthology contains more than a dozen contemporary stories from the original first edition, stories that continue to haunt us and our students long after we've been teaching them for years, stories that hold up to many readings, stories that refuse to off er easy answers and still seem to ask all the right questions. And it contains many new voices and stories that have just begun to articulate the new questions arising from the fi rst decade of this new millennium.
Though the methods of story selection have changed somewhat because of advances in technology moving from mailed paper surveys in 1997 to a sophisticated online survey in 2006 our original goals for the first edition remain the same: to democratize as much as possible the evolving contemporary canon; to survey the most qualified people: freelance fiction writers and fiction writers who teach in creative writing programs all across the United States and Canada; to keep alive and thriving the most compelling North American short stories written since 1970; to recognize new and emerging voices; and to create the highest quality, least expensive anthology we could, affordable to everyone, especially students who have found that the cost of textbooks has risen beyond all reasonable means.
The Online Surveys
For the entire month of July 2006, we conducted two separate online surveys of freelance and teaching writers for the second edition of The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction and the new Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction. After a long, arduous search using many sources including Google, the Poets & Writers Directory of Writers, and many university and writers' Web sites, we obtained the names and e-mail addresses of more than two thousand poets, fiction and nonfiction writers, those with well-established reputations as well as those at the beginning, we hope, of distinguished careers.
From this larger pool of writers from many genres, we sent out thirteen hundred e-mails to fiction writers only, and we received survey responses from 148 writers, with responses that startled us with their insights. Without the technical expertise of those we hired to conduct this sophisticated online survey and the literary expertise of the writers who responded so intelligently and passionately, this anthology would not have been possible. We've included their names in our acknowledgments, with our thanks.
The Scribner Anthology survey itself was composed of two parts, the first to help us determine which stories to retain from the original first edition, the second to rank other stories based upon the following questions:
- What contemporary short stories published since 1970 would you most like to see in an anthology for your Studies in Contemporary Short Fiction, Form, and Theory of Short Fiction and undergraduate and graduate fi ction writing workshops? (In other words, what stories do you most often photocopy and bring to your classes to discuss?)
- Why do you teach these stories? What specific technical or thematic concerns do they best illustrate?
The stories with the highest rankings we retained from the first edition were, in this order: Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl," Russell Banks's "Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story," Reginald McKnight's "The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas," Bharati Mukherjee's "The Management of Grief," Amy Bloom's "Silver Water," Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," Amy Tan's "Two Kinds," David Leavitt's "Territory," Alice Walker's "Nineteen Fifty-five," Edward P. Jones's "Marie," Donald Barthelme's "The School," and Susan Sontag's "The Way We Live Now."
Several nominations ranking high among these but not listed above also received comments from those surveyed who wished to see diff erent stories by the same authors rather than the stories from the first edition, and we chose the following stories, based upon those rankings, in this order: Robert Olen Butler's "Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot," Ron Hansen's "Wickedness," Denis Johnson's "Car Crash While Hitchhiking," Rick Bass's "The Hermit's Story," and Stuart Dybek's "We Didn't."
We also received many nominations for stories not included in the first edition, some of which had not yet even been written or published at the time the first edition was published. The highest rankings among these were, in this order: Deborah Eisenberg's "Twilight of the Superheroes," George Saunders's "Sea Oak," Kevin Brockmeier's "The Ceiling," and ZZ Packer's "Brownies," all with a minimum of four nominations each. And among these were many other highly ranked stories left for us to research, find, and then read and consider closely.
Readers of this anthology will also find a few of their favorite stories missing from this edition, partly because it's difficult to please everyone and partly because we simply couldn't afford permissions for some highly nominated stories. Our most difficult obstacle was obtaining affordable permissions for an anthology that would sell at just over $15. It was a huge disappointment at first, but we believe the anthology is actually stronger now because we moved on to select many diverse and exciting new voices for this edition.
Democracy is messy the worst form of government except for all the rest, according to that twentieth-century pugilist Winston Churchill and trying to represent these diverse and divergent nominations with a sense of balance was as difficult as it was both a privilege and a joy.
Michael Martone and I originally came together as editors of the first edition primarily because we saw our own diverse and divergent voices and aesthetics one arising from the contemporary realistic tradition, the other from more experimental impulses as complementary, not as weaknesses but as strengths, and we hold to that conviction. While some may argue over our choices and some may mourn the loss of a favorite, most "teachable" story, we believe we've chosen others equal to those, and we can only hope these stories will bring about as many complex and interesting discussions of theme, form, and craft as the previously published stories.
We offer this anthology not so much as a compromise but as a celebration of many voices, many of them like the voices one might hear in a New York marketplace or along the Mexican or Canadian borders or along the East or West coasts or any small town in the wide expanse of the Midwest, all of them compelling and important.
Copyright © 1999, 2007 by Lex Williford and Michael Martone