Introduction

I’ve noticed that my list, which I didn’t labor over, is entirely North American. I chose the first twelve great stories that came to mind, on the theory that the stories that had resonance enough to come to mind would make a good list, and would avoid the twin troubles of orthodoxy and right thought, which is fit for a genre meant to disturb and endure under the constraints of brevity.

It’s worth asking, though, why the stories that come to mind were likeliest to be by North American writers. I tried the same exercise with the novel, as a means of comparison, and found a much more international range (spanning six continents, if you must know). And certainly there are many writers of short stories from other continents whose work has meant much to me (Angela Carter, Yasunari Kawabata, Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Clarice Lispector, Anton Chekhov, Doris Lessing, and William Trevor, for starters.)

One answer might be that I’m an American. Another might be that there is something about the short story form that seems to appeal to contemporary American writers, who are more likely to commit to it for more of their careers, or maybe that there is something about the American education system that encourages more American writers to give more of their best energies to the short story.

I read through the anthology stories again after choosing them, to see if there might be any things they have in common which might reveal something about my inclinations as a reader. One is formal dexterity. Very few of these stories are traditional single-movement stories that pledge allegiance to the Aristotelian Unities. Another is clarity. The writer is doing the heavy-lifting with regard to the management of information and the forward motion of the story, which leaves the reader to the more interesting task of living for a while in the heads of these characters, and trying to understand alongside them the big mysteries stories often complicate and clarify but seemingly never reduce enough to fully solve:

Why did it happen? Why did it happen like that? Why did that do that? Why did I do that? What do I do with it, now that it’s done? What was all that? What was his life? What was her life? What is my life? What is life?

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