Selected from a survey of more than 200 English professors, award-winning short-story writers, novelists, and fiction workshop directors, a remarkable collection of North American literature written since 1970.
Sherman Alexie Margaret Atwood
In Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular (Houghton Mifflin, 1987), Rust Hills, former Esquire editor, writes of the "growing role in all the processes of contemporary literature of the colleges and universities of America":
If one but stands back a bit and looks, one sees that it is no longer the book publishers and magazines, but rather the colleges and universities, that support the entire structure of the American literary establishment -- and, moreover, essentially determine the nature and shape of that structure. (184).
The current listings in the ninth Associated Writing Programs Official Guide to Writing Programs confirm this observation: There are now almost eight hundred English departments across North America which offer undergraduate fiction writing minors and majors, half of these programs including curricula for the study of fiction writing at the graduate level, and these numbers continue to grow. Justifiably, critics balk at the "elitist" idea of any literary establishment, academic or otherwise. Others argue that the quantitative rise of academic writing programs over the last three decades has led to a corresponding qualitative decline in short fiction, generations of student writers cranking out a kind of uniform workshop "MacStory" on an assembly line of increasing literary mediocrity. Our experience has been otherwise.
Mentored by teaching writers in writing programs, then becoming teaching writers in writing programs ourselves, we've come to recognize that these programs feed gifted writers who might not otherwise be fed. Just as important, we've come to believe that teaching writers are perhaps one of the most qualified sources of opinion about the remarkable diversity of the contemporary short story form. After all, other than writing programs students, editors, the comparatively few readers who buy "literary" short fiction hardback and trade paperback titles and the even smaller group of writers who make their living writing fiction, they are perhaps the most widely and deeply read audience of the form -- and often its principle practitioners.
The original premise of The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Fiction</I> was that many teaching writers across the country -- one of the largest pools of people qualified to make such selections -- have historically had little or no say about the selections of stories in the contemporary anthologies they read and use to teach writing. Wanting as much as possible to democratize the process of story selection , we created a database of over 200 teaching writers from the Eighth Edition of the Associated Writing Programs Guide to Writing Programsduring the Fall of 1997. Our extensive four-page survey asked writers and writing teachers to identify the five examples of contemporary short fiction published since 1970 they most often returned to as readers, writers and teachers, identifying for us their level of satisfaction with the current offerings of short fiction anthologies on the market. To our surprise, we received about fifty responses, a greater number than we expected, many of the respondents writing at great length not only about the stories they most admire, teach and return to but also about the principal reasons they bring these stories to their classes again and again, their discussions covering everything from thematic to technical concerns. Surprisingly, sixty percent of the respondents write that they are dissatisfied with the current offerings of contemporary short story anthologies for their own reading and for their contemporary literature and writing classes. Some wrote that the most representative stories are never in one volume and that many stories go to waste because teachers use so few. Others complained that too many of the same main stream stories are selected by the same main stream authors, that too few highlight the contemporary and that too many lack an aesthetically diverse mix of traditional stories and experimental stories that push the boundaries of the short story form. Some respondents also noted that current anthologies either do not have enough gender, cultural, ethnic or racial diversity, or their selections are too tokenized, or that many anthologies emphasize theme over fiction writing technique. And a large number of our respondents write that short fiction anthologies are often either too general in focus or too long in their time spans or too specific in their focus or too short in their time spans. Many, too, write that these anthologies are often too expensive or that the less expensive annuals (The Pushcart Prizes, The Best American Stories, and The O. Henry Awards) are often wildly uneven from year to year. The results of our survey seem to indicate that teachers are always looking for something new, the perfect anthology, yet the current offerings satisfy no one.
As the editors of this anthology, we've tried as much as possible to select stories based upon the comments and results of our surveys, using our own very different but complementary aesthetics. And we've included all but a few of the stories which received the most nominations.
The most nominated story in our survey was Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," included here. The other most nominated stories were (in this approximate ranking): Cynthia Ozick's "The Shawl," Raymond Carver's "Cathedral," Richard Ford's "Rock Springs," Charles Baxter's "Gryphon," Denis Johnson's "Emergency" and Lorrie Moore's "You're Ugly, Too." All of these but one are represented in this anthology. (Because the nominations for Carver's work were spread fairly evenly over many of his stories and because several respondents suggested we choose a less widely anthologized story than "Cathedral," we selected Carver's "Errand," one of his last stories -- based upon the last hours of Anton Chechov's life -- since it represents both the work of an author at the peak of his creative powers and the irony of writers whose lives are cut short so young.) Even when Scribner agreed to publish fifty stories, the largest number of contemporary short stories in one volume, our other selections were more difficult than we expected because the stories that followed these represented nearly equivalent rankings of tremendous number and variety.
As much as possible, we've chosen stories representative of diverse aesthetics, voices and geographies, including contemporary "classics" as well as new discoveries and lesser-know stories and writers. And, yes, we've left out a few of everyone's favorites. While there's always the danger that in trying to please everyone we've pleased no one, we believe that this anthology represents the largest, most comprehensive selection of contemporary North American short fiction published in one volume. That Scribner -- perhaps the most respected publisher of fiction since the last renaissance of the short story in the 1920s -- should publish this anthology is, we hope, further evidence of our belief.
We appreciate any suggestions about ways we might improve this anthology in future editions and any commentary and story suggestions by writers and teaching writers wishing to participate in future surveys.
-- Lex Williford & Michael Martone
Copyright © 1999 Lex Williford & Michael Martone. All rights reserved.