Ed. by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

In recent years there has been a movement afoot to revitalize the short story. Beginning with a pair of branded anthologies from the current masters of marketing, McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales and its companion McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, the trend has been towards infusing dull, literary, New Yorker-style fiction – stories “plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew” in the words of McSweeney’s editor Michael Chabon – with rich, red, genre blood. Science fiction, horror, and detective stories – such stuff as pulp is made of – are now very hip indeed. John Cheever and Raymond Carver are out; Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, and Michael Moorcock are in. Even the labels tell you something, as the once lowly “tale” has now taken its place aside the more up-market “story.”

Canada’s version of thrilling tales and astonishing stories goes by the name of Darwin’s Bastards, a science fiction-oriented collection of “astounding tales from tomorrow” edited by Zsuzsi Gartner. The formula is very much the same, with pop stars, big-name literary authors, and young up-and-comers all joining together in aid of the professed goal of simply having “fun.”

The not-so-catchily titled Stories: All-New Tales, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio (both of whom are also contributors), has a similar agenda. Dedicated to populist “storytellers and tale spinners” like Dumas, Dickens, Twain, Orczy, “and most of all Scheherazade,” it celebrates fiction that forces you to turn the page, driven by the need to answer the eternal question “And then what happened?”

At least that’s the rationale laid out by Gaiman in his brief and somewhat vague introduction. A fuller explanation of what’s going on comes in Michael Moorcock’s “Stories.” The narrator of “Stories” is the editor of a magazine that looks to publish short fiction outside of the “Englit-fic” mold. What he wants is writing “that had the vitality of good commercial fiction and the subtle ambition of good literary fiction . . . stuff that would get us high with the sense of enthusiasm and engagement of Proust or Faulkner but with the disciplined vitality of genre fiction pulsing from every page.” Modern fiction is “crap,” the conventions of genre “staler in literary writing than Harlequin romances.” What it needs is “an infusion of the methods and concerns of popular fiction.” And if popular means commercial, well, writers have to eat. It’s worth nothing that the dedication commends Dumas et al as writers who both “entertained the public and kept themselves alive.” No mean feat for a short story writer in today’s marketplace.

The names follow the standard recipe: mainstream literary figures (Roddy Doyle, Joyce Carol Oates), genre kings (Walter Mosley, Peter Straub, Michael Moorcock), journeymen who may not be household names but who have established reputations in their field (Michael Swanwick, Gene Wolfe, Joe R. Lansdale), and some new faces (Kat Howard, Joe Hill). In general the stories tend toward the darker, thriller/horror part of the genre spectrum than the dystopic SF fantasies of Darwin’s Bastards. Murder is a popular subject, while humour, aside from the jagged satire of pieces like Chuck Palahniuk’s contribution, is not much on display. For some reason historical settings are also common, with stories taking place in the Scottish highlands in the eighteenth century, Germany during the Thirty Years War, and the American West just after World War One.

The results are successful page-turning stuff, many of the stories coming with the twist ending typical of a tale. But Gaiman’s intention that the book go “beyond the shelves of genre” and commercial fantasy into some label-free realm of imaginative fiction smacks of having one’s cake and eating it too.

The appearance of anthologies like these obviously says something about the state of the short story today. Rejecting the critically acclaimed yet largely under-the-public-radar work of traditional New Yorker-style authors like, for example, Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, while championing more commercial, fantastic, sensationalist fiction may only be exchanging one set of generic conventions for another, but what does such a shift, promoted by influential authors and editors and backed by big publishing houses mean for the future of short fiction? Realism (however broadly you want to define the term) and introspective human drama demand more from writers and readers than the stimulation of what are, in the end, cheap thrills. And so it’s going to be up to a new generation of literary short story writers to respond to this challenge and reclaim the field.

Review first published in the Toronto Star August 29, 2010.

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