'Tell me what you want, and I shall tell you who you are.' - Anton Chekhov, A Dreary Story (1889)
Any anthology is a weird, wonky wonder. Are all the short stories selected in That Glimpse of Truth really the “finest”? Who says – and why, let alone how?
There are several things to be stated at the outset: (1) choosing one hundred stories and stating they are the “finest” is an excellent way to start a discussion; (2) the form itself, the short story, exemplifies some of the finest writing that isn’t poetry, that couldn’t be a novel and (3) we are all aggravatingly, hopelessly, usefully, desperately subjective. Finally (4) the task is, frankly, impossible. How can anyone select a hundred short stories above the hundreds of thousands that sit beside them? Describing the process of judging a literary prize (for a novel), the British novelist Penelope Fitzgerald wrote in 1998:
It’s always the same, you make up your mind to remain calm, dispassionate and civilised. And then as the meetings go on, you become increasingly heated and quarrelsome. The book I wanted to win… didn’t win, and I felt like weeping. And everyone complained, as they always do, that the judges must have lost their wits anyway.
Selecting the stories included here has had a similar feel. I’ve tried to remain dispassionate, searching for the finest, ending up being wholly and, I’d argue, usefully, passionate. I have spent weeks, then months, quarrelling with myself (and others) and, now there is a result, some will complain I’ve not included a or y, or h or z or given due attention to the burgeoning literary genre or scene in delete as appropriate. There are stories originally written in Hebrew, Spanish, French, Norwegian, Danish, Yiddish, Russian, German, Vietnamese, Japanese, and written in English from most continents, but it will be said there could be more Commonwealth writing here, that there is not enough science fiction, there’s too much Russian, Irish and American and not enough Indian writing; that I have neglected gay, ghost (or gay ghost) stories, or crime fiction – and some of that is true, and not true, but I suspect each of those genres could hold a selection of over one hundred stories within their categories. We know that these days, whatever happens, someone will be there to complain, but this is a quality exercise, not a quota project. All I can say is that the experience of selecting the stories here has been blackly exhilarating, perhaps a little bit like it might be to appear on the literary equivalent of Desert Island Discs – my fate now has to be being told I’ve missed out authors whose names begin with X, Y, Z and the whole of the rest of the alphabet and, just, got it wrong, caused vast offence and – well, the list is as endless as this book could have been.
Philip Roth might – just – be a useful, if ignorant, ally here. He has written superb novels but is not a fine short story writer (according to me). In American Pastoral (1997) he wrote:
The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.
What I have attempted to do is not get things right, but to reflect as many genres, as many moods, as many voices as I can curate, to show that a short story can do pretty much anything – tell the tale, untell the tale told, hide the teller; make you laugh, make you cry, show a world, be political, play and work and expand what fiction can do, and so on and so forth – as can any novel but, as a short story is already a distillation, it gives the writer a far harder task to achieve everything, not just any thing. Every thing in this book is as good as it can get.
It turns out, also, the choices made are personal, but they have to be: each of our reactions to any author is: most of our reading is reading what others have read before. The book is ordered by chronological date of birth of the author, as that seemed easiest. I have attempted to spread the notion of “finest” throughout the story of the “short story,” as that should show how the world has changed since a man wrote how another could live in a fish (very magical realist) to how we simply look at one another when things go wrong (Cheever).
Given my own stipulations, I am still irritated by what I have not been able to include, for simple reasons of space, as much as I am surprised by who is not in the book – the novelists I admire who, for me, write better novels than stories (like Roth, or George Eliot, Shirley Hazzard, Graham Greene, John Updike, Evelyn Waugh) and who seem rarely to have written a short story (Anita Brookner, Robertson Davies, Alan Hollinghurst, Brian Moore), or the stories that were on their way to becoming novels (Raymond Chandler, Michael Cunningham, Evelyn Waugh) – the sort of short stories that read like five-finger exercises on a keyboard meant to be turned into a symphony.
My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see. That – and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm – all you demand; and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.
Featuring an all-star cast of authors, including Kate Atkinson, Julian Barnes, Angela Carter, Anton Chekhov, Richmal Crompton, Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl, Penelope Fitzgerald, Gustave Flaubert, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Ian McEwan, Alice Munro, V.S. Pritchett, Thomas Pynchon, Muriel Spark and Colm Tóibín.