Catalog 105, Introduction

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In his introduction to The Best American Short Stories 1992, novelist Robert Stone quotes Edgar Allen Poe on the short story form: "The tale proper...affords unquestionably the fairest field for the exercise of the loftiest talent which can be afforded by the wide domains of mere prose." Stone adds, "At its best, a story emerges as something quite close to poetry, demanding an equally intimate blend of effective form and content. As the most impacted and precisely timed form of 'mere prose,' it is particularly subject to Joseph Conrad's celebrated principle, that fiction must justify itself in every line."

That there has been a renaissance in the short story form in recent years is undeniable. Most critics date it to the publication of Raymond Carver's startling, "minimalist" stories, in the mid-1970s and 1980s. A generation of young writers came of age admiring Carver and the tremendous power of his seemingly simple stories, told in spare, plain, artless prose. In their straightforward narrative and realistic, recognizable characters, they were reminiscent of early Hemingway, whose stories had captivated an earlier generation and who had, as Stone observes, the "capacity for making the very white space between lines tremble and shimmer with meaning."

The stories in this catalog date overwhelmingly from the 20th century, a period of tremendous literary experimentation, in which the shackles placed on art and artists have been, one by one, thrown off. Representing the 19th century is a collection by Chekhov, the universally acknowledged master of the form, whose work -- for all that it is precisely located in his time and social milieu -- managed to touch a core of universality in his characters' experiences such that it remains timeless, engaging and relevant today.

The past few years have seen two of the most prominent magazines that publish literary fiction -- Granta magazine and The New Yorker -- list their choices for the 20 Best Young American Writers, and it is worth noting that more than half of the writers they selected are as well known for their short fiction as for their novels, or more so. Such writers as Sherman Alexie, Lorrie Moore, Ethan Canin and Nathan Englander have published significant bodies of short fiction that stand on their own, rather than as excerpts from novels-in-progress. The number of talented writers working in the short story form today is probably greater than it has ever been.

The 20th century has seen the emergence of many avant garde movements in literature and the arts, a number of which are represented in this catalog, from Borges and Joyce, in the early years of the century, to Donald Barthelme in the Sixties and others, more recently. There is a preponderance in this catalog of fiction in the realistic mode, as there has been in recent years: the story as a vehicle for perceiving, and possibly even comprehending, a moral universe.

We hope you find stories and writers in this catalog that live up to that challenge, which is ultimately the challenge of all art.

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