Every doyen tells a story

English Short Stories (1900 to the present)

While the established media seem to vaguely, erratically support what they consider to be a renaissance in the short story, as a mode of expression it lumbers heedlessly on, giving a passing nod but no more to the bright young things that grace publications largely unsuitable to its format: by which I mean the Guardian magazine rather than Take a Break. But what of its history? Where has it been, this queer, marginal way of writing, alternately considered either the last resort of those who love novels, but couldn't write a whole one, or the apotheosis of minimalism, pared down, honed and sharpened to a deadly point?

This collection might go some way to answering that. Some two dozen authors, from Conrad and Kipling through to Ballard and McEwan, are each represented by a story each of variable length and, surprisingly, quality. Saki's chilling Sredni Vashtar takes some beating, although Ballard's The Intensive Care Unit comes close, with its icy conviction and utter believability. Kipling's Dayspring Mishandled, McEwan's Solid Geometry and Wells' The Truth About Pyecraft are all solid, enjoyable yarns. Conrad, on the other hand, provides dramatic tension that goes nowhere and just tangles itself up in knots; Woolf's Lappin and Lapinova is trite, doubly-embedded faux-naivety that pales in comparison with the strongest work on display here.

If there's any trend to be gleaned from these stories, it's an obscure one. Certainly the best writers don't always write the best short stories. One might go further and say that the most dramatic writers, those with either the greatest clarity or whose words have the tightest turning circle, produce shorts which mature the seemliest; but this scarcely begins to do justice to either Kipling or Wodehouse's styles. If nothing else, the collection shows that it's simply not enough to assemble what philistines would sneer at as a list of established "classics" and hope they will carry the day: such reading lists would eventually make philistines of us all.