While googling for something online, I stumbled into this revealing post by one Michael P. Nye, who’s managing editor at the university lit-mag The Missouri Review--
Michael Nye gives his version of the “Ten Best” short stories of all time. What do his choices have in common? Two things.
1.) They’re all workshopped stories.
2.) The writers listed, Alice Munro, Charles Baxter, Raymond Carver and company, dominated the American short story during a period of the art form’s decline. They were, in effect, the form’s caretakers while the short story disengaged itself from the American public. The short story was once the popular American art form, wildly and eagerly read far and wide.
Why would anyone think at least a few of the “best” short stories should not come from the short story’s golden age? (If not all of them!)
What would be my choices?
In 1998, in an issue of a lit zeen I was then writing, New Philistine, I gave my list of the ten best “pop” stories of all time. My criteria included significance and meaning—but most of all I looked for what the short story, at its best, does best—what the form needs to do first—namely being sharp, fast, fun—entertaining. Only after it achieves that should we look for the subtle deep chords of meaning a story slips in to the reader, as if accidentally.
I recall that my first choice was “The Man Behind the Looking Glass” by the French detective writer George Simenon, because it accomplished more things in a short space than any story I’d ever read. It first appeared in this country in New Black Mask. Fast, mysterious, sophisticated and sexy, with the “detective” part of the tale serving as a metaphor for the chase to discover one’s true mate. Within the story are layers upon layers—yet it’s told with perfect clarity.
Other names on my list were writers who should be on any short story list—F. Scott Fitzgerald (his “The Captured Shadow” my favorite); Jack London (“Lost Face”); Edgar Allen Poe (“William Wilson”); Robert Louis Stevenson, and Stephen Crane.
I also included a story by the man who I claim was the best short story writer of them all, strangely enough, because he long ago fell out of favor. O. Henry. Yes, believe it. I base that assessment not on his widely anthologized stories (see the excellent “The Last Leaf”), but his lesser known tales like “A Municipal Report” and “The Moment of Victory,” whose endings aren’t so much surprises as revelations.
O. Henry’s apex was the apex of the short story, and that was attained in two amazing, emotionally powerful works, “The Renaissance at Charleroi” and “The Church with an Over-shot Wheel,” in which O. Henry goes beyond the here and now into the metaphysical, searching for, and maybe finding, ultimate meaning.
In conclusion, we can only say that Michael P. Nye’s “Ten Best” list reveals the narrowness of the university “literary” viewpoint. Any art form goes in cycles. The short story has been in a steady downtrend for decades. With the rise of pop ebooks, it’s time to resurrect the pop short story—to produce and promote short tales which the general public will enjoy reading, instead of the endless slog of slow-paced overly-detailed solipistic works smelling of mothballs and the academy, which have suddenly become, if they weren’t already, sadly obsolete.
Just my two cents worth. (Buy my affordable ebook Ten Pop Stories—new short works signifying an artistic revival. For slightly longer tales, check out my Mood Detroit.)