It takes just one great story to create a convert, and for me, the story was Lorrie Moore’s ”People Like That Are the Only People Here,” the single most thrilling piece of fiction I read last year. Moore’s tale of a mother watching her toddler endure treatment for a possibly terminal cancer was everything that stories of illness are never supposed to dare to be: unblinking, funny, coolheaded, terrifying, and completely free of sentimentality. By the time I finished reading (and rereading) it, I was hooked, once again, on the possibilities of the American short story.
There couldn’t be a better time, it turns out, to become an addict. Moore’s superb 1998 collection Birds of America (now out in paperback) surprised everyone by flying up the best-seller lists; so did this spring’s mammoth anthology and favored graduation gift The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike. Emerging writers who once would have earned their reputations with novels are doing so with volumes of short stories: Witness Nathan Englander’s For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and Melissa Bank’s The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. And veterans like Annie Proulx (The Shipping News) are arguably doing their finest work in the short form: Proulx’s Close Range, a series of stories linked only by their brilliance and the unsparing Wyoming landscape where they take place, is the best volume of fiction I’ve read this year.
Let’s skip the armchair analysis of the reasons for the short story’s renaissance in popularity (shorter attention spans, TV-bred impatience with long-form narrative, or this year’s all-purpose sociobabble signifier, premillennial anxiety). The surge in quality is what’s so astounding. For a whirlwind survey of what’s out there, the place to start may be with the two best-known annual anthologies of short fiction: the just-published Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Awards (Anchor, $11.95) and The Best American Short Stories 1999 (Houghton Mifflin, $27.50). The formats are similar — 20 or so stories chosen by guest editors — but nothing else is.