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Today's short stories: new tones in the 'chamber music of fiction'; Best American Short Stories 1983, edited by Anne Tyler with Shannon Ravenel. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 332 pp. $14.95. $7.95 (Paperback.) Prize Stories 1983: The O. Henry Awards, edited by William Abrahams. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. 344 pp. $16.95.

By Kathleen LeverichKathleen Leverich is a fiction writer and critic. / February 3, 1984



If novelists are the licensed practitioners of fiction, short-story writers are its alchemists. With little backing and daunting limitations - 2 to 50 pages , 5 to 45 minutes of reader attention - they struggle to transform the lead of everyday experience into flashes of something numinous.

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Not all short stories aspire to metaphysical heights; many operate upon the more modest plane of the tale, character study, entertainment, or that photo-realist class of fiction, the meticulously rendered ''slice-of-life.'' I am partial to entertainments. Character studies can compel me; slices-of-life may keep me reading out of sheer wonder at the technical virtuosity a writer will squander to capture every nuance and shading of, say, a housewife's minor traffic accident in the Stop & Shop parking lot. What I really look for when I venture into short-story territory, however, is levitation. I am seeking an encounter with the supra-real.

A few authors have been writing stories of this variety, usually interspersed with novels, all their creative lives. Malamud, Singer, and Welty rise immediately in the mind. For the past 20-odd years, however, short fiction in this country has functioned chiefly as a warm-up exercise for apprentice writers. Magazines which had traditionally offered a home to stories and a living to writers folded one after another in the '60s; others ceased to publish fiction. Short-story collections arrived in bookstores and sat. Collections, even single stories, required as great an emotional investment from readers, and as great an artistic effort from writers, as did novels. From publishers, as great a financial commitment. ''I get involved, and the story ends,'' readers of traditional work complained, while readers of the new ''fictions'' pronounced them ''too problematic and taxing.'' Throughout the '60s and '70s, stories were routinely abandoned upon the doorsteps of ''little'' magazines while their authors entered into partnership with publishers and settled down to the labor of producing novels.

These foundlings of contemporary literature are coming, now, into their own. For the first time in 17 years, the Book-of-the-Month Club has named the O. Henry ''Prize Stories'' an alternate selection. Raymond Carver, who has never published a novel, has with his third collection of stories, ''Cathedral,'' been declared an official member of the American literary meritocracy. A renaissance of short fiction is taking place, we are told. Why the change in reading and writing tastes?

Current opinion credits ''the return of old-fashioned plot'' and ''characters we can care about.'' Certainly, many ''fictions'' of the past 20 years lacked sympathetic humans and confined their actions to cerebral events. Traditional subjects seemed to writers flat; traditional forms, inadequate to the expression of contemporary experience. The act of composing fiction was itself the favorite subject of serious fiction writers, espe-cially in a form as amenable to experiment as the short story. Beckett, Borges, Barthelme, Coover, and Hawkes, among others, examined in meta-fictions what it meant to create worlds out of notions and language. They exposed their tools and tricks upon the page and then plucked the very string connecting them with the reader to see what sensations such intimacy produced. The unexpected turns of their stories took readers by seductive storm. In the hands of less-gifted imitators, the teasing deteriorated to elitist aggression; the seduction, to simple assault from which the reader emerged battered. The short story acquired a bad name.

The present rush to denounce experimental forms of the past several years while hailing the reappearance of traditional apparatus as a return to sanity, however, strikes me as regressive and misleading. As the same cry rises simultaneously, in the arenas of architecture, film, painting, and education, it begins to sound like cant.