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.
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.
The best stories being written these days could not have been written two decades ago. The challenge of the period has been to discover an approach that allows fiction to reflect the experiential blitzkrieg which characterizes modern life, while at the same time pointing to a hitherto unrecognized order, inherent in the seeming randomness. Some writers have managed to master the elusive internal dramas, investigated in the '60s and '70s, and to weave them as counterpoint into ''realistic,'' peopled dramas. As many of the selections in these two hefty volumes demonstrate, the resulting stories offer intimations of larger meaning and greater order than we have been wont, lately, to accord the universe.
''Prize Stories 1983'' represents the 63rd volume in the O. Henry Awards series. It includes 20 stories chosen from among all those published by American authors in American magazines in the period from summer 1981 to summer 1982. Some employ devices (Leigh Buchanan Bienen's ''My Life as a West African Gray Parrot,'' David Jauss's ''Shards'') but they are devices with which we are comfortably familiar. Some are proudly regional (Gloria Norris's ''When the Lord Calls''; in an odd way, David Plante's ''Work'') but with an accent we recognize more from popular media than from geography. All the stories engage with craft and vitality. Some do more - ''The Dogs in Renoir's Garden,'' by Gloria Whelan; ''The Only Son of the Doctor,'' by Mary Gordon; John Updike's ''The City,'' an account of a stricken out-of-towner's encounter with an unlikely angel of mercy. Some do much more - in particular, the stories which editor William Abrahams has singled out for first, second, and third prizes: Raymond Carver's ''A Small Good Thing,'' Joyce Carol Oates's ''My Warszawa,'' and Wright Morris's ''Victrola.''
''Victrola,'' a man-and-his-dog story that contradicts all conventions of such tales, is the only selection to appear in both collections. Morris endows its canine character with such idiosyncratic life that apart from the dog's owner, all humans pale in comparison. When the partners of this odd couple are separated, the man appears less to have lost his dog than the world to have lost dimension. ''A Small Good Thing'' is Carver's third published version of this story of a parental vigil following a hit-and-run accident. This version is far more generous than the two previous, but while I admired sections of it enormously, it does not convince me as others of his stories do. Carver's work, spare and intense, characteristically reads as though it were written in one seamless rush. This story feels as though it had been patched, artfully, but not so artfully that the thinking doesn't show. Still, this deliberately prosaic account of tragedy elevates cliche to archetypal heights. The parents' agony ends in an unexpected communion of bread and light. ''My Warszawa'' proved the biggest surprise to me. I have not previously warmed to Oates's work, and her hypersensitive heroine annoyed me. Yet, I emerged from this staggeringly complex story of goings-on at a Warsaw hosted conference on American culture staggering myself. The heroine's high-speed encounters, the swarming crowds and chaotic events, push her to a state of overstimulation so frenzied that she loses all sense of personal proportion. In the calm oasis of her departing plane she looks down upon the scene of those overwhelming days and sees nothing she can positively identify. Warsaw, and everything that happened within its limits, has disappeared; ahead lies a lifelong succession of Warsaws.
''Prize Stories'' includes brief author biographies and concludes with a listing of all magazines considered for selections.
Calendar year 1982 saw publication of 1,379 stories in 502 issues of 154 magazines, all of which were considered for ''Best American Short Stories 1983, '' the 68th volume of this perfectly splendid annual. Each year, series editor Shannon Ravenel selects 120 stories. A guest editor, this year Anne Tyler, then chooses the 20 best from among those; the remaining 100 are dubbed ''distinguished'' and listed at the back of the volume, along with biographical notes and the names and addresses of all Canadian and American magazines publishing short stories.
''Best American Short Stories'' is a thornier collection than ''Prize Stories.'' The selections, by and large, are more ambitious; the guest editor's tastes more subjective and controversial. I found stories I admired without really liking (Robert Taylor's ''Colorado,'' Marian Thurm's ''Starlight'') and stories I enjoyed but fault as contrived (Bill Barich's ''Hard to Be Good,'' Joseph Epstein's ''The Count and the Princess''). I neither admired nor enjoyed Laurie Colwin's breezy ''My Mistress,'' nor Carolyn Chute's ''Ollie, Oh . . .''
Then there are the stunners. Guy Vanderhaeghe's account of domestic tensions at a family gathering, ''Reunion,'' manages that magic which is the short story at its best. At the last minute, he pulls a seemingly shattered marriage back together by having a character sing a song we knew, but had forgotten, he knows. We remember a split second before he opens his mouth, and surprise, song, and statisfaction blend the story to its conclusion. Raymond Carver's ''Where I'm Calling From'' is as hilarious as it is poignant. The protagonist suffers the shakes while he tries to collect himself at Frank Martin's drying-out facility and wonders if a passing chimney sweep's kiss will bring him luck enough to keep the fire of love lit, either in the heart of his estranged wife or his girlfriend. He recalls a Jack London hero who will freeze to death if he can't keep a fire going in the Yukon night, and he gathers his courage to phone home. A rocky marriage forms the background to Larry Woiwode's ''Firstborn,'' which begins as the young wife goes into premature labor. Everything that can go wrong with the marriage has; everything that could go wrong with the birth does. The facts are ugly and bitter; Woiwode transforms them. His pellucid, detail-dense style carries the reader past the sorrow of immediate events into a calm of elapsed time and deepened perspective. The final elegiac passage delivers both husband and reader out of suffering, to leave a vision amounting to a secular Easter story. This is alchemy.
''Sur,'' Ursula Le Guin's fabulous account of a 1909 amateur women-explorers' expedition to the South Pole, is light as air and heady going. Her discreetly liberated heroine combines pragmatism with an ingenuous wit. Arriving at the camp left by an earlier all-male expedition, she bristles at the filthy disorder and then remarks with withering condescension. ''But housekeeping, the art of the infinite, is no game for amateurs.'' A second Le Guin story published here takes a far more ambiguous and modern voice. ''The Professor's Houses'' reads easily, runs a mere 2,000 words, and more than any other collected here, demonstrates the condensed resonance possible to the contemporary story. Here, human characters are upstaged by a doll's house in which nothing remarkable occurs until, in four words, Le Guin places the reader within the house and reveals it as the home each of us has always inhabited.
Short stories have aptly been called the chamber music of fiction. At their most daring and intense, they can be likened to solo improvisations; they surprise the reader in the concordances they discover.
Each of these two excellent collections attests to the consolidation of an intense, new synthesis in short fiction. In the midst of confusion and lost illusions the writer discovers a thread -- and tugs. Lights flash. For one moment life appears, a teleological city of gold.