Enduring love

<strong>The New Granta Book of the American Short Story

</strong>Edited and introduced by Richard

The appearance of this new edition of the Granta Book of the American Short Story, 15 years after its predecessor, is partly testament to the current health of the form in the United States. Roughly a quarter of the stories collected here come from some of the most celebrated American fiction writers to emerge in recent years, including Nathan Englander, Z Z Packer, George Saunders, Nell Freudenberger, Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Díaz.

It is tempting, from this side of the Atlantic, to envy the robust strength of the American short story, blessed as it appears to be with a great many more high-profile platforms for regular exposure, in particular the New Yorker (where most of the newer stories in this volume first appeared), the Paris Review, Esquire and Atlantic Monthly.

But, as Richard Ford makes clear in his introduction, the short story has always been the poor cousin in the eyes of publishers - even in the 1930s, when Eudora Welty's first collection was turned down because she refused to "knuckle down" and write a novel. Ford's lament now is that a declining readership for all "serious fiction" has eroded cultural debate: "When magazines are fewer and great publishing houses are apparently less interested, it just may be that all imaginative writing feels experimental, so that there's less cause to argue about 'audience issues' and only time to concentrate on the fundamental artistic one - on doing it."

He goes on to reassure his readers, however, that he does not perceive a falling-off in the quality and daring of American short-story writing or fiction in general - quite the reverse - but, in a world of rolling news, it "may be simply not very adept at capturing headlines".

These stories have been chosen rather for their timeless qualities, their unique, self-contained worlds and the various ways in which they exemplify Ford's two prime criteria - audacity and authority - than for their commentary or reflection upon the times in which they were written. Some, such as Matthew Klam's "Issues I Dealt With In Therapy", root a personal story in a specific historical context - the narrator wrestles with decisions about his own future at a friend's disastrous wedding at which the groom is waiting anxiously for the arrival of Al Gore's helicopter.

The narrator's problems emerge from uniquely late-20th-century concerns, but his conclusions about love and loyalty endure. By contrast, Grace Paley's beautiful story "Friends", despite its one glancing reference to Vietnam, remains as fresh and pertinent as when it was written.

Death, or intimations of it, hovers over a number of these stories, but several are occupied with nothing dramatic at all, or with the glimpses between the moments of drama in human life. This is what Ford means by "audacity"; given its limitations, the short story must be daring, must grab and hold its readers' attention. Audacity can be seen most obviously in stories where the reader is asked to accept a fantastical premise from the outset.

In Donald Barthelme's "Me and Miss Mandible", the 35-year-old narrator has been mistakenly enrolled in a class of 11-year-olds and no one seems to notice; in George Saunders's "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline", the narrator regularly converses with ghosts. But there is also boldness in choosing small moments, non-events - Mary Gaitskill's "A Romantic Weekend", in which a pair of new lovers plan a tryst that turns out to be a disappointment on both sides, is a story built around the absence of drama, as is Richard Yates's "Oh Joseph, I'm So Tired", told by a "sad-eyed, seven-year-old philosopher", in which little happens but the mores and prejudices of a slice of New York society are artfully exposed through the child's observations.

In all such anthologies, the reader is subject to the taste of the editor, and Ford confesses to a fear that his own has too closely informed his choices, the worry that "his tastes are not wholesome and broad at all, but narrow and timid, and have led him unwittingly to writing he finds easy to take". Though the settings, voices and subjects collected here vary considerably, Ford maintains a certain orthodoxy - any one of these stories could be published in a "respectable", mainstream magazine (and they have been), and there is nothing that really counts as "experimental": even Barthelme is here represented by one of his more conventional narratives.

One further, purely practical complaint is that the details given for each story at the back include only the publication date of the collection in which it most recently appeared. It would have been interesting to know when and where each story was originally published - particularly as this anthology will surely stand for another 15 years as a showcase of the resilience and energy of this unique form.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture