Richard Ford is the gentleman of American letters. Where his big-name contemporaries - Philip Roth, John Updike, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster and Thomas Pynchon - can be strident, bolshy, obscure, misanthropic or intellectually aggressive, Ford, in person as in his writing, is polite, unpretentious and sceptical of literature's place in his country's heart.
"To be talked of alongside these writers is flattering," he tells me from his home in Maine. "Whether the similarities go further - that's a matter for close reading. But nobody ever got rich in America by asking Americans to do close reading. That's why I'm not rich." His Southern manners - Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1944 - are seemingly impenetrable. When I meet him at a reading in London, an audience member accuses him of being "a poster boy for infidelity". Ford pacifies her with con sidered charm. This is as close as he will go to literary controversy.
But his muted personal style is inseparable from that of his fiction. Ford is famous for his defiantly low-key vision of the American dream. When he tells me that "nothing has ever made me think that I'm anything other than a workaday writer", the demurral could easily have come from his anti- or alter-hero, the New Jersey suburbanite Frank Bascombe.
Ford's best-known books, The Sportswriter (1986), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day (1995) and The Lay of the Land (2006), trace Bascombe's transformation from aspiring short-story writer to sports journalist to real-estate agent. Compared to the other great American anti-heroes of late 20th-century literature, Bascombe has far more in common with Updike's small-town drifter Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom than with Roth's neurotic, flamboyant Nathan Zuckerman.
In New Yorker-reading, university-lecturing literary terms, Bascombe's trajectory - which draws on Ford's own early experiences as a writer for Inside Sports magazine - is definitely a tragic fall. But the Bascombe of The Sportswriter sees nothing tragic about his transition from Hemingway-hopeful to hack, nor does he complain much about his divorce, the death of his first son, or his unfulfilled potential.
His ambitions are modest: he asks for little more than an occasional evening with a woman and an exchange of views over beers in a run-down seaside bar. In the New Jersey suburbs he finds himself amid people with similarly simple wants: predictable rises in house prices, a new car now and again, and the chance to see out their "normal applauseless lives".
By Independence Day, Bascombe has abandoned writing in favour of real estate, trading on the commuter belt's gilded promises - a life that, despite its allegorical potential, Ford treats entirely without irony. Despite struggles with his ex-wife, his troubled teenage son and demanding clients from Vermont, Bascombe keeps pursuing his everyday American dream, braced by an indomitable sense of possibility.
"The conventional wisdom is that suburban life is eventless and risk-free," Ford has said of his choice to set his books in the orderly, affluent towns of inland New Jersey and the Jersey Shore, the sneering view of which the trilogy seeks to overturn. Bascombe the estate agent is less a sell-out than a modern pioneer, directing his all-American optimism to the tree-lined backstreets rather than the trackless prairie.
Like his creator, Bascombe is at pains to emphasise his artlessness as a writer and an observer. "I got into the habit of putting down whatever occurred to me, and before long the truth of most things turned out to be waiting just over the edge of worried thought," he reflects in The Sportswriter.
This pose - and it is at least a little disingenuous - is at odds with one of the major strands of recent American writing: the whimsical experimentation of Dave Eggers and his McSweeney's collective, Jonathan Safran Foer and Miranda July. "I don't like stories that I have to beat my brains out to read," says Ford. "I'm interested in stories that paint from themselves back to the world in a recognisable way."
Characteristically, Ford is reluctant to criticise the McSweeneyites. "Dave is encouraging young writers to work with forms that might not find publication in places like the New Yorker or Esquire, and I think in that regard what he does is a good service," he says guardedly. And he denies that there is any of the "aesthetic ruckus" today which characterised American writing in the 1970s, the age of Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and literary punch-ups.
"Over here, there is a real sense of collegiality among writers," he says. But his sense of "collegiality" is carefully fostered, for instance, by his refusal to trade stinging reviews with his peers in New York literary journals. "I don't review books. I don't want to do that," he says flatly.
It is easier to deduce Ford's views through his omissions - and there is little room for formal playfulness in his latest project, The New Granta Book of the American Short Story. A companion piece to The Granta Book of the American Short Story, which he edited in 1992, it ranges over the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st, from Eudora Welty, Richard Yates, Raymond Carver, John Updike and E Annie Proulx to new writers such as Nathan Englander and Nell Freudenberger. "Doing this, the Granta project," says Ford, "is a much more efficacious way of advancing literature than reviewing."
Surprisingly for a writer so intimately concerned with what it means to be American - both individually and, latterly, politically - Ford discovered that in the editing of the second volume, any collective quality of "Americanness" eluded him. "Any country seen from abroad can probably be seen more clearly than from within," he says. "But from within, I don't see an American project." The unifying strand, he says, is the quality of the writing and its emotional impact, from Elizabeth Spencer writing about a summer romance to George Saunders sketching a homicidal Vietnam vet hired as "protection" in a haunted civil war theme park.
In his introduction, however, Ford raises some of the problems facing all American writers, including the exponential growth of university creative writing courses, which he describes in uncharacteristically heated terms as "the cold, suffocating hands of the American writing-programme industry on our faltering national literary 'product'".
"That was tongue-in-cheek," he explains, backtracking slightly when I remind him of his words. "Whether or not writing programmes make anybody a writer that wasn't going to be a writer anyway, I'm extremely suspicious of that. But they make people better readers. And a lot of young writers also come out of writing programmes and go right back in to teach on a writing programme, and I'm not sure about that." He is rather more sanguine about the "mega-contracts" increasingly offered to young writers on the basis of one or two published stories. "If you have the choice between finding a large readership at an early age, or finding one at a late age, always take the earlier age," he says, laughing.
I begin to suspect that it is Ford's gracious public persona that enables him to save his anger and passion for his books. Late last year, the final part of the Bascombe trilogy, The Lay of the Land, was published, and writing it was tough. "It has a lot of words in it," Ford says, "and the responsibility of finding the perfect place for all of those words was a taxing one. To be able to write The Lay of the Land was a joy, but finishing it was less of a joy, and I had never really encountered that feeling before." This may be because it is Ford's first explicit foray into American politics - an area where his reticence evaporates.
Frank's return is set at Thanksgiving 2000, while Florida is struggling with some catastro phically flawed ballot sheets. "I wanted to take advantage of the peculiar goodwill I had from the other two books and put it in the service of writing a political novel," he explains. "When I looked around myself in America, some things seemed worth writing about: the election, the ageing of the population.
I felt that Thanksgiving weekend after the election of 2000, before the presidency was stolen away, to be a time when Americans were literally not paying attention." Eight years on, and with a presidential election looming, Ford still feels that ordinary America - the suburbs inhabited by Bascombe - is still blind to what is happening to it: "It's very hard to get the American electorate away from its own preoccupations, which is, I think, extremely dangerous. It's also a result of being lied to, and finally, being lied to is a little more comfortable than being told the truth."
Thinking back to Bascombe's words, I ask him for his own take on the relation between writing and truth. Ford pauses, before adjusting his character's advice: "Just putting down everything that you think is not going to uncover the truth; what uncovers truth in something is the habit of art. It's when you think, 'I've got to make something out of this for someone else, which I will make well enough that they can make use of it.'
"When you do that, when you turn away from yourself and towards some anonymous person, then I think you have a chance of making up something that might in fact be true." It's a nice riposte to Bascombe's slightly lazy tip. "Good," Ford says, laughing, "because that's my answer, and the answer was frank."
"The New Granta Book of the American Short Story" is available now, priced £25