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.