The Late Twentieth Century: 1960-2000 - Short Fiction Analysis

Traditional Modernist Stories: 1960’s

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Several important American short-story writers of the 1960’s, such as Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, and John Updike, who began their careers in the 1950’s, represent the continuation of the traditional modern short story that originated with Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter, and Eudora Welty earlier in the century.

Flannery O’Connor

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Following her influential 1955 story collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find, startling readers and critics alike with its unique combination of complex Catholicism and simple southern fundamentalism, Flannery O’Connor’s 1965 collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, continued with similar rural characters and similar religious issues. Two of the most representative stories in this collection are “Greenleaf” and “Revelation,” both of which focus on women who think they are “good country people,” but who must face their true selves in violent religious visions.

“Revelation” focuses on Mrs. Turpin, who, while in a doctor’s office with her husband, thinks of her superiority to those around her. When she shouts, “Thank you, Jesus,” for not making her “a nigger or white-trash or ugly,” one of O’Connor’s physically unattractive but intellectually complex young women throws a book at her and calls her a warthog, telling her to “go back to hell” where she came from. Later, when Mrs. Turpin returns home, she stands by her hog pen asking God, “How am I saved and from hell too?” When she sees a vision of hordes of white trash, Negroes, freaks, and lunatics being led up to Heaven, while people like herself bring up the rear, she realizes the hard Christian truth that the last shall be first and all self-righteous virtue must be burned away by God’s grace.

This final sacramental vision is even more difficult for Mrs. May in “Greenleaf,” another of O’Connor’s white middle-class southerners burdened by shiftless white trash. However, in spite of Mr. Greenleaf’s laziness and Mrs. Greenleaf’s prayer-healing, they hardly age at all, while Mrs. May is exhausted from overwork. Particularly galling to Mrs. May is a Greenleaf bull that is always on her land; she dreams of it devouring everything of hers until there is nothing left. The story ends when the bull comes into her pasture and gores her, not as an act of gratuitous violence, but as a symbol of being struck by the blinding light of revelation. Once again, O’Connor confronts her smug and sanctimonious character with the hard truth of Christian grace—that salvation is not earned nor easy but seizes one with the painful paradox of losing the self to find the self.

John Cheever

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

John Cheever first made his impact as a short-story writer in the 1950’s with The Enormous Radio and Other Stories (1953). He continued to publish important stories for the next two decades, climaxing his career with his The Stories of John Cheever winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1978. The best-known story from Cheever’s late collection The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (1964) is “The Swimmer,” which combines a common theme of earlier Cheever stories—middle-aged men trying to hold on to youth and some meaningful place in life—with his penchant for the fantastic seen in such early stories as “The Enormous Radio.” The complexity of this story of a man’s decision to swim home from a party through his neighbors’ swimming pools derives from its subtle combination of fantasy and reality. Although the action is presented as a real event, clues increasingly point to a distortion of time in the story. Because the protagonist must be allowed to believe that his metaphoric swim through the future and past is an actual swim in the present, the reader is never sure which events in the story are real and which are fantasy. The metaphoric nature of the swim is suggested by Cheever’s presenting the protagonist as a legendary explorer and the pools as a “the river of life.”

Bernard Malamud

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although Bernard Malamud is the best-known spokesman of the Jewish experience in American literature, the Jew in his short stories is an embodiment of the complex moral experience of universal human suffering, responsibility, and love, rather than a realistic representative of a particular ethnic or social situation. As the old tailor Manischevitz says in “Angel Levine,” “Believe me, there are Jews everywhere.” Indeed, in Malamud’s worldview, all who suffer are Jews. The suffering that plagues Malamud’s ghetto Jews is not the result of economics or politics or social injustice; it is the result of being merely human and thus ultimately alone in the world.

Although Malamud is a master of both the realistic and the fantastic, he is at his best when he mixes conventions of the two styles to establish a fictional world in which moral demands seem to force the supernatural into being from the psychic depths of the individual character’s secret need. A number of Malamud stories focus on a mysterious stranger who makes demands on the central character which he cannot fulfill. The most famous such story is “The Last Mohican,” which introduces the central character in the collection Pictures of Fidelman: An Exhibition (1969) who is set upon by beggar Susskind when he goes to Italy to study art. Although Susskind says all he wants is one of Fidelman’s suits, what he really wants is Fidelman to come to some realization about the moral...

(The entire section is 510 words.)

John Updike

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

No other living writer is so representative of that well-known brand of modern fiction known as The New Yorker short story as John Updike. Updike’s second collection of short fiction, Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, which appeared in 1962, contains some of his most popular stories, including, in addition to the title story, “The Persistence of Desire,” “A Sense of Shelter,” “Wife-Wooing,” “Lifeguard,” and the anthology favorite, “A & P.” Updike’s collection of stories The Afterlife and Other Stories (1994) features a number of stories that focus on growing older.

What makes “A & P” Updike’s most popular story is its presentation of the medieval notion of chivalric behavior in contemporary language. The young narrator Sammy is both a heroic figure and a childish grandstander. On one hand, his attitude toward the girls who come into the A & P store where he works seems morally superior to that of Lengel’s Sunday- school-superintendent rigidity, but on the other hand he sees them only as three bodies. How the reader judges Sammy’s character—which is revealed primarily through his language—determines how the reader reacts to his final chivalric gesture of quitting his job.

“Pigeon Feathers,” one of the most explicit examples of Updike’s Christian perspective, is a conventional, well- made story about a fourteen-year-old boy who confronts a challenge to his...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Experimental Postmodernist Stories: 1960’s

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Partially in reaction to the traditional modernism of the stories of O’Connor, Cheever, Malamud, and Updike and partially a result of the invasion of European structuralism and deconstruction with their emphasis on the nature of fictionality, the most obvious shift in the short story in the 1960’s was the introduction of experimental, metafictional short fiction by such writers as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, and William H. Gass. Rather than presenting itself “as if” it were real—a mimetic mirroring of external reality—postmodernist short fiction makes its own artistic conventions and devices the subject of the story as well as its theme. The underlying assumption is that literary language is not a proxy for something else but rather an object of study itself. William H. Gass says that the fiction writer in the 1970’s understands that his business is not to render a world but to make one from language.

John Barth

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In 1968, John Barth surprised readers with his experimental collection of stories Lost in the Funhouse, in which fiction refused to focus on its so-called proper subject—the external world—and instead continually turned the reader’s attention back to what Barth considered fiction’s real subject—the process of fiction-making itself. Barth insists that the prosaic in fiction is only there to be transformed into fabulation. The artist’s ostensible subject is not the main point, he argues; rather it is only an excuse or raw material for focusing on the nature of the fiction-making process. Great literature, says Barth, is almost always, regardless of what it seems to be about, about itself.

“Autobiography” is one of the most thoroughgoing self-reflexive fictions in Lost in the Funhouse, for it does not pretend, as conventional fictions do, that the voice of the fiction is the voice of a human being; rather it confronts directly the inescapable fact that what speaks to the reader is the story itself; thus, the only autobiography a story can present is a story of its own coming into being and its own mode of existence. Every statement in “Autobiography” is an assertion, in one way or another, about its own fictionality. Some of the key characteristics of narrative that the story foregrounds are that fictions have no life unless they are read, that fictions cannot know themselves, that fictions have no body, that fictions have one-track minds, that fictions can neither start themselves nor stop themselves, and that fictions reflect their authors in distorted ways.

Robert Coover

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Robert Coover’s first collection of short stories, Pricksongs and Descants (1969), consists of a number of stories based on fairy tales, legends, folktales—all of which are made more earthy and “real” than their mythic originals. “The Door” is an erotic, self-reflexive retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” while “The Magic Poker” is an elaborate exploration of fictional creation, reminiscent of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611), and “Seven Exemplary Fictions” is an homage to Miguel de Cervantes. However, the most popular story in the collection is “The Babysitter,” a complex play with the shifting intermixture of fantasy and reality.

“The Babysitter” ultimately asks the basic question What actually happened? for the reader is never quite sure at any given point if he or she is reading a fantasy or a description of so-called reality. Although the story seems filled with ominous events, nothing actually happens, except in the sexual fantasies of the participants, which predominate over ordinary reality. At the end of the story, when a television program enters the mix of fantasies, it seems no less real than the character fantasies throughout. Few stories have gone as far as “The Babysitter” in undermining the easy assumption that reality refers merely to external events in the physical world.

Donald Barthelme

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

When Donald Barthelme’s first collection of stories, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, appeared in 1964, critics complained that his work was without subject matter, without character, without plot, and without concern for the reader’s understanding. For Barthelme, the problem of language is the problem of reality, for reality is the result of language processes. Because so much contemporary language has become trash, dreck, Barthelme takes as his primary task the recycling of language, making metaphor out of the castoffs of technological culture. For Barthelme, the task is to try to reach, through metaphor and the defamiliarization that results, that ineffable realm of knowledge which he says lies somewhere between mathematics and religion “in which what may fairly be called truth exists.”

Barthelme has noted that since films tell a realistic narrative so well, the fiction writer must develop a new principle. Collage, says Barthelme, is the central principle of all art in the twentieth century, the point of which is that “unlike things are stuck together to make, in the best case, a new reality.” One of the implications of this collage process is a radical shift from the usual, temporal, cause-and-effect process of fiction to the more spatial and metaphoric process of poetry.

The most basic example of Barthelme’s use of this mode is “The Balloon,” in which a large balloon has encompassed the city. The persona of the story says that it is wrong to speak of “situations, implying sets of circumstances leading to some resolution, some escape of tension.” In this story there are no situations, only the balloon, a concrete particular thing which people react to and try to explain. The balloon is an extended metaphor for the Barthelme story, to which people try to find a means of access and which creates varied critical responses. To plunge into a Barthelme story is to immerse oneself in the flotsam and jetsam of contemporary society, for his stories are not so much plotted tales as they are parodies and satires based on the public junk and commercial media hype that clutter up and cover over a person’s private life.

William H. Gass

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

A philosopher particularly interested in the fictional nature of reality, William H. Gass’s contribution to the postmodernist short story came in his 1968 collection, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories. Gass, as well known for his philosophical literary essays as for his fiction, has always reminded readers that “stories and the places and people in them are merely made of words.” A character in a story, Gass insists, is not an object of perception and “nothing whatever that is appropriate to persons can be said of him.”

“Order of Insects,” which Gass thinks is one of his best short fictions, charts the growth of a woman’s obsession with a species of insect inhabiting her home. By limiting her vision obsessively, she transforms the insects into mythic creatures, ultimately feeling as though she has been entrusted with a kind of “eastern mystery, sacred to a dreadful god.” As opposed to humans, the insects, whose skeletons are on the outside, retain their shape in death. They are beautiful in the ideal sense with a fierce joy in their very composition, a joy of stone that lives in its tomb like a stone lion. Never seeming to participate in decay, they are perfect geometric shapes representing pure order.

The title story of Gass’s collection is a lyrical evocation of being in “retirement from love.” The voice of the narrator, who has come to a small town in Indiana because he has “love left over,” which he would like to lose, mixes his response to the inhabitants of the town with his meditations and memories of a past love, who was, as all romantic lovers are, a fiction. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is the narrator’s attempt to organize himself, pull himself together by means of the language of poetry.

Minimalist Stories: 1970’s and 1980’s

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The term “minimalism,” to characterize a type of fiction that sparked a new interest in the short story in the 1970’s, has been widely rejected by writers and derided by critics. However, as innovated by Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff, Mary Robison, Bobbie Ann Mason, and sometimes Richard Ford, Jayne Anne Phillips, and David Leavitt, the term gained enough critical currency in the 1980’s to develop a consensus of characteristics: detached tone, elliptical style, no plot, no historical sense, mundane blue-collar subject matter, and little or no character development. John Barth called the new flowering of the American short story stimulated by minimalism “the most impressive phenomenon” on the literary scene in the early 1980’s.

Raymond Carver

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Raymond Carver was the leader of the revival of interest in the short story in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s which John Barth playfully termed “hyperrealistic minimalism,” or the “less-is-more” school. Like the stories of his mentors, Anton Chekhov and Ernest Hemingway, Carver’s stories communicate by indirection, suggesting much by saying little. Carver was proclaimed an overnight success in 1977 when he received a National Book Award nomination for his first major collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976). With his next collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that, as one critic said, Carver was a “full-blown”...

(The entire section is 775 words.)

Ann Beattie

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

While Carver focused on the blue collar dispossessed, Ann Beattie zeroed in on the college-educated uncommitted. Critical reaction to her collections Distortions (1976), Secrets and Surprises (1978), The Burning House (1982), Where You’ll Find Me and Other Stories (1986), and What Was Mine and Other Stories (1991) has been pretty much split between those who admire her pinpoint portraits of young adults of the 1960’s and 1970’s and those who accuse her of psychological vacuity and sociological indifference. Beattie’s people seldom know what makes them do the things they do and have no real sense of purpose or destiny; thus instead of engaging in deliberate action, they more often...

(The entire section is 630 words.)

Tobias Wolff

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Author of the short-story collections In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981), Back in the World (1985), and The Night in Question (1996), Tobias Wolff is often aligned with his fellow writers and friends Raymond Carver and Richard Ford for his focus on the significance of the seemingly mundane. “Say Yes,” in which the initiating situation is trivially domestic and the characters are ordinary people who are not particularly articulate, is a clear example of this similarity. As is often the case in Carver stories, the simple situation soon develops into a significant and universal conflict. The issue that creates the conflict—whether white people should marry black people—begins...

(The entire section is 203 words.)

Mary Robison

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Like Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, Mary Robison has been criticized for her so-called minimalism. Although critics such as John Aldridge complain that her characters have no motivation, no background, and no personality, “Pretty Ice” from her first collection Days (1979) is a clear representative of her subtle fictional technique. Nothing really happens in this very brief story, about a thirty-four-year-old single woman who goes with her mother to meet her fiancé at the train station and then says she is going to break up with him. The only clue the reader has to the motivation for the breakup is a huge billboard she and her mother pass that advertises a dance studio once operated by her father, who committed...

(The entire section is 333 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Aldridge, John W. Talents and Technicians: Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992. A famous attack on many of the short- story writers of the 1970’s and 1980’s, such as Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Mary Robison, T. Coraghessan Boyle, and David Leavitt.

Herzinger, Kim. “Minimalism as a Postmodern: Some Introductory Notes.” New Orleans Review 16 (Fall, 1989): 73-81. An important discussion of the basic characteristics and philosophic implications of minimalism.

Levy, Andrew. The Culture and Commerce of the American Short...

(The entire section is 235 words.)

Bobbie Ann Mason

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Bobbie Ann Mason’s short-story collections, Shiloh and Other Stories (1982) and Love Life (1989), popularized what became known as “K-Mart” fiction in the 1980’s, primarily because of Mason’s focus on working- class people in rural Western Kentucky and her frequent mention of brand name stores and products. Mason’s best-known short fiction, the title story of her first collection, is highly representative of her themes and techniques. The central characters are truck driver Leroy Moffitt, stuck at home as a result of an accident, and his wife Norma Jean, who is trying to find new meaning in her life.

The gradual dissolution of the marriage is embodied in a symbolic gender-role-reversal in...

(The entire section is 324 words.)

Richard Ford

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Richard Ford’s Rock Springs (1987) contains a number of stories which focus on adolescent boys trying to find someone on whom to model their lives and displaced men unable to establish a sense of identity or stability. In the title story from this collection, the protagonist Earl Middleton drifts through life longing for some stability he can never quite achieve. When he and his girlfriend Edna and his small daughter Cheryl head for Tampa from Kalispell in a stolen Mercedes, they break down in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and Edna leaves him. One of the thematic keys to the story is Earl’s inability to identify with Edna’s guilt for a past misdeed. His visit to a nearby mobile home park attached to a gold mine suggests...

(The entire section is 532 words.)

Jayne Anne Phillips

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Jayne Anne Phillips’s stories in her best-known collection, Black Tickets (1979), fall into three distinct categories: short lyrical prose poem pieces; on-the-road stories; and stories of a young woman who returns home to come to terms with her relationship with her parents. All three of the stories in this last group, which seem to have the most staying power, end in symbolic frozen moments: “Souvenir,” with the mother and daughter suspended on the top of a Ferris wheel, “Heavenly Animal,” in which the young narrator hits a deer with her car and remembers a Christmas day when she was a kid, and “Home,” with the mother and daughter standing silently in front of a sink of steaming water.


(The entire section is 371 words.)

David Leavitt

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

David Leavitt’s first collection of stories, Family Dancing (1984), focuses, as the title suggests, on family relationships, particularly relationships between young homosexual men and their mothers. In “Territory” the male persona is named Neil Campbell; his mother, still a peace-worker in the age of Ronald Reagan, has intellectually accepted his homosexuality but not emotionally. When Neil invites his lover Wayne to come home for a visit, the situation is much like that of a young man bringing his college girlfriend home for vacation with Neil worrying about whether they will make love in his house. The story is balanced between Neil’s anguished inner guilt and the liberal tolerance of his mother, challenged by...

(The entire section is 260 words.)

Lee K. Abbott

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

When asked to comment on minimalism for a special issue of The Mississippi Review, Lee K. Abbott—who has specialized in the short story with such collections as Love Is the Crooked Thing (1986), Strangers in Paradise (1986), Living After Midnight (1991), and Wet Places at Noon (1997)—disavowed any relationship to that group, insisting he was a “mossback prose-writer who prefers stories with all the parts hanging out and whirling.” Reese, the protagonist in one of Abbott’s best-known “whirling” stories, “Living Alone in Iota,” has been dumped by his woman and feels desolate. As a result he feels “love-sawed” and the drunk he seeks is “positively medieval.” He...

(The entire section is 179 words.)

Andre Dubus

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Andre Dubus’s short stories, from Adultery and Other Choices in 1977 to Dancing After Hours in 1996, have always manifested a hopeful spirituality and an optimistic humanism that has marked him as thematically old-fashioned and technically conservative. Many of the stories in Dancing After Hours are based on the conviction that most human beings are seeking love rather than sex, relationships rather than one-night-stands, and family rather than temporary thrills. The two most communal stories in the collection are “Blessings” and the title story. In the former, a family goes on a fishing trip, and the boat capsizes because of the captain’s neglect. Told from the perspective of the mother one year...

(The entire section is 246 words.)

Cynthia Ozick

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Cynthia Ozick is a Jewish short-story writer in the tradition of Bernard Malamud, for her typical story, an almost magical blend of lyricism and realism, creates a world that is both mythically distant and socially immediate at the same time. In her powerful short story “The Shawl,” the central character Rosa is a Polish refugee in a Nazi internment camp with her infant Magda and her fourteen-year-old niece Stella. They have been so brutalized that they are hardly recognizable as human. Since she can get no nourishment from Rosa’s dried-up breasts, Magda sucks on the corner of a shawl, which magically comforts and sustains her. When Stella steals Magda’s shawl to warm her own body, the child stumbles into the open camp yard...

(The entire section is 253 words.)

Grace Paley

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Grace Paley once said in an interview that it was “the dark lives of women” that made her begin to write, adding that at the time she thought no one would be interested, “but I had to illuminate it anyway.” Usually, the women in Paley’s stories are either unwed, widowed, or divorced; although they have children, they are not defined either by marriage or the desire for marriage. Perhaps the first thing one notices about Paley’s stories is the voice that tells them and the style in which they are told. It seems unmistakably a woman’s voice talking to other women, and thus not a voice conditioned by the need to preserve a social image.

The most frequently anthologized story in Enormous Changes at the...

(The entire section is 323 words.)

T. Coraghessan Boyle

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s first collection Descent of Man (1979) features such absurd situations as Lassie leaving his master Timmy for a love affair with a coyote, a woman falling in love with a brilliant chimpanzee who is translating Charles Darwin and Friedrich Nietzsche into Yerkish, and a group of teenagers who are so stoned that they do not notice that it is literally raining blood. Boyle continued this kind of satire and parody in his second collection, Greasy Lake and Other Stories (1985), which contains parodies of Sherlock Holmes and Nikolai Gogol’s famous story “The Overcoat,” as well as stories about a secret love affair between Dwight D. Eisenhower and the wife of Nikita Krushchev and the mating...

(The entire section is 159 words.)

Stephen Dixon

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The most frequent terms used to characterize the short fiction of Stephen Dixon, whose hefty collection The Stories of Stephen Dixon (1994) included thirty years of his work, are “experimental,” “fabulous,” “quirky,” and “tour de force,” for Dixon experiments with a wide range of narrative devices and fictional techniques. However, the problem with so many of his stories is that, as imaginative and inventive as they may be, they largely seem to be just that—bloodless experiments with devices and techniques rather than real human events. For example, “Man of Letters” makes use of the epistolary form in which a man named Newt, who features in a number of Dixon stories, writes a series of letters to a...

(The entire section is 234 words.)

Steven Millhauser

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Steven Millhauser’s short fictions in The Penny Arcade (1986), The Barnum Museum (1990), and The Knife Thrower and Other Stories (1998) are basically “suppose” stories. Suppose someone built the ultimate shopping mall? Suppose adolescent female mystery was really caused by witches? Suppose there was an amusement park that opened the door to an alternate reality? However, Millhauser’s most obsessive “suppose” is Suppose you took an ordinary entertainment, illusion, or metaphor and pushed it as far as it would go. One could say that all of Millhauser’s stories go “too far,” that is, if the intensive “too far” existed in his vocabulary. In the title story of his collection The Knife...

(The entire section is 253 words.)

Barry Hannah

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Since his premier short-story collection Airships in 1979, Barry Hannah has made the so-called masculine dilemma his special territory. Hannah identifies with the image of the hard- talking barroom male, claiming that sex makes “death go away” and violence makes things “really meaningful come forth.” Hannah’s stories are filled with men trying to find ways to love women and be friends with men, while at the same time striving to come to terms with their sexual obsessiveness and their territorial possessiveness. Hannah’s primary obsession, however, is not sex but storytelling; for Hannah, telling lies and getting at the truth often amount to the same thing.

Hannah’s central story about the...

(The entire section is 372 words.)

Thom Jones

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Thom Jones’s 1993 collection, The Pugilist at Rest: Stories, a finalist for the National Book Award, was greeted with rave reviews that compared his debut to that of Raymond Carver and called Jones an “impressive, audacious, powerful new talent.” His second volume, Cold Snap (1995), contained ten stories in the same hyperadrenalized mode of his earlier pieces, featuring jive-talking marines, down-and-out prize- fighters, and manic-depressive doctors and writers who seemingly seek pain, dare death, and survive solely on demonic, drug-driven energy.

Jones says he wrote the story “The Pugilist at Rest” in a sort of “controlled ecstatic frenzy” and that “Way Down Deep in the Jungle”...

(The entire section is 266 words.)

Joyce Carol Oates

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

It is difficult to know where to place Joyce Carol Oates in any survey of modern fiction, for from her early collectionsBy the North Gate (1963), Upon the Sweeping Flood (1966), and Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? (1974)—to her more recent, such as Heat and Other Stories (1990), she has experimented with and mastered every type of short story popular in the last forty years. The problem, however, with her short stories is that so many of them seem imitative of stories by stronger, more original writers. For example, her best-known story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” highly imitative of Flannery O’Connor, is a classic example of the short-story convention of the...

(The entire section is 264 words.)

Chris Offutt

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The stories in Chris Offutt’s first book, the well- received 1992 Kentucky Straight, are firmly situated in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. In his second collection, Out of the Woods (1999), he has moved most of his characters out of the mountains, mainly to the wide-open spaces of the West. However, the Eastern Kentucky hills remain a central force in these stories, for no matter where Offutt’s mountain men go, the hills haunt them.

The title story of Offutt’s second collection is about a thirty-year-old man who has never been out of the county. To secure his position with his new wife and her family, he agrees to drive an old pickup two days to pick up his wife’s brother who has been shot...

(The entire section is 276 words.)

Michael Byers

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The stories of Michael Byers, in his debut collection The Coast of Good Intentions (1998), affirm, in a seemingly simple, matter-of-fact way, the solid, unsentimental values of family, commitment, and hope for the future. Byers focuses primarily on men who, like the retired school teacher in “Settled on the Cranberry Coast,” are still looking hopefully to the future, or, when they do look to the past, are like the elderly couple in “Dirigibles,” reaffirmed rather than disappointed.

A satisfying story about second chances or the pleasant realization that it is never too late to live, “Settled on the Cranberry Coast” is narrated by Eddie, a bachelor who has just retired after teaching high school for...

(The entire section is 181 words.)

Christopher Tilghman

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The seven stories in Christopher Tilghman’s In a Father’s Place (1990) celebrate the solidity of place and the importance of community and family, defending the conservative values of working class men and landed gentry against any deviations from them or rebellions against them. In “Loose Reins,” a young man returns to his Montana home to try to come to terms with the fact that his mother has married a former ranch hand; he decides that the hand, with his simple values, is superior to his businesslike and busy father. In the title story of the collection, the head of a well-established Maryland family drives out his son’s iconoclastic and domineering girlfriend, thus asserting the superiority of family over her...

(The entire section is 232 words.)

E. Annie Proulx

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although E. Annie Proulx’s first collection, Heart Songs and Other Stories (1988), is relatively conventional in structure and language, the stories in her second collection, Close Range: Wyoming Stories (1999), are compelling combinations of the grittily real and the magically mythical. Place is as important as people are in Close Range, for in the harsh but beautiful Wyoming landscape social props are worthless and folks are thrown back on their most basic instincts. “Brokeback Mountain,” Proulx’s most powerful tale, is a tragic love story of Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar, two country boys with no prospects who, while working alone on a sheep- herding operation on Brokeback Mountain, abruptly and...

(The entire section is 207 words.)

Andrea Barrett

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The stories in Andrea Barrett’s 1996 National Book Award winner, Ship Fever, focus on real people, such as Gregor Mendel and Carl Linnaeus, caught up in pursuits in the natural sciences, using scientific facts and historical events to throw light on basic human impulses and conflicts. “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” is typical. Told by the wife of a mediocre twentieth century science professor who greatly admires the geneticist Gregor Mendel, it includes the historical account of how Mendel allowed himself to be misdirected from his valuable studies of the hybridization of the edible pea to a dead-end study of the hawkweed and the personal story of how the narrator’s grandfather accidentally killed a man who he...

(The entire section is 152 words.)

A. S. Byatt

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

A. S. Byatt’s collections, The Matisse Stories (1993) and Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice (1998), have received strong reviews from the critics. Byatt’s most popular anthology piece, “Medusa’s Ankles,” is a well-made story about a middle-aged woman who rebels against the falsity of trying to look young while growing old. The protagonist, a university professor, who goes to a beauty salon because her hair has “grown old,” recalls her mother looking artificial, coming out from under a hairdresser dome, which seemed “like some kind of electrically shocking initiation into womanhood.”

While getting her hair done for a public presentation she must make, she looks in a mirror, wondering...

(The entire section is 257 words.)

Angela Carter

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Angela Carter is best known for short stories that combine gothicism and eroticism with feminist critiques of legends and folktales derived from patriarchal culture. Her collected short stories, published under the title Burning Your Boats in 1995, included such early collections as Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (1974), The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979), and Black Venus (1985). Her most popular story, “The Bloody Chamber,” is a retelling of Bluebeard, the serial wifekiller of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale. Often called a tour de force, the story documents an initiation into adult sexuality which suggests the sado-masochistic role that women play in male sexual aggressiveness....

(The entire section is 240 words.)

Graham Swift

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Because Graham Swift believes that telling stories is a therapeutic means of coming to terms with the past, his short fictions in Learning to Swim and Other Stories (1982) focus on characters who try to come to terms with their personal pasts. The title story of the collection centers on a man teaching his six-year-old son Paul how to swim, but most of the story takes place in the memory of his wife as she recalls having thought about leaving him three times in the past primarily because of his lack of passion. The story then shifts to the two times he has thought of leaving his wife. Swimming is a central metaphor in the story, for in the Spartan purity of swimming the man feels superior to others who will “go under”...

(The entire section is 231 words.)

Julian Barnes

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Because the stories in Julian Barnes’s collection Cross Channel (1996) are all grounded as much in historical fact and cultural values as in individual characters, they focus more on social abstractions than on individuals. “Dragons,” the most popular story in the collection, describes the occupation of a Protestant village in Southern France in the seventeenth century by paid dragonnades. Because the homeowner is a Protestant and thus considered an enemy of the king’s religion, the soldiers burn the carpenter’s fine wood, sell his tools, and make the members of his family recant their religion and return to the Church. The climax of the story comes when the reader learns that the dragons are Irish Catholics, who...

(The entire section is 180 words.)

Ian McEwan

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Ian McEwan’s first short-story collection, First Love, Last Rites (1975), received mixed reviews when it first appeared because of its violence and sexuality. However, most critics agree that the title story of the collection, which McEwan once said he always thought of as an affirmative story, is his best. Focusing on a young couple who have run away together for a summer of complete sexual freedom, the story opens with their sense of an invisible creature scratching behind the wall of their hermitage. During sex, the boy has a fantasy of making the creature grow in her belly, although he has no desire to be a father. When she hears the creature, he knows it is a sound growing out of their lovemaking.


(The entire section is 248 words.)