In the face of overwhelming evidence that long novels remain both ubiquitous and extremely popular, the short story is repeatedly lauded as the form best suited to our busy and distractible times. It is, they say, the ideal duration for a commute and easily readable on a phone in a free moment. As one reviewer of another recent anthology put it, ‘in our hectic, busy age, a well-made literary ‘snack’ is a fine thing indeed’ or, as Alan Yentob has it in his introduction to this year’s BBC Short Story Award, ‘could it be that the web is becoming an enabler of a certain kind of storytelling?’. This prevalent idea does a disservice to a rich and varied form which is often much denser and more demanding than a novel. It is a form which demands both concentration and time and, if you think reading a short story requires less concentration than a novel, you’re probably doing it wrong.
That Glimpse of Truth makes a strong case for the short story as both a vibrant and substantial form. It is a confidently bulky book, a presentation which makes its own case for the importance of the short story as ‘our finest form in fiction’ as David Miller puts it in his introduction. This heavy hardback is handsomely designed and clearly intended as a cherished object rather than a convenient read. In his informative and intelligent introduction, Miller writes with palpable enthusiasm about his own encounters with beloved stories and concludes by wishing us a similarly revelatory experience; the anthology is presented as a treasure trove to be ‘endlessly surprised by’.
As Miller says in his introduction, the most obvious and predictable bone of contention for any anthology claiming to collect ‘100 of the finest short stories ever written’ is that almost every reader will complain that some loved writer was omitted – or a hated one included. And this is a difficult book to review because, inevitable quibbles aside, Miller has chosen 100 beautifully crafted short stories; you can open That Glimpse of Truth anywhere and you’ll almost certainly alight on a gem. The content is so consistently good that it is almost beyond criticism.
That Glimpse of Truth takes in a huge chronological sweep of international short fiction, beginning with ‘The Book of Jonah’ and ending with a handful of writers working today. This is a rich premise but its execution is, perhaps inevitably, slightly flawed. After starting very early indeed, centuries are hastily skipped through – we move, for example, from Cervantes to the Brothers Grimm – and there is an un-ignorable skew towards the twentieth century. Even this imbalance, though, almost feels like a strength. The anthology’s lopsided shape seems to stem from Miller’s obvious enthusiasm and expertise in this period and his selections in this portion of the anthology are far more assured and engaging than, for example, the nineteenth century which (by comparison) plods through a pretty predictable and dog-eared reading list.
In patches, this volume feels edited for an uninitiated reader and duplicates many frequently anthologised stories – ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, ‘The Signal-man’, ‘A Simple Heart’ and ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’ spring to mind. Toward the end of his introduction, Miller tells the story of a friend who envied him never having read The Good Soldier because it meant he had that pleasure to come; he is glad to return the favour with this anthology about which said friend knew ‘bluntly, zilch’. It feels like that friend – an intelligent and wide reader with relatively little knowledge of short fiction – might be the ideal audience for this anthology. While not quite the revelation Miller promises, it is a solid introduction which covers all the most unavoidable landmarks and makes some forays into less charted territories.
That there are not many surprises might even be a good thing, in a small way at least; it allows the book to read like a reference work which plots in the classics but encourages wider reading. Familiar modern names like Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, John Cheever, Penelope Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor and Stefan Zweig, rub shoulders with Cervantes and the anonymous author of ‘The Book of Jonah’ as well as more recent authors currently out of print. Single stories taken from these massive and diverse oeuvres are never going to feel like more than a taster. That Glimpse of Truth doesn’t pretend to be an end in itself. It can, then, be used as an index of sorts, providing a key to much larger bodies of work.
It ends with a playful touch that seems to sum up its whole approach. ‘The Index’ by J.G. Ballard is tucked between the copyright information and the index like an unexpected one-page Easter egg. This vibrant anthology celebrates the variety of the short story and makes a compelling case that it is a rich and substantial form, worth time and attention.
Any Cop?: This is a handsome book, edited with intelligence and verve, and – as the publishers obviously hope – it would make a beautiful Christmas gift.