My introduction to the short story as a literary form came by way of the great Best American Short Stories year-end collections, specifically the ones in the mid- to late-80s edited by Chapel Hillian and Algonquin publisher Shannon Ravenel. At the end of the 80s, and I believe the end of her term as editor of the series, Ravenel and Houghton Mifflin put out a decade's best of the best which included works by Carver, Barthelme, Charles Johnson, and, of course, Updike and Oates. In her introduction to the retrospective, Ravenel republished some select quotes from the decade's guest editors as a way to define the form, or at least how these editors viewed the short story and what they were looking for as editors of the series:
In contemplating their expectations of the short story's form, one guest editor approached it metaphorically, another more practically:
It's the chamber music of literature and has the same kind of devotee.
I want stories to startle and engage me within the first few sentences, and in their middle to widen or deepen or sharpen my knowledge of human activity, and to end by giving me a sensation of completed statement.
When it came to style, two guest editors were quite direct about what they wanted:
The most appealing short-story writer is the one who's a wastrel. He neither hoards his best ideas for something more "important" (a novel) nor skimps on his materieals because this is "only" a short story...A spendthrift story has a strange way of seeming bigger than the sum of its parts; it is stuffed full; it gives a sense of possessing further information that could be divulged if called for. Even the sparsest in style implies a torrent of additional details barely suppressed, bursting through the seams.
Abjure carelessness in writing, just as you would in life.
Nobody wanted to be specific about plot or subject matter or theme, but belief in the depth of the story's responsibility was clear and of great interest:
A good writer addresses questions over which no human authority can ever hold sway.
One of the conclusions I have reached is that people want order, but some part of them craves anarchy, and writers are seen to embody both elements: in a sane, reasonable way, writers will present a situation, but the components of that situation, and the implications, can be dynamite.
All I want from a good story is what children want...They are longing to hear a story, but only if you are longing to tell one.
Short stories should tell us what everybody knows but what nobody is talking about. At least not publicly. Except for the short story writers.
I want stories in which the author shows frank concerns, not self-protective, "sensible" detachment.
The more you respect and focus on the singular and the strange, the more you become aware of the universal and the infinite.
And when two of the editors discussed characterization, they plainly emphasized personal involvement:
Is it not astounding that one can love so deeply characters who are composites, portraits, or born of the thin air, especially when one has never seen or touched them, and they exist only in an imprint of curiously bent lines?
What is learned then is sadness. (We're talking literature, not life. We're talking Kenny Rogers's chipped and country voice, not music.) This, it seems to me, is the absolute, ideal humor for respectable men. Sadness mind you, not grief.