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The year's best short stories

The Best American Short Stories: 1984, edited by John Updike with Shannon Ravenel. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 295 pp. $8.95 (paperback).

In its heyday as a popular art form - roughly, after World War I and before television captured the nation's imagination - the short story was bread and butter for many American writers. While he labored at his very unpopular novels, Faulkner supported his family and a host of other dependents by publishing stories in Scribner's Magazine, The American Mercury, and the old Saturday Evening Post. It was Cheever's short stories that paid the rent, and Fitzgerald's that kept him and Zelda so effervescently, if ephemerally, afloat.

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Today's young writer, on the other hand, would be hard put to support even the most meager, solitary existence by selling short stories. The big-budget slicks that sustained his predecessors are defunct, no longer publishing fiction , or (with the exception of The New Yorker and, occasionally, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, and Playboy) publishing only formulaic fiction and romances. The periodicals that do publish serious short fiction - the quarterlies, journals, reviews, and little magazines - have small circulations and can pay contributors almost nothing.

Yet the state of the art is not at all impoverished: quite the contrary. It will be readily apparent to readers of the 1984 edition of ''The Best American Short Stories'' that, although living in virtual obscurity, the short story in America is very much alive and well - better than ever, in fact.

The content of every anthology is ultimately a matter of personal taste, and when one purports to collect the best of a genre, the selection process is of more than usual interest. The taste reflected in this present volume is that of Shannon Ravenel, the series' annual editor since 1977, who sifted from 1,428 eligible stories (those published in the United States and Canada in 1983) the 120 best; and John Updike, this year's guest editor, who selected from that 120 (after disqualifying stories by him and his mother, Linda Grace Hoyer) the 20 ''best.''

Ms. Ravenel's criterion, stated in an interview earlier this year, is simple: ''If I have any feeling of 'so what?' when I finish a story, then I know I probably don't like it.'' Updike's, expressed more fully in his introduction, is similar: ''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.''

These standards explain, in part, the conspicuous lack of stories by Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Frederick Barthelmeck last name against copy, and Donald Barthelme, whose characters Updike sees as ''glancing away from television at the events of their own lives with the same barely amused, channel-changing diffidence.'' But their elimination may also have been due to Updike's stated determination to hold to five, or one-quarter of the total, the number of stories chosen from The New Yorker (previous guest editors have chosen nearly half of their stories from that magazine) and to bring to the fore some of the equally talented but less fortunate writers who have been waiting in the wings.

While the absence of those big names in contemporary fiction and of their dominant voice (in Updike's words, ''as tight-lipped as cardplayers on a losing streak'') may be regrettable, the 20 stories selected by Updike do represent a wide variety of prose styles and an extraordinary range of narrative voices. If they have anything in common, it is characters who are capable of action in response to a threatening world.

In Cynthia Ozick's ''Rosa,'' a woman destroys her own secondhand store because she hated ''who came there.'' In Madison Smart Bell's ''The Naked Lady, '' a pair of young transplanted Southern blacks combat the rat problem in their Northern apartment by bringing in a good-size snake, because ''at least it was only one of the snake.'' In Wright Morris's ''Glimpse into Another Country,'' an inspired elderly man flings to a gang of menacing youths a string of priceless pearls, instead of the $100 he carries in his pocket for muggers.

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The world reflected in these stories is not an entirely harsh one. There may be ''less air.'' It may be that ''no one is married to the right person anymore.'' But people are evidently still accepting the risks that love entails: a father for his daughter in Andre Dubus's ''A Father's Story,'' a son for his father in Lee K. Abbott's ''The Final Proof of Fate and Circumstance,'' three daughters for their mother in Mary Ward Brown's ''The Cure.'' The young lab technician in Lowry Pei's ''The Cold Room'' discovers about the urgency of loving ''there might be only a moment to make the choice, and never a second chance.''

But there similarities end. ''The Best American Short Stories'' is still very much the work of a pluralistic people explaining themselves. We learn what it is like to be a dentist, an au pair girl, and a technician in a dissecting lab; to be a wealthy American in Sri Lanka, a penniless Jewish refugee in Miami, and a committed Roman Catholic in 1983.

But it is no longer enough for a short story to provide ''a glimpse into another country'' and to avoid being seriously flawed. As Ms. Ravenel said in her interview, the short story ''is like the four-minute mile. Everyone can run the four-minute mile now.'' And if the high level of technical proficiency of these ''Best'' stories is any indication, contemporary writers are not only getting faster and faster, they are taking the short story further and further.

Jane Ann Mullen is a short-story writer living in Mississippi.

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