Philip Hensher’s magisterial Penguin Book of the British Short Story was published in two handsome volumes in 2015: spread across some 1,500 pages, it featured ninety writers arranged in chronological order, from Daniel Defoe to Zadie Smith. In among the famous names were several bold and unusual choices, including a few fantastically obscure authors (Marjorie Whitaker, anyone? Jack Common?), some of whose stories were among the highlights of the anthology. There were also some pretty striking omissions. These included such distinguished contemporary short-story writers as Helen Simpson, Rose Tremain and A L Kennedy. ‘I was savagely snubbed at parties by several of the refusés,’ Hensher has reported, which may help explain his decision to produce this new volume, focusing on the last twenty-one years, and including stories from all the above-mentioned absentees. But Hensher must be aware that not everyone will be pleased with this or any other selection, and while he may have salved a few tender egos, he’s also let himself in for a fresh round of snubbings: writers who’ve been overlooked for a second time will feel twice as cross with him as they did in 2015.
Those of us without skin in the game have the luxury of a more measured response. What we’re likely to ask of an anthology isn’t that it includes any particular author or piece of work, but that it provides a decent overview of the territory, contains a few