LISTENING TO OURSELVES: Stories From The Sound of Writing edited by Alan Cheuse and Caroline Marshall (Anchor Books: $12; 296 pp.) Short story anthologies like car dashboards are not always built with the user in mind. On the surface, putting together a selection of pieces read on the popular NPR show, “The Sound of Writing,” is a great idea, and the resulting anthology, “Listening To Ourselves,” does in many respects work well.
Nearly every piece is by an established author and care is taken to properly represent a variety of ethnic groups. In addition, at least a third of these stories are quite wonderful. Writers such as Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff, Rick Bass, Mona Simpson, and Jayne Anne Phillips seldom let you down, and their offerings here are no exception.
However, “Listening To Ourselves,” has problems many people reading it cover to cover may experience. Since these stories were originally selected to conform to a prearranged time slot, every one of them is almost exactly the same length--about seven pages. Rhythms become predictable, and the stories themselves blend together as if you were looking through pictures in a stranger’s yearbook. This is exacerbated by the actual content. With the exception of John Edgar Wideman’s brilliant, impressionistic “Newborn Thrown In Trash And Dies,” all the stories seem vaguely alike. Literary yet safe. Clean. Unambiguous. The best way to read this anthology is little by little, perhaps in conjunction with other books. Expect a trip, but not a journey.