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Mark Helprin's witty, intelligent introduction to this collection of 20 stories ought to be required reading for all readers and writers of American fiction.

Helprin's discursive discussion touches on such related subjects as the unhealthy influence of some university academics on the redefinition of literature; his distaste for "writing schools" and the reasons why; and the "astonishing junk" put out by publishers.As for the stories themselves, Helprin says they were "judged blindly" - the names of the authors were blacked out. After making his selections, Helprin was given the names of the authors, and "I was surprised, delighted, and a little taken aback to discover I had chosen stories by some people whom I do not like personally, by one who wrote one of the stupidest reviews I have ever read (of my first book, no less) and by some whose work I find very hard to bear."

His picks were mostly good ones.

Standouts include Rick Bass' "Cats and Students, Bubbles and Abysses," Richard Bausch's "Police Dreams," Mavis Gallant's "Dede" and Robert Stone's "Helping."

Bass' piece is a rambling, humorous monologue by a junior college literature teacher on his life and loves, his various jobs, his cat, and his efforts to mold a young student into a writer.

In "Dede," Gallant writes about the influence of a bumbling relative on the life of a Parisian family with wit as well as a trace of sadness. "Helping" is a bittersweet story that concerns a counselor of mental patients who, after 15 months on the wagon, takes to drink again after a particularly aggravating counseling session with an obnoxious patient.