National Short Story Day - Recommended Reads, part 1
Winter solstice - 21 Dec - is traditionally national short story day, so to get you in the mood, we're sharing some recommendations of great modern and classic short stories, from a galaxy of authors, readers and literature lovers - in many cases with links to free reads and audiobooks.
CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE, author, This Thing Around Your Neck, recommends...
Classic: ‘The Garden Party’ by Katherine Mansfield (from The Garden Party and Other Stories, Penguin)
Because it is delicate and lovely but still engages with the realities of class in a very powerful way.
Contemporary: ‘How to Be an Other Woman’ by Lorrie Moore (from Self Help, Faber 1985)
Because it's funny and wry, written in a staccato style that is self-conscious and ironic, but it also manages to be full of emotion and truth.
NAOMI ALDERMAN, author, The Lessons, recommends...
Classic: ‘The Unrest Cure’ by Saki (from The Collected Short Stories of Saki)
I love this story for its naughtiness. The hero, Clovis, decides to play a trick on a prematurely elderly vicar and his sister, pretending that the Bishop has sent him to arrange a massacre of the local Jews. It's been a bit out-of-favour with some suggestion that it's anti-semitic – or that it means Saki was anti-semitic – but I don't see that in it at all. All the Jewish characters in the story are quite sensible, normal people. It's the Christians who behave in this extraordinary way – in fact, it's a satire on anti-semitism and using humour like this seems quite Jewish to me.
Contemporary: ‘The Horse’ by Rana Dasgupta (from Tokyo Cancelled)
I first heard this story on Radio 4 a few years ago and fell so in love with it that I had to track down the author's other works. It's mysterious, oblique, and food for pondering. What does it *mean*? The first sentence is a great one: "I once heard of a place where all the words necessary for social intercourse were furnished by a cheery wordsmith." How can you not want to read on?
NICOLA BARKER, author/ novelist and short story writer, Burley Cross Postbox Theft, recommends....
Classic: ‘A Hunger Artist’ by Franz Kafka (from The Complete Stories)
It was a toss-up between this and that old crowd pleaser, Metamorphosis. I chose ‘A Hunger Artist’ because it has everything – everything – and all in under ten pages. It's basically the story of a person – a man – who starves himself, professionally. It's totally old-fashioned and yet utterly modern. In fact it was this short story that inspired David Blaine to suspend himself in that perspex box by Tower Bridge a few years back. It's both alienating and heart-wrenching. It's superlative – a jewel; a master-class in the form. I find it hard to believe a better story (of any length) about hunger and obsession has ever – or will ever – be written.
Contemporary: ‘Indignities’ by Ellen Gilchrist (from In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, 1981).
I could've chosen any one of Gilchrist's stories – she's such a deft, uncompromising mistress of the form – but I chose this one because in it she manages to compress everything she needs to say (which is quite a lot) into a brief, blithe four sides of type. And she imbues every sentence with her easy, instinctive sense of wit and drollery. When I first read Gilchrist as a student in the 80s (beautifully published as she was back then by Faber) it made me want to embrace the form myself (reading Angela Carter around the same time gave me the final shove). Gilchrist's female characters are the kinds of women I fear and yet secretly long to be. They are funny, cruel, devastatingly stylish, thoughtful, idiosyncratic, brilliant…And so – I don't for a second doubt – is she.
ELIZABETH BAINES, novelist and short story writer, recommends…
Classic ‘A Conversation with my Father’ by Grace Paley (from Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Virago).
The narrator answers her dying father's request that she write at least one conventional story, and attempts to do so. A kind of meta-story, full of Paley's wry playfulness, a meditation on the comforts yet potential tyranny and inadequacy of conventional narrative. In the process two truly moving stories - that of a neighbour drug addict and that of the narrator's poignant relationship with her father - emerge and indeed merge.
Contemporary: ‘The Universal Story’ by Ali Smith (from The Whole Story and Other Stories, Penguin)
Smith plays similar games with narrative, and once again there's nothing empty or trivial about the way she does it. This story centres around the fading copy of a book in a second-hand bookshop, and touches on the stories of all who have come in contact with it - even the fly who settle on it! - while the narrator tries to make up her mind as to which is the real story. The effect is to show us the contingency of any one story, but also the importance and poignancy of the totality of our stories.
BIDISHA, writer, critic and presenter, recommends...
Classic: ‘Twenty Years’ by Doris Lessing (from To Room Nineteen).
Deceptively simple – two ex-lovers bump into each other at a party, 20 years after seeing each other last. Lessing’s genius is to show, painfully clearly, that really nothing has changed, it's all still there, they're still in love with each other, despite them both having families. It's a gut-wrenching demonstration of the idea that time doesn't really heal – and there is such as thing as the real deal.
Contemporary: ‘A Grand Day’ by Helen Dunmore (from Love of Fat Men).
A local girl plays an innocent prank on a village priest, pretending to be in love with him, and he jokingly goes along with it. But when she's gone, all his loneliness wells up as he realises that no woman has ever looked at him with sincere love and desire – and that his faith doesn't make up for it. It's a deep and tragic shot of an ordinary, unremembered, mistaken life – and of the terrible pain that can lie underneath a person's joviality.
JOANNA BRISCOE, author, You 2011, recommends...
Classic: ‘Mrs. Packletide's Tiger’ by Saki (from The Collected Short Stories of Saki)
I'm a great admirer of Saki, and this story is a favourite. It's so concise, so silly, and so thoroughly enjoyable. From the wonderful first sentence: ‘It was Mrs. Packletide's pleasure and intention that she should shoot a tiger,’ the mockery is sustained with such discipline and lightness of touch. I also thrill to the viciousness that runs beneath the surface of Saki's stories.
Contemporary: ‘Lentils and Lilies’ by Helen Simpson (from Hey Yeah Right Get a Life, 2000)
For me, Helen Simpson is the finest living short story writer we have. ‘Lentils and Lillies’ perfectly sums up what it is to be a teenage girl: the glorious superiority, scorn, delusions, and glittering hope as we watch Jade ‘moving like a panther into the long, jeweled narrative which was her future.’
JO BRANDON, General Editor, www.thecadavarine.com, recommends...
Classic: ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (from The Great Fairy Tale Tradition, ed Jack Snipes, 2001, Norton).
Setting aside the differences between fairytales and short stories, the reason I have selected this as my favourite classic short story is because for me it embodies a lot of the fundamental elements I enjoy in a good short story. The narrative is compelling and vivid. It dives straight into dark, grisly subject matter but offers a positive resolution (at least for the Bride escapee.) Although the moral of this tale is questionable, what has always gripped my attention is the way this tale probes the things we are most afraid of. I also really admire a lot of literature inspired by this story – and by versions of ‘Bluebeard’ which shares similar themes – such as Margaret Atwood's novel The Robber Bride and short story collection Bluebeard's Egg, and Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. For me this demonstrates the power of the short story to really penetrate a collective imagination and manifest itself in many different ways and forms.
Contemporary: ‘Rape Fantasies’ by Margaret Atwood (from Dancing Girls).
I think this story is a must-read because although the title sets it up to be provocative, Atwood handles the subject matter in a really quirky and unusual way. The narrator chats directly to the reader and the story as a whole undermines our culture's reflex to sexualise the things we're intimidated by. It's a story that is dark around the edges, witty and unexpectedly funny. It has been omitted from some editions of Dancing Girls so you will need to check that the edition you borrow/buy includes it.
TRACY CHEVALIER, author, Remarkable Creatures, recommends...
Classic: ‘The Necklace’ by Guy De Maupassant (from The Best Short Stories).
This story – about a woman who loses a diamond necklace she's borrowed from a friend, thus ruining her life – has a classic twist in the tail that knocks readers sideways. When I read it as a teenager I decided all stories should be set up like this one.
Contemporary: ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’ by Lorrie Moore (from Self Help, Faber 1985)
Moore is so funny and heart-breaking at the same time. She's pitch-perfect in this story of the end of a relationship.
AMANDA CRAIG, author, Hearts and Minds, recommends...
Classic: ‘The Fly’ by Katharine Mansfield (from Selected Stories)
This is the shortest short story I know, but one of the most powerful. It's about a man's inability to grieve for his son, killed in the First World War. He is reminded of his son by an employee, and when he finds a trapped fly in his inkwell repeatedly drops ink on it until it dies. The story reminds me of Lear's speech about how "as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods," and makes you feel both the random cruelty of war and the brutality of taking any life. It's a masterpiece of concision, ambiguity, rage and control.
Contemporary: ‘Indefinite Nights’ by Patricia Ferguson (from Indefinite Nights)
Indefinite Nights is a collection of stories which follow the professional life of a young nurse on a journey through the theory and practice of nursing itself. General wards, psychiatric wards, geriatric wards, surgical wards, and maternity wards – with their patients, nurses and doctors – are examined by Ferguson's acute yet humane eye. The title story is about a nurse caring for a young celebrity who may or may not be terminally ill.Their intimate relationship is compellingly-written, bleakly funny, yet full of human warmth; it could only be written by someone who knows nursing intimately. One of many prize-winning authors who vanished from mainstream publishing with the demise of Andre Deutsch, Ferguson is an outstanding novelist and short-story writer who deserves a much wider readership.
ANNIE CLARKSON, short story writer and poet, recommends…
Classic: ‘Little Birds’ by Anais Nin (from Little Birds, Penguin Classics)
I chose this story for its exploration of taboo. Manuel rents rooms next to a school, and fills his terrace with birds to attract small girls to his flat. It a shocking story, beautifully written. Anais Nin wrote erotic stories because she badly needed money. She wrote that 'to bring them into the light was at first difficult', perhaps because they are so exposing and controversial in their subject matter, but also because women writers at this time didn't write about such matters.
Contemporary: ‘What is Seized’ by Lorrie Moore (from Self Help, Faber)
I have only read this story once, but it has stayed with me for perhaps ten years and I still remember the way I felt when I first read it. We are intimately drawn into the life of a girl as she grows up witnessing and caught up in her mother's gradual and devastating mental breakdown. It captures the emotion with such insight and depth, it left me aching with sadness.
AILSA COX, sacademic and short story expert, recommends…
Classic: ‘The Cat Jumps’ by Elizabeth Bowen (from Collected Stories, Vintage)
This is both the funniest and the most frightening story I know. A pair of smug, left wing intellectuals have bought themselves a weekend cottage at a wonderfully knock down price - all because of that gruesome murder in the bathroom. Which doesn’t bother people like us, does it darling? Of course not!
Contemporary: ‘Dimensions’ by Alice Munro (from Too Much Happiness, Vintage)
Another murder. As Munro reaches extreme old age, her stories are sharper-edged, more brutal and dangerous. In this one she imagines what it would feel like to survive the slaughter of your children.
CLAIRE DEAN, short story writer, recommends…
Classic: ‘Automata’ by E T A Hoffmann (from The Best Tales of Hoffman, Dover)
Nobody does automata like Hoffman. His more well-known tale ‘The Sandman’ helped Freud towards his definition of the uncanny and this earlier story also explores the unsettling effect of mechanical figures, alongside a chilling ghost story. 'Automata' is also about storytelling and I love the way one character, when challenged for breaking off his puzzling tale abruptly, rails against fiction in which the stage is swept clean and the reader left sated. Like him, I enjoy being left to wonder and worry at the mystery of a story long after I’ve read it.
Contemporary: ‘Egnaro’ by M John Harrison (from Things That Never Happen, Gollancz)
I love this story. Again and again in his fiction, Harrison captures the extraordinary in the everyday, and the way we crash through each other’s lives, with almost unbearable precision. In ‘Egnaro’, a Manchester bookseller confesses his obsession with a secret country to his accountant. Like the mysterious country described, the story embeds itself in your imagination and can’t be escaped.
STELLA DUFFY, novelist and playwright, recommends…
Classic: ‘Miss Brill’ by Katherine Mansfield (from Selected Stories, OUP)
There are so many Mansfield stories that fit my ‘favourite ever’ title, but Miss Brill just about edges out the others with its astonishing economy, elegance of characterisation, and the heart-cracking final line. Anyone wishing to see how varied and inventive the short story can be would be well advised to read Mansfield’s collected works.
Contemporary: ‘Girl Meets Boy’ by Ali Smith (from The Myth of Iphis, Canongate Myths)
This is either a very long short story or a novella, either way it’s brilliant. Smith is one of the few writers in Britain today truly playing with the form, truly taking chances with her work, and in Girl Meets Boy every risk, every chance, pays off perfectly. I still remember where I was when I read this, it’s stayed with me so very clearly, even four years later. It’s great.
AMINATTA FORNA, author, The Memory of Love, recommends...
Classic: ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe
My first encounter with the short story form. A teacher read it out to the class. It was a warm summer's day in Surrey and we were shivering with terror. One boy had to leave the classroom. That's the power of words.
Contemporary: ‘Door In Your Eye’ by Wells Tower (from Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, 2010)
Americans embrace the short story with so much more enthusiasm than we do in the UK. This is the first collection from Wells Tower. His stories often feature sour, sad or sarcastic men. The lightness of touch comes from the humour and his ability to create compelling voices for his characters. ‘Door in Your Eye’ is about an elderly man who goes to stay with his overbearing daughter and notices strange goings on in the house opposite.
VANESSA GEBBIE, author, recommends…
Classic: 'The Ledge' by Lawrence Sargent Hall (from The Best American Short Stories of the Century, Houghton Mifflin)
My classic short story choice is very easy - and it's 'The Ledge', by Lawrence Sargent Hall. It is the story of a fisherman taking his son and his nephew out on a promised Christmas Day hunting trip to the eponymous ledge, accessible only by boat, and only uncovered at low tide. 'The Ledge' won the O'Henry award in 1960 - much anthologised, it was also selected by John Updike when he edited Best American Short Stories of the Century. I am sure there is no such thing as perfection, but The Ledge comes darned close. The story is simple; but even after countless readings, it still provokes a physical reaction in me as a reader. If I consciously remain a writer as I read, this story is the best teacher on the planet.
Contemporary: ‘Robot Wasps’ by Adam Marek (from Instruction Manual for Swallowing, Comma)
My contemporary short story choice is very difficult - there are so many wonderful writers about. But I'd plump for a story that always makes me think, and laugh and shake my head in both joy and terror as it seems to have an element of prescience about it - Robot Wasps, by Adam Marek, in Instruction Manual for Swallowing. I read a lot of stories - and like my classic choice, this one always provokes a real reaction as I read. You could talk about it for weeks and never get to the bottom of it. That's also a nod to the fantastic work Comma does (and I don't have to say that, it’s not my publisher.)
MAGGIE GEE, novelist and short story writer, recommends…
Classic: Lady into Fox by David Garnett (from Lady into Fox, Hesperus Press)
My favourite story of all time is Hans Andersen's 'The Snow Queen', but I am also passionate about David Garnett's 1922 long story or very short novel Lady into Fox, an astonishing, moving story of how a newly married woman slowly but inevitably turns into a vixen, and how her husband grieves, and copes, and does not cope: a parable about freedom, and love of difference, and our repressed animal selves. I love this story so much I once wrote an alternative ending for it - because I accept, but cannot bear, the coda, which may be truthful, sustains more than one interpretation, but still feels like a return to patriarchy. A gripping, savage, tender story about the power of women and the power of the wild.
Contemporary: The Necessary Strength by David Constantine (from Under the Dam, Comma Press)
That great theme of the life of modern humans, how we relate to non-human animals, is also at the heart of my modern short story choice, David Constantine's 'The Necessary Strength', from Under the Dam. In all his work Constantine makes us feel the smallness of his human characters, struggling or dancing across enormous spaces, falling through layers of time, earth-bound ants illuminated by brilliant sunsets or icy stars, always about to fall off the edge. Yet he is also writing about the tender minutiae of marriage, fear and illness: about aging, and being trapped, and the glorious animal energy of seals and horses; and in this particular story, compassion, complete and unjudgemental, from an unexpected quarter tilts a tragedy into something that lifts the heart and steels our courage. Trying to choose my favourite modern story, I was actually torn between recent tales I have greatly admired by two brilliant writers, Vanessa Gebbie and A J Ashworth, but at the last moment David Constantine's white horse swept in and carried me away.
RODGE GLASS, author, Lecturer at Strathclyde University, recommends...
Classic: ‘A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life’ by David Foster Wallace (from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men)
My favourite short story writer has to be David Foster Wallace, and though it hasn't been too long since it was published, I've heard the word 'classic' attached to his work for several years now, particularly in relation to his book Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. I find it really hard to choose between these stories – some are spoofs of academic writing where the footnotes take over the narrative entirely; some are one-sided interviews where the questioner is silent and you have to work out what the question is from the way the hideous men in the title respond; and some of the stories are brutal little flash fictions. My favourite of these is a seven-line story that opens the book and gives a flavour of the kind of thing to expect from what follows. It's called ‘A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life.’ But instead of making any effort to give an actual history, Foster Wallace simply describes, in deliberately over-formal way, two people being introduced to each other. Neither person likes the other, but pretends to. The person who introduces them likes neither of them, but pretends to. They all go home. The End. One of my favourite stories of all time.
Contemporary: 'Five Letters from an Eastern Empire' by Alasdair Gray (from Unlikely Stories, Mostly, 1983)
I've chosen this because it was the first story of his that really made me want to write about him, eventually leading me to write a biography about Gray and his work. The story is about two poets, Bohu and Tohu, who live in an unnamed palace in an unnamed Empire. They are taken from their families at an early age and raised in isolation for a single purpose: to one day write a poem to glory the Emperor, a dictator who has destroyed the country outside his palace walls. Tohu is a comic poet who does exactly as he's told. Bohu chooses to write a poem condemning the Emperor instead. But when he delivers it, his overlords are delighted. All they need to do to turn it into a poem of praise instead of criticism is to remove one syllable from the title. All at once the story is playful and deadly serious, and even now I'm still not sure what it's all supposed to mean. But maybe that's why it's stayed with me.
SANNEKE VAN HASSEL, Dutch author and short story campaigner, recommends…
Classic: Two Old People by Silvio d'Arzo (from The Editors, ed. By Saul Bellow & Keith Botsford, Hushion House)
Silvio d'Arzo was the penname of Ezio Comparoni, a writer who during his short life (1920-52) rarely left the town in Northern Italy where he lived. His short stories - often no longer than a couple of pages - reflect small town Italian life, and yet have a lot to tell us. One of my favourites is ‘Due Vecchie’ (‘Two Old People’). A man and a woman have lost their son and the great mansion they used to inhabit. They are without illusions, waiting for the end, but they have their shared experiences. Then a stranger comes in. He wants to talk to the old woman. The story ends with a beautiful letter from the wife to her husband. Two people will always hold secrets for one another. The power of these stories lies in the very subtle and casual way in which they’re told. Big themes are hidden like treasures.
Contemporary: Misha by Judith Hermann (from Alice, translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo, Clerkenwell Press)
The collection Alice by German writer Judith Hermann consists of five long stories. In each, the main character Alice loses or has lost a man she cares for. The actions, observations, thoughts and memories of Alice are written down precisely. Her detached way of looking has a very poetic effect. The collection raises questions about the meaning of our relationships, about remembering, and about writing as a way of remembering. The first story ‘Misha’ struck me most. It’s about an ex boyfriend who is dying in a far away hospital. Alice is asked to come and help his new girlfriend take care of their young child. Mourning in literature is often rough and painful to read. 'Misha' is about more hidden emotions and sensitivities. The first lines are unforgettable, note the rhythm which is important in Hermann's work: But Misha didn’t die. Not during the night from Monday to Tuesday, nor the night from Tuesday to Wednesday; perhaps he would die Wednesday evening or later that night. Alice thought she had heard it said that most people die at night. The doctors weren’t saying anything anymore; they shrugged their shoulders and held out their empty, disinfected hands. There’s nothing more we can do. Sorry.
TANIA HERSHMAN, author, science writer and editor of The Short Review, recommends…
Classic: ‘The Leaf-Sweeper’ by Muriel Spark (from The Complete Short Stories, Penguin)
This is a ghost story but it is so much more than that. Spark tempts you in with humour but then slams you with a tale that manages to incorporate mental illness, family, the state of society as a whole, the evils of capitalism. A masterpiece.
Contemporary: ‘God's Gift’ by Ali Smith (from Other Stories and Other Stories, Penguin)
This is a short story which opened my eyes to all the short story could be. It also - as with Muriel Spark and as a great short story should do - packs so much into its few short pages, about love, sex, death. The way it is "I" telling the story to "you" makes it feel incredibly intimate. It has a quiet power. I have never forgotten it.
BEDA HIGGINS, writer and nurse practitioner, recommends...
Classic: ‘The Snow Queen’ by Hans Christian Anderson
I choose ‘The Snow Queen’ because it is such a vivid story. The narration flits with energy, like swirling snow. I can feel the cold, the sharp icicles, the freezing over of Kay's heart. There's a strong play of good and evil throughout; the wicked demon and his shattered mirror showering the earth, the seeking of the word 'eternity,' the persistence of Gerda in trying to find Kay, and the kindness and cruelty she meets on her journey is all jumbled and yet falls together with a thread of magic. It is a moral tale in which nature is given a voice: rivers, birds, trees, animals all speak and are respected. ‘The Snow Queen’ reigns supreme throughout over the tale, beautiful and strange, unpredictable and powerful. It is wickedly good.
Contemporary: 'A Perfect Day for Bananafish' by JD Salinger (from For Esme with Love and Squalor).
I can't think of a better example of writing that so economically ‘shows rather than tells.’ It's densely packed with emotion using dialogue and vivid characterisation. The reader learns the protagonist is 'damaged goods' and cares for him; the tension is hitched up right until the shocking end. Great stuff!
KATHRYN KUITENBROUWER, novelist and short story writer, recommends…
Classic: ‘The Adventure of a Soldier’ by Italo Calvino (from Difficult Loves, Picador)
“The Adventure of a Soldier” focuses on the seduction of a widow by Private Tomagra, a young soldier taking the train home for an Easter leave. What’s always impressed me about this story is the erotic frisson of Tomagra’s fumbling seduction against the widow’s silent implacability. His sexual advances are so plaintive and so hopeless, and when the seduction finally succeeds we come to know who really has conquered whom. In this regard, it is also a narrative feat, and heartrending for its twist. (“Then he reattached the little finger to the rest of the hand, not withdrawing it, but adding to it the ring-finger, the middle-finger, the fore-finger: now his whole hand rested, inert, on that female knee, and the train cradled it in a rocking caress.” – The Adventure of a Soldier, by Italo Calvino)
Contemporary: “Dormitory” by Yoko Ogawa (from The Diving Pool, Picador Paperback Originals)
“Dormitory” tells the story of a Japanese wife waiting for her husband to summon her to her new home in Sweden, meanwhile she is helping her young cousin move into the college dormitory she lived in when she herself was a student. It would be a soft idyll if it weren’t for the landlord’s severe and disturbing handicap, the persistent bees, the vanished tenant, and the fact that when she visits, her cousin never seems home. I love this story’s strangeness, its persistence with that strangeness, and the resonant ‘sound’ the odd images make as each one presses up to the another. (“But the X-ray showed that my ribs are bent out of shape, like tree branches that have been hit by lightning.” –Dormitory, by Yoko Ogawa)
ZOE LAMBERT, short story writer, The War Tour, recommends...
Classic: 'Prelude' by Katherine Mansfield.
It works against your expectations of the short story form – it appears not to have the conciseness and unity that Poe might advocate. Its shape seems to ripples as the story moves effortlessly between the various viewpoints in a family moving to the countryside. Its sequel, 'By The Bay,' is beautiful too.
Contemporary: 'The Ant of the Self' by ZZ Packer (from Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Canongate, 2004)
A teenage boy pays his father's bail and is forced to drive his father to Washington DC to sell birds at a march. It's about the frustrations and misunderstandings in family relationships and shows how despair is never far from joy.
TOBY LITT, novelist and short story writer, recommends...
Classic: ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ by Henry James (from The Better Sort, Bibliobazaar)
There is something infinite about this story – every time I read it, I get lost in an emotional hall of mirrors. What is a couple? What is fulfillment? What is perversity? What counts as an event? Can a great love be a love that never happened? Isn’t great remorse a perverse fulfillment?
Contemporary: ‘The Stylist’ by Jennifer Egan (from Emerald City and Other Stories, Corsair)
This is my favourite recent story – first published in the New Yorker in 1989, and then appearing in Jennifer Egan’s first book, Emerald City and Other Stories. It’s a very simple, melancholy account of a fashion shoot in Africa, involving the stylist, the model and the photographer. It’s about beauty, and is extremely beautiful.
WILL MACKIE, Former Editor of Flambard Press, recommends...
Classic: ‘The Garden Party’ by Katherine Mansfield (from The Garden Party and Other Stories).
This is a vivid and beautifully crafted story about a girl’s natural inclination to cancel a party after a local man is killed and her family’s, particularly her mother’s, determination to continue with it. Mansfield takes the quite simple setting of a garden party to weave together a richly imagined tale of adolescence, family friction and class conflict in New Zealand. Laura’s personal journey remains with you long after finishing the story. The ending raises questions but this is an almost perfect short story.
Contemporary: ‘Mauricio “the Eye” Silva’ by Roberto Bolaño (from Last Evenings on Earth).
With typical urgency and giving the sense he’s drawing on personal experience, Bolaño tells the story of a Chilean photographer living in exile in Argentina and then Mexico. The key development in the story comes when the Eye, a man who tries to keep himself out of trouble, finds himself on assignment in India and becomes caught up in a grotesque prostitution lair. The impossibility of avoiding violence and exploitation for South Americans of Bolaño’s generation is a central theme of his work and this is a dark and haunting story that is unlike anything else you're likely to read.
ALISON MACLEOD, novelist, short story writer and lecturer, recommends…
Classic: ‘Revelation’ by Flannery O’Connor (from Everything that Rises Must Converge)
Flannery O’Connor’s stories are kinetic things. They move with a life-force of their own, and their endings are as surprising, as shocking, as they are inevitable. I love, above all, her daring and her absolute courage on the page. O’Connor gives a story the freedom to be itself, in all its peculiarity. In doing so, it becomes absolutely itself, absolutely human. ‘Revelation’ is the story of Mrs. Ruby Turpin, a well fed, middle-aged smallholder who’s comfortable in her belief that she’s done right all her life by her husband, her farm, and her God. She routinely measures her worth by what she is not. All along the way, through many a thing that seemingly shouldn’t be said, let alone committed to paper, I feel myself willing O’Connor on. Hold your nerve, Flannery. Don’t play it safe. And she doesn’t. Her prose doesn’t flinch. In the story’s pivotal moment, an insult from a ‘lunatic’ girl in a doctor’s waiting room lays Mrs. Turpin low. She can’t fathom how she could be the target for such an injury; how she could be likened by a complete stranger to ‘a wart hog from Hell’. She can’t believe Jesus would allow her to stand so misjudged. For Mrs. Turpin, the world is suddenly random, a brute place, and back at home, as she glimpses her husband’s truck approaching from the highway, she thinks, ‘At any moment a bigger truck might smash into it…’ It’s a quick line, a rogue thought that O’Connor delivers with a devastating casualness. And yet, still, even with so deeply flawed a character, even with a character who cannot escape O’Connor’s eye for the grotesque, the story – common Mrs. Turpin’s common story – transcends the narrow, brutish everyday and opens outward to the visionary as, on the final page, Mrs Turpin looks out ’through the very heart of mystery’ and sees ‘a field of living fire’. The leap of storytelling is, for me, as credible as it is astonishing.
Contemporary: ‘Days Necrotic’ by Krishan Coupland (from Collection Title, Publisher)
‘Days Necrotic’, winner of this year’s Manchester Fiction Prize, has to be my favourite story of 2011. It begins so strangely and yet so simply and it unfolds with the inescapable logic of a dream but is made vividly true-to-life by Coupland’s attention to (and love for) the mundane. The story is as elegant and as it is everyday; as dark as it is tender. A love story, it is beautifully restrained in its telling; it is also charged with the intensity and yearning, as Patrick says, of the ‘straining heart.’
JON MCGREGOR, award-winning novelist and short story writer, recommends…
Classic: ‘The Odour of Chrysanthemums’ by DH Lawrence (from Selected Stories, Heinemann).
I read this a year or so ago - you have to read Lawrence if you live in Nottingham, it's a local by-law - and realised that I'd read it as a teenager in Norfolk. The sense of place and time and mood came flooding back in an instant. This is everything his novels aren't: economical, focused, compassionate. He should have stuck to short stories.
Contemporary: ‘Tenth of December’ by George Saunders (from The New Yorker)
This may seem an undeveloped thought, as it was only published in the New Yorker a month or so ago; but it's such a powerfully developed example of where Saunders' writing has been leading lately that I'm sticking with it. Humane, funny, fully-inhabited, tremendously moving. Read it, and the run of New Yorker stories he's had lately, and swoon.
MARIANNE MITCHELSON, Literature Promoter and Educator, recommends...
Classic: ‘The Bottle Imp’ by Robert Louis Stevenson (from Complete Stories).
My all-time favourite classic short story is ‘The Bottle Imp’ by Robert Louis Stevenson – superb in form and character and wonderfully exciting and somehow new on every reading. ‘The Strange Tale of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde’ comes a close second.
Contemporary: ‘The Snail Watcher’ by Patricia Highsmith (from Eleven)
Anything by Patricia Highsmith in fact, for me one of the best ever short story writers.
ANDY MURRAY, film critic and biographer, recommends…
Classic: ‘You're Too Hip, Baby’ by Terry Southern (from Red Dirt Marijuana, Citadel)
These days Southern is best remembered for his screen-writing endeavours – hardly surprising, given that he had Dr Strangelove and Easy Rider on his CV. But his earlier prose works made him a favourite of the Sixties counter-culture cognoscenti: the Beatles put him in amongst the ersatz crowd on the cover of Sergeant Pepper. This story, from his 1967 collection Red Dirt Marijuana, concerns Murray, a young white American studying at the Sorbonne. He's hopelessly besotted with Paris' none-more-cool jazz scene. But when he's befriended by a young black couple, Murray discovers there are strict limitations to how far his fascination with their lifestyle will go. Languid and funny, it's marvellously evocative of its time and place, with nimbly-sketched characters. Murray's proclivity for cultural tourism is satirised without mercy. Southern's prose – deceptively light, masterfully precise – doesn't take prisoners.
Contemporary: ‘Hob's Hog’ by Alan Moore (from Voice of the Fire, Top Shelf Productions)
Like Southern, Moore's most widely known for writing in another field, namely comics. So far, his only full prose work is the 1996 story collection Voice of the Fire. Typically original and idiosyncratic, it contains interlinked stories from throughout the entire history of Moore's home town of Northampton. This, the collection's opening story, is quite breathtakingly ambitious. The eponymous dim-witted Stone Age man has been abandoned by his tribe after his mother's death - in prehistoric Northampton, obviously. Poor defenceless Hob can't help being taken advantage of by unscrupulous strangers with grisly intentions. It all ends in tears, of course. Most strikingly Moore tells the whole tale from Hob's perspective, in his own words – that is, in an imagined, tiny Stone Age vocabulary that can't differentiate between past or present, dream or reality. In the hands of a lesser writer this would be cringe-worthy show-boating. But Moore simply tells an extraordinary, compelling story in an extraordinary, compelling fashion. It's quite magnificently strange and authentic.
GREGORY NORMINTON, novelist, short story writer and lecturer, recommends…
Classic: First Love by Samuel Beckett (from First Love and Other Novellas, Penguin Modern Classics)
Samuel Beckett’s ‘First Love’ (1945) marks a turning-point in his work: the moment he was able, by writing in French, to shake off the influence of Joyce and create something uniquely Beckettian. (The narrator here only ‘loves’ in order to secure a room in which to do nothing.) Darkly funny, with musical cadences that have been much imitated but never matched, ‘First Love’ is worth reading comparatively, in the French original and in Beckett’s own, English translation. He was a talented author in the first language but a genius in the second.
Contemporary: The Tipping Point by Helen Simpson (from In-Flight Entertainment, Vintage)
Helen Simpson is one of the best living exponents of the short story. Each of her collections is worth owning; but I recommend ‘The Tipping Point’ because, quite simply, it takes the most effective approach I’ve yet encountered in the form to the psychological and moral enormity of climate change. It has pulse, a compelling voice, and its massive scope is bound within an intimate drama.
KJ ORR, acclaimed new short story writer, recommends…
Classic: ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’ by Flannery O’Connor (from Complete Stories, Faber)
There are a number of stories I would count as favourites, and for very different reasons. However, O’Connor’s exuberant and unflinching take on a scenario familiar to most - a family road trip - was one of the first stories to make me fall in love with the short form. I find the boldness of her writing such a pleasure, and this story among her best for the startling way she maps out what is to come even in the opening lines. There is a sense of complicity with the reader, and a streamlined momentum to the whole – a quality of inexorability which I think the short story is particularly good at channeling. The story is a brutal, funny, heartrending shot of perspective on human foibles and frailty, and a meditation on finding grace in the darkest of places.
Contemporary: ‘Leopard’ by Wells Tower (from Everything Ravaged Everything Burned, Granta Books)
Wells Tower’s debut collection is one I read more recently and loved, and ‘Leopard’ one of the stories that stayed with me - relating a few hours in the life of an eleven-year-old boy, who is bunking off school pretending to be sick, with a stepfather he hates, a fungal infection on his upper lip, and a leopard prowling the county. I loved it for the freshness of voice, for the direct address of the second person perspective - which draws the reader into an empathetic allegiance with the boy, despite his flaws - and for the dark, tender humour that infuses each page. Tower’s writing is vivid and convincing, plugging the reader right into this stage of life (– the child aching to be a man -)in a way which seems all the more powerful for being momentary.