I’m not sure what a short story is. I’m not at all sure about the ‘story’ bit. I suppose I’m more sure about the ‘short’ bit, though this can vary: shorter than a ‘novel’, I guess, and shorter than a ’novella’ (and I’m not so sure about these either), sometimes as short as a sentence. I would have liked to have included Gertrude Stein if Identity: a Poem were a short story; I would have liked to have included Anakana Schofield if Martin John were a collection of short stories; I would have liked to have included Anne Boyer if A Handbook of Disappointed Fate were a collection of short stories, but I’ll stick to things that have called themselves short stories, or have been published that way. I’m hesitant to make a list of ‘greats’, there are just stories that have been important to me at one time or another. This list is in no way either a lesson or a warning.
Davis was one of the first writers I read who showed me writing can play with ‘non-literary’ forms and this story takes the form of a sociological report. A reviewer in Paste Magazine wrote: “Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality” details the lives of two healthy, elderly, working-class women (and a shadowy third whose wealth and narcissism negatively affect her health,” which seems to me a slightly odd interpretation, as the two women named in the title successfully inhabit feminised social strictures which mean they are endlessly at the beck and call of others. I read the story at a time in my life where there was a strong possibility that if I continued as I had been, I might end up like Helen or Vi. Instead I decided I would rather be like the third woman, who is called “Hope”. Helen and Vi is unusually long for a Davis story. In an interview with the LARB she wrote: “Usually I don’t put a story in a collection if I think it’s not quite finished or if it didn’t quite work but I was very fond of this story. I decided to put it in anyway; I thought, ‘This one will be for me, even if other people don’t like it or are puzzled by it.’”
From Varieties of Disturbance, FSG, 2007. Also in the Collected Stories, FSG/Penguin
A man I met in a bar, who was in fact a novelist, asked me if I liked Lydia Davis’s stories. I said yes. This was not enough: he asked me if I preferred her early or her later collections. I said ‘early’. He made it clear that this was the correct answer. And so he was able to continue his conversation with me. I have more usually gone for ‘poets’: they are worse.
From The Middle Stories, McSweeney’s, 2012. Available to read online here
It’s difficult to choose only one piece from this book, which was published as a collection of short stories, so I’ll pick this section I published at 3:AM around the time of the book’s initial publication in Ireland by The Stinging Fly. Like Lydia Davis’s ‘puzzling’ stories, it doesn’t so much tell as offer a set of things to thing about, and think about again. And Claire-Louise is very interested in things: “bon à penser” Lévi-Strauss wrote: goods are good to think with…
First published at 3:AM Press. Collected in Pond, The Stinging Fly/Fitzcarraldo, 2015
Better known for her longer fiction and criticism, Brooke-Rose wasn’t very interested in having her stories collected. This is from a recent reissue by Verbivoracious Press, for which I wrote an introduction. I have not read anything more like being a woman walking alone through a strange city: “One could walk miles and miles obeying the code.”
From Go When You See the Green Man Walking, Michael Joseph, 1970. Reissued by Verbivoracious Press, 2014
I published this at 3:AM Magazine and am in no way surprised by the subsequent wild success of her first collection. Eley combines a meticulous eye for language with the rare ability to write convincingly about happy love. She had me at “I am the first to admit that my spirit animal is probably a buttered roll.”
First published at 3:AM Magazine. Collected in Attrib. and Other Stories, Influx Press, 2017
I also published this at 3:AM. Out of a batch of about 200 submissions it was the only one to which I wanted to say immediately – unequivocally – yes! Isabel’s writing queers the form into the realms of pure language: her characters are words, her settings, the exhilarating freefall of an entirely linguistic universe.
first published at 3:AM Magazine