Welcome to the website of A Personal Anthology. This online project exists in the first instance as weekly Substack email, sent out on Friday afternoon. Each week a guest is invited to pick and introduce twelve of their favourite short stories and, where possible, link to them online. Since starting in 2017 the project has featured over 200 guest editors picking over 2,400 short stories written by over 1,200 different authors. You can browse guest editors and featured authors in the sidebar, or just start reading below. Click here to sign up for the mailout. A Personal Anthology is curated by Jonathan Gibbs.
As a moderately prolific short story writer who also reads a fair few, both by choice, and because my arm has been (oh so very gently!) twisted, you might think this personal anthology would be a simple thing for me to compile. A doddle.
It was not.
Remembering what I have read WOULD be easy, if I made a note of every short story immediately after reading it, and had started doing this some forty plus years ago. But who does that? Someone out there, I’m sure… I am both appalled and impressed. No doubt they’ve read bucket-loads more than I have, even as host, judge, and a first reader for the live literary event, Liars’ League.
Given the first page, or the first paragraph, or sometimes even the title, I might be able to conjure the rest, just as when I need to be reminded of someone’s name my sluggard brain merrily chips in their surname and expects a reward. But without that starting hint I’m left grasping at tattered fragments of memory.
What it was, was time-wastingly enjoyable. Hunting down stories that have somehow stuck with me, working out when and where I was first exposed to them, both for identification, and to remind myself why they linger so through the years, and trying not to be lured down too many rabbit holes along the way. There are stories that will have escaped, dimly remembered and difficult to search for, like one about a programmer writing and explaining an algorithm in an almost mystical, mythical manner…
With only a small shift in my starting point, I might have come up with an entirely different twelve. Or almostentirely. But there’s fun to be had in that as well, even if I may eventually have to apologise to those writers who only made the alternative anthologies.
So here it is, twelve short stories that have stayed with me. Perhaps they’ll stay with you, too.
‘Galley Slave’ by Isaac Asimov
On a sheer numbers basis, I’ve probably read more Asimov short stories over the years than anyone else’s, even if I hadn’t read or even reread one for about a decade before this. Modern readers can get a little sniffy about both Asimov’s style and how dated some of his views are/were. And perhaps that’s why it’s a well I haven’t returned to, but I have to admire the simplicity that others feel suggests shallowness. His writing is clean, and I’d be very happy if the same were said about my work. Having read them when I was young his originality was not diminished by countless imitations. Plus, and importantly, his short stories, involving robots or otherwise, are usually fun. Asimov wasn’t afraid to end (or indeed, to start) a story with a pun or a feghoot.
I’ve picked ‘Galley Slave’ because of the inevitable echo of the current AI ChatGPT debate/furore. In it, a robot (but why a robot? Except that’s what Asimov wrote about, able to imagine a human-sized robot with a positronic brain but seemingly unable to put that brain in a handheld device) is tasked with handling the more tedious chores of academic paper writing, but is suspected and accused of doing far more.
Asimov isn’t the only writer to imagine himself out of a job (Roald Dahl’s ‘The Great Automatic Grammatizator’most notably), except in Asimov’s case, the robot is designed specifically for proof reading and editing, and not for writing from a prompt. Yet that becomes the worry the user has, one which drives him to desperate acts, so Asimov certainly gets that aspect right.
I offer no apologies for choosing an Asimov to kick things off. It makes perfect sense, chronologically and personally. But the great thing about starting points is where you end up.
First published in the December 1957 issue of Galaxy, collected in The Rest of the Robots, 1964
‘Scrimshaw’ by Eley Williams
The difference between an Eley Williams story and an Asimov one couldn’t be much more extreme. And isn’t that the absolute delight of the short form? Eley’s stories are linguistically playful, they take the idea of a vignette and apply a meandering thought experiment to mere moments in time, moments that stretch to fill entire pages. Often wistful in nature, there’s communication at the heart of many of her stories, and the difficulty of that, especially when the medium is 4am text messages as it is in ‘Scrimshaw’, but I could have picked any of the stories in her wonderful collection, Attrib.
It’s not erudition for the sake of erudition. The wordplay is a definite way of thinking, or perhaps even of notthinking, of avoiding certain thoughts, certain worries. The narrator sets traps for themself, and has to back out of their own cul-de-sacs. It’s very human, a delight to read, and sufficiently original to stand out from any crowd. And totally, utterly different from anything I could ever write.
Shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2020; you can read an extract online here, or listen to the story as recorded by the BBC
‘The Landlady’ by Roald Dahl
I selected this story when Liars’ League canvassed the Liars and some of their more frequently published authors for their favourite ever short stories, so it would be remiss of me not to include it here, even if has already (rightly) found its way into other personal anthologies.What ‘The Landlady’ does beautifully is skirt the tightrope of too much information and not enough. Our protagonist is oblivious, but we can hardly claim that privilege. There are enough hints and foreshadowing to make us wary of what happens next, we know something dark is coming, even if we’re not sure what it is, nor whether Billy will see it in time. We, as an audience, are being played, subtly, delicately, deliciously. And the story might not work for everyone (does any story?), but it works near perfectly for me, even on a re-read, solidating its inclusion.
First published in The New Yorker, November 1959 and available to read online here. Collected in Kiss Kiss, Knopf, 1960, currently available from Penguin. Also in The Complete Short Stories Vol 2, Penguin, 2013
‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ by Jorge Luis Borges
I was wowed by the whole of Labyrinths, but it has been a while since I read it. I remember fragments, the tone of the whole, the style of writing–there’s an inevitable impact when you first come across someone doing things in a way so unlike that which you’re used to, and yet finding it still works. What didn’t stick so much was the shape of the individual pieces. Except for this one. Like ‘The Landlady’, understanding only comes towards the end, but once you get there, everything else that has happened falls perfectly into place. The reluctance of the perpetrator of a seemingly meaningless crime because they find the victim so personable, so admirable, and yet their fateful paths are proscribed and entwined, and cannot, whatever happens, be altered.
A perfect short story is often on rails. What comes next is inevitable, and unavoidable, and sometimes all the more horrifying for it. The best twist endings are not twists at all–once you arrive at them.
First published in Spanish in the eponymous collection El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan, Editorial Sur, 1941; translated and collected in Labyrinths, New Directions, 1962 and Fictions, Calder and Boyes, 1965, both still in print. Also available in the Collected Fictions, Viking 1998 and as a Penguin Modern, 1998
‘At the Conglomeroid Cocktail Party’ by Robert Silverberg
The author’s introduction to The Conglomeroid Cocktail Party begins: “I had given up writing short stories, for one thing.”I can sympathise with all the reasons Silverberg goes on to give, from the financial (which certainly hasn’t got any better in the years since), to the rod we make for our own backs in making them so damned sparse that anything, a misplaced word, a loose sentence, that doesn’t quite fit has to be ruthlessly exorcised.Thankfully, Silverberg gave up on giving up, though he also had his novels to fall back on, something which alarms me even more than the thought of not writing. This piece is one of his weirder inventions, more so when I read it as a tender-ish youth. Now, you can see in it elements of the gene editing debate, coupled with the distortion of obscene wealth, god-like technologies restricted to the plaything of the ultra-privileged. The narrator is so sophisticated that they have become effectively alien, whatever form they take. And yet, are they happy? Like other stories I read in my late teens that I still vividly remember, it has inevitably inspired me to attempt my own, rather less impressive versions.
First published in Playboy, August 1928, and collected in The Conglomeroid Cocktail Party, Victor Gollanz SF, 1985)
‘Happy Birthday, 1951’ by Kurt Vonnegut
It was Vonnegut that claimed that a story should behave in such a way that were you to lose the last page, you, the reader, still ought to be able to finish it to your satisfaction. A story on rails. So I guess he didn’t think much of twist endings either. Or at least, only the right kind of twist.
Like Asimov, Vonnegut’s writing is, at the surface level, the words, the sentences, almost simplistic. He tends to insert rather more of himself, his narration has its own character, its own idiosyncratic, knowing voice, with the occasional nod and a wink to the reader. Having recommended him in novel form for a book club, (‘Galapagos’, for the Post-Apocalyptic Book Club) I’m painfully aware that his fourth-wall breaking style is not to everyone’s taste, even as it varied across his long career, as he became both more reflective and perhaps more comfortable with breaking the rules, whatever they are.
‘Happy Birthday, 1951’ is a straight-told tale that works whether that titular date is 1951, or 1991, or 2021. It’s 1951 for Vonnegut, because the boy in the story is six and was left with an old man at the end of a war. Thewar. But add six to any armed conflict, now, or in the future, and it will work just as well. It’s bittersweet: “Tomorrow I’ll take you away from the war”, promises the old man. It contains a kernel of hope, but the hope doesn’t get the nourishment you’d expect, that you might get from another writer, one who hadn’t experienced the horrors of war and their aftermath. Vonnegut knows, and though there’s no violence in the story it still feels like a gut-punch, that you can’t get away from war. Not even when it is over. Whether you like it or not, the history you grow up in moulds you. Nostalgia for days gone by is a luxury of those the present leaves behind, and the generational gap can be as unfathomable as speaking a different language.
Published posthumously in Armageddon in Retrospect, 2008, Vintage, Random House
‘Descendant’ by Iain M. Banks
If I remember my lore correctly, even the great Iain M. Banks struggled to convince his regular publisher to put out a collection of his short stories. More fool them. ‘Descendant’ is a brutal tale of a damaged, intelligent suit and a damaged man trying to reach safety on an inhospitable moon. Every success is only temporary, and only ekes out their survival a while longer. It’s a bit like ‘The Martian’, but on a really bad day. Which sounds pretty grim, but still… here’s an author who has risen to the challenge to throw the worst possible at their protagonist. Do they make it? That would be spoiling it for you. But like other classic Iain M. Bank’s stories, such as ‘Use of Weapons’, the conclusion stays with you, as inevitable as it should be, but somehow shattering at the same time.
Published in the anthology Tales from the Forbidden Planet, Titan Books, 1987, and included in the short story collection State of the Art,Orbit, 1991
‘The Birthday of the World’ by Ursula K. Le Guin
My hardback The Birthday of the World was definitely one of the better second-hand finds. Still, it probably sat in the TBR pile a while, as hardbacks are wont to do, not quite so friendly for either tube travel or bedtime reading as a slimmer paperback.
I should have got there sooner. The delight of Ursula Le Guin’s work is in its contrast to much of science fiction, certainly of the pulp-kind, which throws technology into the story but somehow leaves the people largely unaffected. Domestic disputes played out over teleporters, wars in which the weapons are from the twenty-second century, the heroes straight from the nineteenth.
Le Guin turns all that on its head. Her stories don’t tend to feature much technology at all, except as a means of exploring different societies, thought experiments to allow her to investigate entirely novel ways of existing. Her world building, by necessity, has to be exemplary, and of course it is.
On that basis, I could have chosen any of the stories from the collection, but the titular ‘The Birthday of the World’ gets the nod for its epic scope (in short story form), and for being a story about society changing under your feet. Revolutionary indeed.
First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 2000, and then in the collection, The Birthday of the World and other stories, Harper Collins, 2002
‘This Isn’t Heat’ by Richard Smyth
Call me a romantic. Smyth’s sweltering New York piece with a sprinkling of spices and whimsy is without doubt a meet-cute, but don’t let that put you off. It appears in the Liars’ League top ten stories, as picked by the League members, and rightly deserves its coveted place.
It helps that I spent a couple of summers in New York, helps that the story captures that city’s fusion culture, the clash, in this case, of Indian and western. Throw in an intervention by a smiling Buddha and I’m sold.
It also helps–as with all the Liars’ League pieces that I’ve chosen to close this personal anthology–that I love a story written to be performed. Part of that is in the brevity–I like a short story that doesn’t stick around too long. Part is in the apparent simplicity. A story being read out has to work on the first pass, even if you can, and often do, find deeper layers on a reread. And partly, of course, because a story being read to you can be elevated by the talents of the reader, especially when that reader is an actor, which is the Liars’ League’s unique way.
Performed at Liars’ League, 2011, and available to read and listen to here; anthologised in Lovers’ Lies, Arachne Press, 2013
‘Do Not Send help’ by Anna Clair
Like ‘The Landlady’, this piece expertly walks the tightrope, revealing itself to you as you read. It’s hard not to think of this whenever some poor soul is paraded in front of the TV cameras to say how everything is alright, really. And that alone might merit its place, as a story that sticks with me.
I loved it when I first read it, voting for its inclusion. But I loved it all the more when I heard it read out live (brilliantly, by Jennifer Tan). Because pitch this one wrong, and it wouldn’t work. Because the conceit, here, is that someone is reading words written for them, reading them in as neutral manner as you could with a gun being held to your head, and still managing to rebel, to pass on a message the writers of the speech expressly didn’t want to be passed on. (“Do NOT send help…”) And if that isn’t genius level writing–and acting–I’m really not sure what is.
Performed at Liars’ League, 2011 and available to read and listen to here
‘Frankenstein’s Monster is Drunk, and the Sheep Have All Jumped the Fences’ by Owen Booth
Owen Booth has had a number of brilliant stories at Liars’ League, but sometimes his epic flights of fantasy require more than two thousand words, such as ‘The Giantess, Bathsheba’, and this piece, winner of the Moth Prize, 2020 and recently turned into a very entertaining four-actor play. As with other stories by Booth, it has both a great title and a real emotional payoff. There’s an embarrassment of talent here, hiding so much heft in what might first appear almost as whimsical as that title. Read it, and shed a tear.
Winner of the Moth Prize, 2020 and published in The Moth 42 Autumn 2020. Also available to read in The Irish Times, here
‘How a Body likes her Breakfast’ by Cathy Browne
It’s obvious to me, and became even more obvious as I compiled this personal anthology and so made it obvious to you, that I don’t really read widely enough. I could blame the publishing industry. I could blame my semi-advanced age (things have got better, perhaps… slowly). But really I must blame myself, and my personal taste. I tend to stumble upon short story collections and anthologies rather than seek them out, often finding them in second-hand book shops, and the bias encoded therein, plus the even larger bias of the more distant past when I first began consuming them, means that white, dead men predominate, especially in the first half of this personal anthology.
So, I’ll readily admit, I went on the hunt for a new story for this anthology, to try, in some small way, to address the imbalance. I picked another book off my TBR shelf, ‘The Penguin Book of International Women’s Stories’. I’m only two-thirds through, and they’re all perfectly good stories. But, with the possible exception of Mary Flanagan’s ‘Cream Sauce’, I don’t think they’ll stick with me, and that, ultimately, has been what my personal anthology is all about.
And then I remembered this short story, another from Liars’ League. For the past six years they’ve run an annual Women and Girl’s theme, stories by women, read by women. A story about a victim of abuse might normally make me rather annoyed, not because it’s not a terrible thing, it is, but because it starts depressing and ends depressing, and you want to scream at them to ‘get out, RUN!’, but they oh so very rarely hear you. I’m afraid I’ve read enough of them that don’t do anything particularly new, except to remind us of an unpalatable reality. Which, for me, a lover of speculative fiction, isn’t what floats my short story boat.
But in this story by Cathy Browne, tables, improbably, are turned. And in a way that isn’t overly fantastical, though it obviously is. Despite the bleakness of the scenario, it’s funny. Empowering, which is a strange thing to say when the victim is dead (to begin with). It brings to mind Hallie Rubenhold’s ‘The Five’–telling the untold story of Jack the Ripper’s long misunderstood victims. Because no-one should just be a statistic, and because the least you can do is get their favourite breakfast right.
So there it is, my twelve. Whether in style or in content, and whether I came across them a year ago or forty, they linger in a way that truly makes them personal. For me they stand the test of time, echoing down the ages and never quite going out of fashion, and what better criteria can there be for something that might take you no more than a dozen minutes to read?
Performed at Liars’ League, 2021 and available to read and listen to here
When Jonathan invited me to write for Personal Anthology my first impulse was to protest that I don’t read short stories. A quick glance at my bookshelves proves this is a bald-faced lie, but an interesting one. Why the resistance?
Thinking about Grace Paley cracked it for me. Paley is one of my chosen ancestors, a writer whose existence makes my own work possible. She is also, of course, famous for her short stories (and hospitable remarks). They are stories I’ve swallowed whole, stories whose ethos, music, and rhythms I’ve fully internalized, extending and revolving them in my mind, misremembering, embroidering, retelling, and living alongside them until, it seems, I no longer think of them as short stories. What are they instead? A world I visit. The sound of my own Jewishness. A guiding myth. Parables. A series of gestures contained in my body. Memories that live alongside all my other memories. (Stories that live alongside all my other stories.)
So here are twelve short stories (including a mini-anthology of Paley stories) that live in that fully internalized space in my head. They are not the only or even the best stories I have read, but an honest attempt* at excavating what stuck with me whether I wanted it to or not. The resulting list reflects the whiteness and boomer-centric bias of my Gen X era American education. I have been reading to disrupt those biases ever since but clearly I have more work to do.
*With one exception: I’m sorry, I just cannot include Amy Hempel’s ‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.’ Due to its inescapable presence in the late 1980s, it will be in my head for the rest of my days, and you know what? In spite of its brilliance and my sense that it is an ur-text for many other grief books including Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, I am sick of having it there. Begone sad primate.