Choosing twelve stories was enormous fun, and got me thinking about our impulse to carve experience into slivers of narrative. We hear stories – more or less true – in jokes, political speeches, TV ads. And if we could listen in, we’d overhear them in therapy lounges, confessionals, beds where lovers lie.
I thought about pointing to this heterogeneity by including ‘Raised on Robbery’, Joni Mitchell’s story about an attempted seduction via story. Or ‘John Allyn Smith Sails’ by the band Okkervil River, a retelling of the poet John Berryman’s suicide (which a popular streaming service tells me I listened to an appropriate 77 times last year). Or one of Adrian Tomine’s graphic stories from Killing and Dying, or a short film from Kieslowski’s Decalogue. Or, at a stretch, James Wood’s critical essay ‘Serious Noticing’, a story about re-reading which, I confess, I’ve always preferred to the Chekhov tale it’s largely about.
Which is all to say that – although there are books about three- and five-act narrative structure, and the seven basic plots – the faculty that allows us to tell and understand stories is surely innate, and can be found wherever you look.
So even though I finally decided to stick – with two exceptions – to the established literary genre known as the ‘short story’, thinking about narrative as an inborn instinct helped me understand why I love these pieces. It’s not that they’re the greatest stories ever written: I’d be willing to contend that some of them are, but that list would have to include ‘The Dead’, ‘Metamorphosis’ and something by Alice Munro. Are they my favourites? It would depend which day you asked me. It’s just that, when I read them for this piece – even when I couldn’t easily articulate why I found them so moving, or funny, or beautiful, or disconcerting – they seemed the work of born storytellers. They just landed somehow, and made me want to tell you about them.