Though it’s already a modern classic, I only discovered this story a couple of years ago when I started teaching a course on writing short fiction, something I knew next to nothing about. I’ve hardly written any, and my dirty little book secret has always been that I never read short stories either. There were a few obvious choices for this list, but it wasn’t a question of what to leave out; in fact, it took me quite a while to come up with twelve. The truth is, I’ve never really had a nose for the stuff a writer is supposed to have read. Many of my picks for this list I stumbled across quite randomly in libraries or bookshops before I was 20; after that, I seem to have done my best to ignore contemporary short story collections, and to avoid the acknowledged masters of the form. I always used to tell people I found them frustrating, that if I was invested in a world I wanted to stay there as long as possible, but I’m really not sure that’s true. It just became a blind spot that I couldn’t shake. That’s changed lately, at last, and Saunders was a big wake-up call. This story is just about as good as he gets, and that’s an awful lot better than most writers, in any form. He’s supposed to have dreamed the set-up one night, and then taken fifteen years to make it work as fiction. The point is, he really really did.
First published in The New Yorker, October 2012, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Tenth of December, Bloomsbury, 2013. Also available online here