The in-theory brevity of the short story gives the form a particular ability to find you at the right time. This is perhaps even more true now, when short stories are constantly available, at your fingertips: able to be imbibed quickly on a commute or waiting in line to board a plane or while waiting at a hospital. There is a Personal Anthology all of its own in the unread short stories that can be found in the open tabs across my devices, happily residing alongside Wikipedia entries, long reads, recipes, listicles, obituaries, apartment lettings. The most (in)famous story of recent years, Kristen Roupenian’s ‘Cat Person’, was mistaken by many for a personal essay, its virality leading it to an audience unused to encountering short stories on a web page.
The right time for a short story, though, is never just about the when but also about where and how. Lately I’ve been paying closer attention to collections rather than stand-alone stories. (This, I have to admit, is quite an unhelpful impulse when it comes to the Personal Anthology task.) This is likely because, as I am putting together a collection myself, I’m trying to understand the essence of what makes something a story collection, as opposed to a collection of stories. Short stories have a lone quality, a spikiness that allows them to stand apart from what’s around them. Publications in journals, for example, can often feel encouragingly anonymous, safe ground to be experimental. But often the right story slipped in at the right point of a collection can feel equally hidden and surprising.
The stories I’ve chosen don’t have much in common beyond the fact that I like them and think about them a lot when I’m not thinking about short stories. Each of them probably taught me how to write the kind of stories I like writing. And yes, there are only eleven stories, not the usual twelve. As it happens, many of the collections I most admire have eleven stories in them—what is it about that number?