A Personal Anthology in the Brixton Review of Books

In the summer of 2022, roughly as A Personal Anthology hit its two thousandth individual short story recommendation, Michael Caines asked me to write something about the project for the Brixton Review of Books, which, if you don’t know it, is a wonderful literary broadsheet quarterly edited by Caines and Alice Wadsworth, and is free to pick up at good bookshops and elsewhere – and well worth the yearly £10 subscription to have it delivered to your door. There is plenty of crossover between BRB and APA – the project has featured Personal Anthologies from editor Michael, regular columnist Jen Calleja and commercial director Catherine Taylor, as well as contributors such as Gurnaik Johal, Jacob Rollinson, Tom Conaghan, Edward Hogan, AV Marraccini and Nicholas Royle.

Here is the text of the article I contributed – thanks so much to Michael for commissioning it, and long live the BRB!


Of course, I can’t now remember what the precise spark was that gave me the idea of A Personal Anthology – which, if you don’t know it, is a literary parlour game in which you get to dream-edit an anthology of your dozen favourite short stories. Whatever that spark was, it’s grown into an online project that’s now nearing its fifth anniversary, with 180 guest editors having gifted us over 2,000 individual short story recommendations.[1]

Certainly, what drives the project, I’ve come to think, and makes it possible, is the very particular nature of the short story: that every story exists as its own thing, unique and inviolable, but that they can easily be brought into close proximity to each other. Indeed, by the nature of their varied publication contexts, they usually are. Story in journal, story in collection, story in anthology: stories in the world rarely stand entirely alone, and that produces a fascinating tension. Great short stories are fiercely independent, but they can be made to be communal. Run along and play nicely with each other. 

One book that demonstrates this principle – and it’s a book that either produced that initial spark, or that, once sparked, I quickly consulted – is My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, an anthology of love stories edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. Its contents page makes unlikely neighbours of writers as different as Milan Kundera and William Trevor, Robert Musil and George Saunders, Miranda July and Bernard Malamud. Unlike other more-or-less orthodox overviews of the form, your Oxford or Penguin Book of English or British Short Stories, or those compendious anthologies you get on university reading lists, there is a humility to Eugenides’s book, and a randomness, as well as a wonderful breadth. (Not that much breadth, if truth be told: there’s one story from Asia, and none at all from Africa or South America.) 

What A Personal Anthology shares with Eugenides’s book, but not with the books edited by the likes of Philip Hensher, AS Byatt and Malcolm Bradbury, is a lack of responsibility to be representative. The strict twelve-story limit I imposed on A Personal Anthology means each edition will always, necessarily and absolutely fall short of comprehensiveness. Unable to even think of framing the canon, they turn inwards, offering not a map of the literature, but a self-portrait through literature.

In this its most obvious forerunner is Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, where guests, in picking their eight tracks, are implicitly invited to weigh up the twin claims of aesthetic excellence and personal significance. You’re hardly likely to pick music that you don’t consider great, but the narrative premise of the show nudges you towards choosing records that map onto your life story, that represent you to the world, as well as representing the world, in some form, to you.

But A Personal Anthology has one essential difference to Desert Island Discs. Guests on that programme find themselves cast away with eight separate, individual discs. What thrilled me about the idea of A Personal Anthology was the thought experiment of bringing twelve stories together as a single object, of imagining actually having that book of stories in my hand. My name on the front, my taste and editorial rationale the only glue holding it together. In this the project has as much in common with the old-fashioned mixtape as with Roy Plomley’s radio show. The physicality of the object, though hypothetical, pertains. The power of the mixtape is as much in the lovingly handwritten inlay card as in the songs that it lists. 

The first Personal Anthology letter – my own selection – went out on Friday 8th September 2017 to 69 email subscribers. The second was by the first guest editor, Helen McClory, whose Unsung tinyletter email had shown me how I might turn a one-off blog post into a full-on collaborative, crowd-sourced project, and the next was by Nicholas Royle. In fact, what’s great about these two first guests is the way they immediately took the vague parameters I had sent them, and twisted them to their own interests: Helen’s twelve stories were all flash fictions, while Nick’s had all originally been published in London Magazine, a journal with a particular importance to him.

Other constraints that guest editors have seen fit to apply to themselves over the years include limiting stories by writers’ gender and sexuality, by country or region (all-Japanese selections by Nick Bradley and Tony Malone; all Latin American by Julianne Pachico; all ‘Southern’ American by Edwin Turner) and even by author (all-Kafka by Toby Litt, all-Hemingway by Sam Jordison). 

What else? Dorian Stuber picked stories he loves teaching to undergraduates, Andrew Cowan stories by authors he’d taught at the University of East Anglia, and Yan Ge stories that made her cry. Gemma Seltzer’s ‘seasonal’ anthology picked a story for each month of the year, while W.B. Gooderham’s took a ‘cradle-to-the-grave’ approach, moving from birth to death, twice over, using stories written by female and male writers. Nikesh Shukla paired his stories with rap lyrics. Stuart Evers’s stories were all the opening salvo of their respective story collections. CD Rose’s selection simply all had trains in them.

As you might expect, the definition of what a short story actually is has been tested fairly regularly. People have picked The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Train Dreams and A Christmas Carol, all usually considered novellas, and that’s fine by me. My role as curator does not involve a very strict door policy. We’ve also had poems (by Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Carson, Mary-Jean Chan and Thomas Nashe, among others), anonymous ballads, pop songs (Piaf, Dylan, Cash, Sinead O’Connor, Life Without Buildings), a Freud case study (picked by Katherine Angel) and two fascinating all-non-fiction selections picked by Julia Bell and Will Wiles. 

While I’m usually strict on sticking to twelve stories, people have on occasion found inventive ways of sneaking an extra one in. (Using your introduction to list the writers you’ve not been able to include is a cheap trick, if you ask me.) At the other extreme, David Collard’s anthology consisted of a single story, ‘The New Accelerator’ by H.G. Wells, which he writes about in the time it takes you, the reader, to read it. Another genial anomaly is the the anthology by E.M. Mangan, which features a dozen fictitious stories by invented authors (Mangan herself being the pseudonym of a writer who has not otherwise acted as guest editor, but whose stories have been picked more than once), making it a very Pessoan take on an idea that is, at base, Borgesian. (It was from Borges’s published self-selection of his own writing that I took the project’s title – while noting sadly that he didn’t see fit to include my favourite story of his, with which I rounded off my own anthology.)

For the most inventive interpretation of the rules (thus far), I’d suggest you look at A.V Marraccini’s anthology, which includes a hip-hop concept album by clipping. alongside an algorithmically-generated novel by Joshua Rothes, Plato’s Symposium, “the complete opus of Samuel Delaney”… and a prayer nut, thus proving, to my satisfaction at least, the soundness of the project’s philosophical underpinnings, by bending them just as far as they could go. The point being that, for Marraccini, these are short stories, and she wrote about them as such. 

And that’s where the true heart of the project lies: the ongoing attempt, week after week, by guest editor after guest editor, to get a handle on what short stories are, and how they work on us, as readers. The best anthologies mix great taste and thoughtful curation with wonderful, mind- and heart-opening insight, though that insight can work in both directions: towards the story, and its writer, and towards the anthologist, in whom, at one point in their life, that story found its perfect reader. 

I remember sitting on the train reading the text of Hayley Webster’s anthology, in which she links stories to memories of her childhood, her grandparents’ bungalow (“there was rose patterned wallpaper, white and pink and green and ugly. There were faces in it, and the room was cold, like a pantry”) and the deaths of her parents, and finding myself on the verge of tears myself. I loved Agri Ismaïl’s anthology for his inclusion of a George Saunders story that once meant a lot to him, but no longer: “Re-reading the story for the first time in over a decade in preparation for this Personal Anthology,” he writes, “I feel as though I’d found a long-lost love letter from someone with whom it ended in tears.”

The sheer number of story recommendations produced over the project’s five years means that it’s possible to use it – in a highly non-scientific way – to build a picture of the contemporary landscape of the short story. (I say non-scientific, because although I try to reach out in different geographic and cultural directions, and am always open to people coming to me, the project has grown up in the little corner of the reading and writing world where I live, with the centre of gravity that implies, and that the project itself is an attempt to break free of.)

So, although it’s not a beauty contest, it’s interesting to see which writers (and stories) get picked: who is loved, who is remembered, who perhaps is influential. At the time of writing over a thousand writers have had their stories picked for an anthology, but just sixteen of these have been picked more than a dozen times: ten of them dead, six of them living. From the dead, we have, in ascending order of frequency: Denis Johnson, Joyce, Chekhov, Barthelme, Carter, Nabokov, Calvino, Mansfield, Kafka[2] and Borges. From the living, we have the Canadian Alice Munro, two Americans, Lydia Davis and Lorrie Moore, and three British writers: Sarah Hall, Joanna Walsh and Eley Williams. If you’re interested, the most picked writer of them all is Lydia Davis, that genius of the oblique miniature, who seems to be able to turn anything into a story, even a letter of complaint to a funeral home, or a dictionary definition. She’s been picked 23 times, with – remarkably – very few duplicates: only ‘Lord Royston’s Tour’ and ‘Break it Down’ have been picked more than once. 

The stories that have picked most often are perhaps less surprising, with six picks each for Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’, and Carmen Maria Machado’s ‘The Husband Stitch’: one indisputable Modernist classic (Jeffrey Eugenides claimed it as a love story for his anthology, though he had to omit it in the UK edition for rights reasons), and two superb feminist twists on fairy tale tropes. But it’s variety and discovery, as much as rediscovery, that is the lifeblood of A Personal Anthology. It’s a rare selection that doesn’t include at least one writer who hasn’t been picked before. Each time I’m emailed the text of an anthology, I’m sent scrabbling online, or to my shelves: do I have this story, somewhere? Where can I read it? I must read it. The sheer exuberance of the guest editors, as they politely but insistently force their twelve precious darlings on you, is, every single time, impossible to resist.

[1] A new anthology is emailed out every Friday afternoon to subscribers, currently numbering 1,800, giving publication details for each story, and a reason why it got picked, plus a link to read online where possible. All story recommendations are then archived at http://www.apersonalanthology.com. You can subscribe to the weekly email at tinyletter.com/apersonalanthology. NB the email goes on holiday during July and August after a collaborative holiday anthology, and returns in September.

[2] Toby Litt’s anthology of a dozen Kafka stories counts just once here, for statistical purposes.