When I was asked to contribute to A Personal Anthology I had a grand plan to go through my small library of collections over the Christmas holiday. It was going to be my motivation to finally finish all my short story collections and anthologies. As you’ve most likely already guessed, I didn’t exactly succeed. However, what I did do was spend the period reflecting on the form, and what short stories I’ve remembered reading in the past, and why I’ve remembered them above everything else I’ve read.
I had hoped this would be a good exercise to make me love the short story, as I’ve had my qualms with the form in the past. I am still trying to unpick what makes me resistant to it, why I prefer novels. I did realise that I think it is much harder to ‘pull off’ a short story. However, I also realised that what I value in novels is similar to what I value in short stories, which is that I am usually most enamoured with the craft of writing, with how the words sound in my head.
In 2020, I published a short story anthology, edited by Alice Slater, called Outsiders. Like this project, that book solidified for me what I think makes a great story, what the purpose of short fiction is and what I am going to look for going forward. It wouldn’t be fair for me to just list the stories in the anthology, but I would be lying if I said that the publication of that anthology didn’t inform my choices for this. I owe a great deal to Alice Slater, and her depth of knowledge about short stories. I hope that I’m allowed a small mention of her work, which I didn’t include because it is my favourite story of hers, ‘The Alligator’ is one I’ve had the honour of publishing.
This all said, this project really became a personal anthology. I spent a lot of time churning up old memories of stories I studied and writers I have loved for many years, and I was astounded, and delighted, to find that I love so many short stories.
I have a very strange and uncomfortable relationship with Jackson, mainly because I think she’s excellent, but I do not want to deal with what she is revealing about human nature. I like ‘The Witch’ so much because it is, on the surface, a very funny story, but of course it reveals something more about human nature and our childlike glee for horror and our fascination with gore and ghost stories, and our capability for great cruelty. In it a little boy meets a man on the train who tells him a horrible story, to the little boy’s delight, and his distracted mother’s annoyance. It is very short, and Jackson writes with such a deft touch you do not notice that the dark has crept in.
First published in 1948 and collected in The Lottery and Other Stories, Penguin 1967. Also available as a Penguin Modern Classic for Kindle, 2014
I studied this story in a class on ‘Petersburg’ in Literature at a small liberal arts college in western Massachusetts in the middle of winter. This is the class that changed my life, so whether this is the best short story by a Russian writer, I cannot and will not say. But this class and this story, along with Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, and the western Massachusetts’ winter prompted me to move to London. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact translation I read, so I’ve listed here the translation I came across recently by Constance Garnett, whose translations Janet Malcolm holds in some regard. Often presented as a story of love and then eventual disillusionment, I will always read ‘White Nights’ as a love story to a city. A city, like all cities, which is capable of taking you to great soaring heights but equally capable of breaking your heart. Smashing you to smithereens. Really recommend reading it when you are a depressed 19-year-old in the middle of winter at a small liberal arts college in western Massachusetts to experience its full effects.
Original first published 1848, translation in 1918. Collected in The Gambler and Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2010, and as a Penguin Little Black Classic, 2016. Available to read online at Project Gutenberg
Patricia Grace is one of my favourite writers, and I know most of her work because I wrote my MA dissertation on her book Cousins. Grace is a part of the Māori Renaissance movement that began in Aotearoa New Zealand in the 1970s. I read her first collection, Wairiki, during my studies, notably the first book to be published by a Māori woman back in 1975. ‘Mirrors’ is from her second collection, The Dream Sleepers, published in 1980. In it the narrator walks outside in her slippers and steps in dog shit. And within a very simple story, Grace explores themes of domesticity and family. I love it so much because it is funny, and also because it demonstrates in a few pages what a beautiful writer Grace is, the way she turns words into sounds you can hear, even if you do not speak the words out loud. She conveys longing and grief better than any writer I can think of.
First published in 1975 and collected in The Dream Sleepers, Longman Paul, 1980, and in One Whale, Singing: Stories from New Zealand, The Women’s Press 1985
I was first introduced to Leone Ross because Alice Slater commissioned her to write a short story for Outsiders. Her recent novel, This One Sky Day, published by Faber (and titled Popisho in the US) is a marvel. Ross is a very humane writer who is very skilled at capturing small moments between people. I picked this story mainly because of how it conveys London lives. In it, a woman, whose philandering husband and grown children disappoint her, meets a man on the tube and helps him find his daughter’s house in Wood Green. It is a small moment but it is also big. Like Shirley Jackson in ‘The Witch’, Ross has captured the uniqueness of an interaction on public transport. Those minutes with a stranger captured in a few pages, that will be remembered years later.
First published in Wasafiri Magazine in 2010 and collected in Come Let Us Sing Anyway, Peepal Tree, 2017
Alice Ash in many ways reminds me of Shirley Jackson, except that within the landscapes of horror, Ash investigates the surrealness and mundanity of living life in the margins. Ash’s collection Paradise Block is all set around the same housing estate, and characters recur and connect throughout. ‘You’ plays with the reader in the opposite way to the way Jackson’s ‘The Witch’ does. In it a woman goes to a nightclub after a break-up. The narrator is funny and playful, but the reader begins to expect the very worst when she goes home with a man after a night out, who she hopes will be ‘you’ and instead is confronted with the abject loneliness of looking for love. Ash conveys, like Ross, a very human moment that so many of us will relate to.
Published in Paradise Block, Serpent’s Tail, 2021
This is another short story that I remember from my studies. I think I read it in my first year, nearly 15 years ago, and I still remembered it very clearly. Some elements have worn such grooves in my memory, that I found no surprises when I reread it for this. Cortázar is an astounding surrealist writer, and my introduction to him shaped my taste in literature and my expectation for fiction. In the story, a man has a motorcycle accident in contemporary time, and goes to sleep in the hospital ward where he dreams he is being hunted by Aztecs. Cortázar pushes the reader’s expectations for storytelling and for fiction to the limit in this story; in it he doesn’t write an unreliable narrator so much as he makes the case for an unreliable truth.
First published in Spanish as ‘La Noche Boca Arriba’ in 1956. Published in translation in The New Yorker, April 1967, and available to subscribers to read here; collected in Blow Up and Other Stories, Random House, 1967
Katherine Mansfield had to be on this list, there are so many short stories of hers I could list as favourites. Mansfield was a firm favourite of my grandmother, who was keen to point out many times that, like me, Mansfield moved from New Zealand to London in her twenties. Now that I’m 34 I hope the comparison ends there. ‘At the Bay’ was the story I initially thought of including, it is the first story in a treasured copy of The Garden Party and Other Stories that my mum gave me, which belonged to her, with her name and the year 1973 written on the title page. I own a handful of short story collections with Katherine Mansfield in them including Persephone’s beautiful The Montana Stories and not one of them has the story I ended up choosing. The thing is, ‘Bliss’ has been rattling around in my brain ever since I read it. Mansfield has captured longing perfectly as well as that first pinprick when one realises a betrayal. It is a sublime story, and like Virginia Woolf, I think Mansfield is the greatest modernist writer.
First published in the English Review, 1918, now in Selected Stories, Oxford World’s Classics, 2002, and other Mansfield collections, including Strange Bliss, 2021 Pushkin Press. Available to read online here
When Keri Hulme passed away, I was reminded of a short story of hers I read pretty recently. There are two Hulme stories in the anthology One Whale, Singing (named for one of the Hulme stories) and ‘Kiteflying Party at Doctor’s Point’ was a revelation when I found it. It touches on many of the themes in Hulme’s Booker Prize-winning The Bone People, mainly environmental anxiety (something that Patricia Grace’s writing also contends with) and, well, general anxiety. Hulme beautifully describes the beach, the sky and the sea. And her narrator is fearful of what will be lost and what she has already lost. It has in it an aching, a longing for something that isn’t possible. The fact it was first published 44 years ago is horrifying to me, as it so perfectly demonstrates our current moment.
First published in 1977 and collected in One Whale, Singing, The Women’s Press and Te Kaihau/The Windeater Victoria University Press, 1986
Jen Calleja is a wonderful writer. I have been reading her reviews and personal nonfiction for a long time. I love her slightly surreal, both befuddling and clarifying collection, I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For, published by Prototype in 2020. My favourite story in the collection is ‘Literary Quartet’, because it’s a story I often reference, something I’m not sure I can say for most short stories. In it a narrator is up for a prestigious award along with other writers, the story takes a turn for the strange, and frankly stressful, as the nominees are required to make a case for why they ought to win. Calleja lampoons the ridiculous theatre of prize-givings and, sadly oftentimes, how meaningless literature and art becomes when dressed up in ceremony.
Published in I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For, Prototype Books 2020
It takes a lot for me to recommend a story in which a cat dies. I hope I’ve not spoiled this one, but I think it is obvious that the cat will die after the first few lines. I would only ever recommend a story in which a cat dies if it were written by a superlative writer, and I consider Janet Frame one of the best writers. Frame’s short stories tend to be more realist than a lot of her other work, although she is best known in the UK for her more realist novels like Owls Do Cry and Faces in the Water as well her memoirs. Personally I prefer her at her most strange such as in Scented Gardens for the Blind and The Edge of the Alphabet. Frame muddles reality in a way that most writers would never dare, she takes what isn’t clear and she pushes through, she won’t coddle you, you have to meet her where she is in her mind. In ‘Swans’ (another gem from a book once owned by my mother, several decades ago) a mother takes her children to the beach, but they end up at the wrong beach. It’s a very short story, but in it Frame gives the reader all the proof and tools needed to dissect, and eviscerate, the mother for the simple mistake of getting off the train at the wrong stop. She sows tiny seeds of doubt in the mother’s ability and possibly sanity throughout and all the while plays with language the way a child might. She has the rare ability to make words on the page reverberate in your brain, sounds playing off one another. I equally admire Frame so much for the way she writes mental illness and also children’s perspectives, which perhaps only possible given her own history.
First published 1951 in The Lagoon and Other Stories and collected in The Secret Self: Short Stories by Women J.M. Dent & Sons 1987
I had to call in reinforcements to remember the title and author of this story, I had it in my head that it was by Yvegeny Zamyatin. I tweeted, ‘What is that Russian short story where the guy’s room keeps shrinking’ (details obviously not perfectly clear) and was steered in the right direction by a lot of good folks. I was taught this symbolist story in my undergrad and like Cortázar, it just got stuck in my brain. In it, a Soviet man is offered an experimental concoction that will make his ‘match-box sized’ room grow, but when he is smearing it on his walls he accidentally spills it and his room grows far bigger than he could have imagined. Every time he returns to his room, it is still bigger. This is a darkly funny story which encapsulates the duality of humanity. I think I remembered it, more than a decade later, for the same reasons certain scenes in Andrei Bely’s Petersburg and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita have stuck with me – this story shares with them a sort of visual slapstick humour that belies something much darker.
First published possibly circa 1920s, English translation collected in Memories of the Future, New York Review of Books, 2009. Available to read online at The Short Story Project, here
I am certainly not alone in thinking Eley Williams’ collection Attrib. and Other Stories is phenomenal. In fact, I looked through to see if anyone else had picked her and of course they had, and several had picked this story. But I make no claims to be unique, this story is near-perfect for me and I’m glad I’m not alone. I first read it in her collection, and it has stuck with me since then. When I realised I wanted to include it, I delighted in rereading it. It showcases Williams’ love of language and her insights into what we think of when we pretend we aren’t thinking of anything at all. It is, on the face of it, just the inner dialogue of someone in a gallery with the person they fancy, and who they would like to kiss. Williams hurls at the reader a torrent of language and concludes with the loveliest of lines that read like poetry:
You have leaned in, and have kissed me without even thinking about it
Like it is the easiest thing in the world
and you stark me
and I am strobe-hearted…
It is the only love story in this personal anthology and it is a story that I love.
First published in The White Review online, 2015 and collected in Attrib. and Other Stories, Influx Press, 2017
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.