Everyone else who has done a Personal Anthology seems to have emerged from the womb reading and/or writing short stories. Therefore, I must make my confession early and forthrightly: in preparing this, I realised that, of the writing that I favour, most of it is extremely long, and everything else is stuffed into strange sub-categories of non-fiction or poetry. The Iliad: definitely not a short story. Donne; maybe the sermons if you squint at them really, really hard, but that’s frankly egregious and also insulting to Donne’s own belief. Montaigne’s essays, even in the very sympathetic English of John Florio; also a no.
Two obvious contenders come out early: Ursula LeGuin and Borges, both of whom I have loved pretty much my whole life. In my defence, the short story is a rather new form. Hell, prose fiction and the novel in the vernacular is a pretty new form too, depending on how you feel about Late Antique prose romances. I’m sort of necromantic with literature. I relate to Eliot’s Petronius-epigraph Sybil, except I don’t live in a cage, and I would throw rocks at schoolboys for bothering me, and would probably speak in Forster-Wallace-esque footnotes all the time. The point is that I feel centuries, millennia old when I think about short stories. I look at all of you from the perspective of history, all dazzling and squeaky new, and have to put sunnies on and get a latte just to cope. Oh, and I want to live obviously, which is why I read.
So, Borges. I would be remiss not to include ‘The Library of Babel’, as it has become a symbol for my whole life in letters and affinity for baroque multiverses. Borges melts the blue popsicle where your brain should be. I’m not going to spoil the story by telling you anything other than you will come to an affection for hexagons that exceeds all moderation. You can also visit a version of the library online, such is the miracle of our age. It was originally published in Spanish in 1941, and then in English in 1962, in the Labyrinths anthology which you can still read in its entirely from New Directions.
First published in Spanish as ‘La biblioteca de Babel’ in El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan, Sur, 1941. First published in English in Labyrinths, New Directions, 1962, and Fictions, Grove Press, 1962.
The second Borges I would pick is a difficult choice. I stroke them all lovingly and whisper little missives begging forgiveness here. Right now, ‘The Babylonian Lottery’ (also in Labyrinths or the collected Ficciones) feels the most apt. What is predestined? What is free will? What is orchestrated and what is random? This is the kind of story that makes you grow up to either write history or become an idling surf nomad on a beach somewhere with a permanent tan. One or the other really. You have been suitably warned. This is a Roman quartz-crystal die that I think of when I re-read this story.
First published in Spanish as ‘La lotería en Babilonia’ in Sur, 1941 and collected in El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan, Sur, 1941. First published in English, translated by Anthony Boucher, in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, August 1948. Collected in Labyrinths, New Directions, 1962, and Fictions, Grove Press, 1962.
The capaciousness of Le Guin is likewise a problem. The most famous of her stories is ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’, which incorporates the moral questioning and philosophical weight of her speculative fictions, but also her ability to make stories that already feel like myth, graven into time. Her Earthseatrilogy does this, as does her now increasingly politically crucial novel, The Left Hand Of Darkness, set on a planet where gender is transitory and people remain gender-neutral until certain times. Perhaps you’re groaning and thinking this can’t be subtle, but Le Guin pulls it off, always deft in her framing of otherness but also in making quotidian things—cold winters, stone walls, the words exchanged in passing during friendship—appear in turn to make her worlds real. Some of LeGuin’s further short stories in Tales From Earthsea and The Birthday of the World are set in her existing universes, and for anyone who comes to love them they are excellent. Le Guin did the metanovel before David Mitchell was even born! However, here I’d like to stick to standalone stories, and hence…
First published in New Directions 3, Nelson Doubleday/SFBC, 1973, and collected in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Harper & Row, 1975. Also available in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters and The Compass Rose, Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2015.
This may not objectively be one of Le Guin’s best or even most notable stories. I remember reading it when I was thirteen or fourteen in a copy of The Compass Rose, an early-ish collection of her short stories. It took me a long time to find it again, because I remembered it as “the one about the paintings” and I misattributed it to Bradbury, of all people, for years. Has she done better work? Yes, but this is one I came back to and thought about, even when I didn’t know it was hers, and long after I grew up from that young reader into the sort of person who writes about paintings myself a lot. So Le Guin has come full circle with me, and so I pick this story.
Originally written in 1975 for a workshop given at Portland State University. First published in The Altering I, Norstrilia Press, 1976. Collected in The Compass Rose, Pendragon Press, 1982. Also available in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters and The Compass Rose, Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2015.
The fifth spot on this list would go to Samuel Delany, but Delany doesn’t do short form. He does empire and capital, bondage and freedom, sex, death, rubber balls transported on ships, the fall of governments, generations of lives—all these things and more—but he does them in longform, almost always extreme longform. I think he should the Nobel Prize in literature because he has absolutely destroyed the boundaries of genre for science fiction in ways no one could have expected. If someone reading this has the demi-god-like power of helping with the Nobel nominations, give that man a Nobel already. And if you haven’t read Delany at all, or his magnum opus Dhalgren, do it. We have one more lockdown summer.
My sixth story is a synthesis of Le Guin and Delany and so much more, but in a different medium. Splendor & Misery is an audio album by the experiment rap group clipping. , fronted by Daveed Diggs, that clocks in at around 26 minutes. It was released in 2016 and SubPop has made it available in full for free on YouTube. You may know Diggs superficially from Hamilton, but Hamilton is vaguely cloying Gilbert & Sullivan to Splendor & Misery’s Wagner. No, I like clipping. better than Wagner, and its political implications are much more interesting. Anyway, it’s the kind of high art that I imagine someone will rediscover in a century and declare a masterpiece that we didn’t celebrate enough. It did win a Hugo, but that’s not enough by my count. Why isn’t say, Faber or FSG selling the libretto? They should be begging for it.
The album is primarily about and told in the voice of an unnamed enslaved man, #2331, on a cargo spaceship and what happens when, after damage that renders him the only survivor. Other voices include the ship’s AI that falls in love with him, transcending the mind/body boundary, and those of ancestral slave gospel songs. That clipping. integrates the Transatlantic slave triangle and its atrocity so easily into another universe and makes it so immediate at once—and with such a short running time—is bravura work. When you hear the choice the passenger makes at the end of the album, you too may weep. I recommend listening in the dark with headphones on, alone, then listening a second or third time with lyrics to hand.
First released on Subpop, 2016
There are more transcendently beautiful things without category, I think, than there are such beautiful things within one. Or perhaps I am misreading Aristotle. Anyway, one more such thing to me is about 1,100 years or so removed from clipping. : the Heian court poems in the Tales of Ise (伊勢物語, Ise monogatari). Each of the Tales is a short story… technically. But the stories are each little frames for a single classical Japanese waka poem. Confusingly, thirty of the poems in this volume also appear in another Heian period anthology, the Kokin Wakashū (古今和歌集).
This poem is in both—though I recommend reading it in the Penguin translation of Ise for the framing story, and also to get a feel for how different translations of this kind of poetry are. I love waka poetry from the Heian period especially, because, like many of the speculative fiction shorts above, it evokes a whole world with so very little. I am currently learning some modern Japanese, and am not particularly talented at it, but I hope to persevere to be able to stumble though some of these poems and their frame stories in the original Late Old Japanese someday.
There is incidentally a beautiful illuminated copy of Ise from the 16th century at the British Library, which is fully digitised, though of course, it is much later than the period of the poems’ composition, and the illustrations reflect the Sengoku-period of the manuscript’s manufacture rather than the Heian one of the text.
This is probably an odi et amo situation by now. Those of you who hate me already for my total transhistorical disregard of the formal boundaries of the short story might just want to walk away in disgust. Those of you who love it, stay.
I’m an art historian, as I’ll have to remind you in a tedious biographical note at the end of this list, and one of the things about studying visual and material culture is that everything becomes a story and then you start ask what constitutes a short one. I don’t know if tiny is to materiality as short is to fiction (I already know it can’t be that simple as I type this, forever analytically accursed creature that I am), but the rather unpoetically named prayer nuts of the late 15th-16th Century are to me, sort of short stories.
Click on the Wikipedia link to see the things then come back. Okay so, they can tell different stories, but the one I like most is in the Met is boxwood and shows both the Adoration of the Magic and the Crucifixion in about the size of a big chestnut you can grasp easily in your hand. It even has a central panel that opens like an altarpiece, with Old Testament scenes, no thicker than a Nairn’s oat cracker. It’s the life of Christ and the prefigurations of the life of Christ, and the life of the person who owned it as a cabinet object or status rosary addition, all in one tiny orb. It’s a short story. It’s a huge story. It’s amazing.
Please do not ask me about the harpsichords I left out to tell you about the Prayer Nut. I still feel very guilty.
You may have anticipated this one with the Aristotle, or the stuff at the beginning about the Iliad, because honestly half my life these days is never forgetting that somehow everything maps back to either the strange legacies of the Iliad or my large, floofy, and extremely shy, cat, who is so un-Iliadic as to be unmappable. Consider not Aristotle, but Plato this time. I have taught a lot of Plato this year, and the Symposium just gets me every time. I mean, theoretically it’s a short story about a dinner a party in Athens the night that the Herms were desecrated. Yes, there are very long interjections. Yes, okay, they are arguments. But it’s still a work of short fiction.
You can read the Greek with an uncopyrighted, and old, English translation in parallel on Perseus. If you’re feeling lazy and yet somehow still want both languages, like me, sitting partially under my duvet right now, you’ll want the Loeb edition. If you’re extra good, like some of the people who taught me Plato was important in the first place, you’ll want or probably already have, the light blue Oxford edition with the notes and Greek text only.
I, personally, have never been able to move on from beautiful bodies to beautiful laws and the Forms. Perhaps I’m simply not trying hard enough. Or have mixed my wine with too little water?
Originally written c. 385–370 BCE. The Loeb edition (L166: Lysis Symposium Gorgias) first published by William Heinemann, 1925.
This list is definitely taking off on an exponential weirdness curve the longer it gets. Twelve is a lot of anything.
Next turn completely about-face in the garden maze of this thing, and walk through the hedge in front of you. Before you is the same short story, told ninety-nine different ways, or ninety-nine different short stories, depending on how you look at it. Queneau’s Exercises in Style are a classic of Modernist play and they’ve been re-issued recently by New Directions. I actually think British book reviewers and fiction writers have a bit of a Modernist over-reliance, a kind of Bloomsbury fetish, and it annoys me, but I’m making a notable exception for Queneau because his concept is so incredibly precious it somehow transcends its own preciousness and comes out the other side again. Anyhow, on that other thing, I’m really sick of Joyce and Woolf and pretending that Paris is the avant garde just sort of… because? It’s not 1996 or whatever. Get over it.
There is only one person in the whole world I forgive the over-adulation of Modernism and she knows who she is.
First published as Exercices de style, Gallimard, 1947. First published in translation by Barbara Wright, Gaberbocchus Press, 1958, and retranslated since. Currently available from Alma Classics, 2013.
What’s the opposite of a short story, anyway? I’ve been thinking about this a lot in compiling this anthology. There’s this little American press, run on love and old processors and convenience store parking lot fumes, in the middle of what they’d proudly and not-a-little-unironically call ‘flyover country’– Inside The Castle. Once a year they have a residency, called the ‘Castle Freak’, where one writer has five days to produce 100,000 words but must be assisted in some way by algorithmic or other machine technology. This may be that antonym to the short fiction work. The latest Castle Freak was friend, and editor of Sublunary Editions, Joshua Rothes, who wrote We Later Cities without going insane. This is the last thing I’d put on a list of short stories. So here it is, on my list of short stories, naturally. I am nothing if not perverse in this manner.
Published by Inside The Castle, 2020
I am ending, looping back, with more Borges. Borges’ ‘The House of Asterion’ is one of those stories for the always-circling-around-the-Iliad-drain types of people that I am, except it’s about Minos and a very famous labyrinth. It’s sad and beautiful all at once. It is unlikely, given the small extant corpus of examples of Linear A, that there will be some second Michael Ventris incident, and the language will be suddenly deciphered. Probably they are palace or trade inventories, these fragments. I like to pretend though, that this story is what is written on all of them instead. That would be something, wouldn’t it? Like seeing something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky…
First published in Spanish as ‘La casa de Asterión’ in Los Anales de Buenos Aires, 1947 and collected in El Aleph, Editorial Losada, 1949. First translated by James Irby and Donald Yates and collected in Labyrinths, New Directions, 1962, with other translations following.