I found this assignment devilishly difficult. Should I pick a theme? Should I choose only people I know? Only people I don’t know? I live in fear of leaving people out, even though I know there’s no way. Best to offend everyone, surely.
But I have recently, for obvious reasons, been thinking about my friend and former student, the Canadian-Ukrainian writer Maria Reva, and her flat-out brilliant book Good Citizens Need Not Fear, a collection of connected stories that take place in a crumbling Soviet-era apartment block in Ukraine. The book came out in the early days of the pandemic and didn’t get 1% of the attention it deserved: it is hilarious, dark, every story different, every story intricately connected. Two of the stories were published in editions of The Best American Short Stories. My favorite story is called “Little Rabbit,” which takes place in an orphanage for children with disabilities and includes visual instructions on how to cut an old tire into a swan.
First published as ‘Unsound’ in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern 53, August 2018; collected in Good Citizens Need Not Fear, Doubleday, 2020
Here is another story that describes terrible things and outlandish things and makes all these things rise out of the same world. In this case it’s a police shooting of two young men outside a ComicCon. I’ll be honest: I read the book that this is the title story of in order to be polite; I was teaching at the same weekend festival as Nafissa Thompson-Spires and sometimes I lie and claim to have read books, but for some reason I decided this time to proceed on the up and up. The whole book knocked me out but the title story is one I have taught over and over: it’s a story that’s self-aware but also heartfelt; generous but also ruthless. Time folds over itself and the narration is complicated, and funny, and entirely itself, and heartbreaking: you never stop seeing the chalk outlines of the title.
First published in Story Quarterly 49, 2016. Collected in Heads of the Coloured People, Simon & Schuster/Chatto & Windus, 2018. You can read an extract of the story on the Fawcett Society website, here
Perhaps the theme of this list is teaching – I have taught for more than thirty years now, and before that I was taught. Before I headed to graduate school, I read the work of those who might teach me my first semester, and I still remember standing in the periodical room of the public library where I worked, reading ‘It Had Wings’ in the Readings section of Harper’s Magazine, feeling lit on fire. The story is short – perhaps it’s the shortest story I’ve chosen – and is about a woman who finds what she presumes is an angel in her backyard. Like all of Gurganus’s work it’s full of the numinous and the charge of sex. Maybe he doesn’t distinguish between the two. It begins, “Find a little yellow side street house. Put an older woman in it.” Those imperatives! I already knew I’d do anything he told me to.
First published in The Paris Review, Winter 1985, and available to subscribers to read here; collected in White People, Knopf, 1991. Also available to subscribers to read online in Harper’s Magazine here
Barefoot Dogs by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho is another book by a friend and former student, another collection of connected stories, each story brilliant, adding up to astonishment. This isn’t a list of my favorite stories – it would be hard for me to come up with a list just of my favorite stories in Barefoot Dogs – but it’s perhaps the one I think of most often, any time I pass a laundromat. It takes place in a slightly alternate Austin, wildfires all around the edges, and is a love story, and a warning, with one of the most eccentric and brilliant plots I’ve ever read in a short story. Antonio would think I’d been remiss if I didn’t mention the one strong disagreement we had is that I told him I didn’t think this was a good title for a story and I spent some time trying to talk him out of it.
First published in Texas Monthly, March 2015, and available to read here; collected in Barefoot Dogs, Scribner’s, 2015
Allan Gurganus read this story aloud to his graduate fiction workshop in the fall of 1988, and because I read It Had Wings, I was there to hear it. Some lines resound in his voice, in my memory. A woman visits her father in the hospital; he asks her for a story. She tells it twice. How to explain the worlds contain herein? The jokes, the disappointments between generations, the imaginary literary magazines, the deep humanity that is everywhere in Paley. Certain turns of phrase in this story have become part of my vocabulary. My favorite Paley story is actually ‘Gloomy Tune’, but it’s so deeply peculiar – an inexplicable short story, in its way – that if you hated it I would understand, and I would also never forgive you. Only a fool wouldn’t love ‘A Conversation With My Father,’ though it, too, is mysterious.
First published in the New American Review, 1972. Collected in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, 1974, FSG, and Collected Stories, FSG/Virago, 1994. Hear Ali Smith read it on the Guardian podcast here
I don’t think there’s a single person on my list who couldn’t’ve been represented by any number of stories. ‘A Rich Man’ is simply the story of Edward P. Jones’s that I think of most often, because it has a passage that makes me laugh out loud every time, and also has one of the most brutal endings of any story I know. I’m still not over it. I won’t ever be over it, and I’ve read it dozens of times. I generally don’t like praising short stories by saying it’s like a novel or it feels like a novel. To me it’s like saying a hummingbird is good enough to be a pelican. I suppose they have some things in common, but why can’t they just be themselves? The thing that Edward P. Jones accomplishes in his stories – one of the things – is that he manages to get the life force of a whole novel into his stories, the emanations of souls. He does other things, too – in time and point of view and setting, his stories go where they need to go. They go everywhere. Their plots are doglegged and do not care for the paltry shapes and meager occurrences of other people’s stories.
First published in The New Yorker, and available to subscribers to read here; collected in All Aunt Hagar’s Children, Amistad, 2006
I recently taught this long story by Asali Solomon (another former student, another friend) to my graduate class, and I marveled, as I always do, how many notes she strikes in it: deep feeling with notes of satire, the epic feel of decades passing as well as fleeting thoughts, varieties of love from the actual to the delusional. It’s also a story of balancing acts—the work the main characters, a son and mother, do to keep from dropping their whole lives to the ground, but the story itself is both precariously and perfectly balanced as it switches points-of-view and time frames and crises. Her characters are eccentrics, both lovable and worrisome, very dear, like nobody else.
From Get Down, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006
If you want to get American fiction writers of a certain age talking, mention this story, which begins, “Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again.” It’s about some army brats at Fort Niagara in Upstate New York, but it’s about life and death and failing to fit in. It has one of the most beautiful ending of any story I know, and one of the best dog characters in all of literature. Like many stories on this list I read it in those days in which I examined every story as though it were a writing manual. I was stymied every time. How did they do it? Eventually I realized that if I could figure that out, the story was no good. ‘Dog Heaven’ is so lovely a story – why hasn’t Vaughn published any more books since Sweet Talk in 1990? – that I don’t want to describe it. I want, instead, to sneak into your house and read it to you, standing a little too closely, so you can feel my hot breath in your ear.
First published in The New Yorker, January 1, 1989, and available to subscribers to read here; collected in Sweet Talk, Random House, 1990
I would like to make clear that I have included several former students of mine on this list not because I think I taught them anything, but because my greatest, perhaps only talent as a teacher is that I’m a good reader. I know when to shut up and gawk. I’m particularly clear that I taught Yiyun Li nothing because I remember reading this story in The Paris Review when she was first a student in my class. This far into my anthology I am aware of my favorite things in short stories: the ability to cover serious chronology; peculiar characters; bravado narration. This story is also the best first person plural I know. She has written many, many brilliant short stories (and also novels) since she published this story in The Paris Review.
First published in The Paris Review, Fall 2003, and available to read here; collected in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Random House, 2005
Alice Munro is so beloved by short story writers – so canonized, admired, studied, sanctified – that it’s easy to forget what a deeply strange writer she can be. Friend of My Youth – the book, and the title story – came out as I was graduating from my MFA program. It was probably the first Munro story that I read over and over, trying to see how it was constructed. It begins in dreams – the narrator dreaming of her mother, now dead, alive and healthy – and then follows her mother to her youth, and then to a farm where she boarded as a young school teacher. Time, as is often is the case in Alice Munro stories, is a series of trap doors. The very ending is so strange, and yet so breathtaking, that I will leave it there for you to discover. There are stories that I love that are easily explicable, but the stories on my list for A Personal Anthology aren’t. Perhaps I wanted to make things hard for myself. Perhaps I only want you to read them. Here’s a mystery; please don’t solve it.
First published in The New Yorker January 14, 1990; collected in Friend of My Youth, Knopf/Vintage, 1990, and Selected Stories, 1997
I knew Janet Frame’s work but not well when I appeared at the Auckland Literary Festival, and I appeared on a panel with the writer Damien Wilkins, who read the whole of ‘My Last Story’ to the audience. I have, since then, read the whole of ‘My Last Story’ to my fiction classes. It is a deeply strange story, short enough that, like a poem, you can read it in all directions, back up, run turns of phrase through your finger, and puzzle over its meaning. “I don’t like writing stories,” it begins, and then it goes on, all voice and wry sorrow, to explain why. It has one of the most heart-stopping ends of any story I know, even more heart-stopping when you know that this story was the last in her first book; that the first book won the Hubert Church Memorial Prize; that somebody at the psychiatric hospital where Frame was about to undergo a lobotomy read about the prize, and halted the procedure. Does fiction matter? This seems a definitive answer.
First published in The Lagoon and Other Stories, Caxton Press, 1951; collected in Prizes: The Selected Stories of Janet Frame, Counterpoint 2010; available to read online here
I realize every single story in this list, perhaps nearly every story I ever recommend to anyhow, I wish to introduce this way: “This is a strange story.” The strangeness of the prose in all of Jess Arndt’s work rings my brain like a bell – “Even now I can smell the mimeograph ink that reminds me, in a sharp inhalation, of last night’s freshly snuffed out sky.” I could spend all day in that sentence, or any of the sentences in ‘Jeff’, which features a cameo from Lily Tomlin, a mysterious building, longing, gender, imagined violence, more longing. Arndt’s sentences are slantwise and full of beauty; the stories themselves comes at you from nearly subdermal angles, and break your heart in unexpected ways.
First published in Bomb Magazine, 2014, and available to read here; collected in Large Animals: Stories, Catapult, 2017