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?
I’m a long-time reader, first time contributor, to the Personal Anthology series— and perhaps I read it with a slightly competitive edge. I drank in Jonathan’s recent deep-dive into the five years of the project, and was unsurprised to see Lydia Davis reigning supreme among the picks. I nearly picked her perfect-paragraph story, ‘The Mother’, but as she has so many bangers, why choose one that’s been picked before? (Reading it would take you less time than reading this Anthology anyway.)
Davis could write a story about anything — in a conversation for the International Literature Festival Dublin in 2021,I heard her speak of feeling inspired by overhearing the term “caramel drizzle” at an airport Starbucks. ‘Jack in the Country’ sits at just over a page, and centres around a couple swapping stories about their friend Jack. The only issue is that they’re talking about different Jacks, a misunderstanding with disastrous consequences. As is Davis’ signature, it’s brilliantly concise and deftly sad, a parable of the impossibility of complete communication in a relationship:
“Henry cannot know, since he will not speak to Laura, that in fact a third Jack has become involved in this story, to the distress of the second Jack, for Laura’s affections have already strayed from the Jack that Ellen knows only slightly and that Henry does not know, and fastened on a Jack in the country unknown to them all.”
First published in Almost No Memory, Picador, 1997. Collected in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Penguin, 2014)
Something in the task of creating the Personal Anthology has drawn me towards early stories I encountered. I’ve been reading Edward Gorey’s work pretty much since I could read: do they count as stories? Certainly his tales are short in length, but illustrations make them more difficult to characterise, as they’re as much (if not more) integral to the stories than the words. And though they were mostly published in stand-alone hardbacks, I encountered most of them through the Amphigorey collections. While there are individual standouts (a favourite of mine is The Deranged Cousins), Gorey’s works are best experienced together, a full immersion into his irreverent, high-Gothic and high camp world.
In ‘The Willowdale Handcar’, three friends find an abandoned handcar and leave their lives behind for a life on the tracks. Non-sequitur encounters and tragedy just-hinted-at ensue, in typical Gorey fashion. But there’s a deep melancholy that courses through the story, and it’s stuck with me mostly because when I first read it, I didn’t understand it, and the way in which I didn’t understand frightened me. There is still something intriguing to me about this quite juvenile way of experiencing fiction, the fear and lure of something you don’t yet understand but feel you might in the future. Of course, I now realise I only don’t understand ‘The Willowdale Handcar’ in the way that I’m supposed to: but that unease is so valuable while you still have it.
Published by Bobbs Merrill, 1962. Collected in Amphigorey, Perigee Books, 2004)
Penelope Gilliatt shows no reverence for the artist-as-isolated from society, and holds back no acerbity here in her portrait of a nature poet so out of touch with everyday life that he refuses to waste his breath speaking, not even to his wife. Keeping her in silence and isolated in the countryside, he gets on with The Work while she composes notes (as concise as possible) that are never perfect enough to give to him.
I read Penelope Gilliatt’s collection, What’s It Like Out?, at the same time that I read Edna O’Brien’s A Scandalous Woman and Françoise Sagan’s Silken Eyes; while I remember the atmosphere of the latter two collections viscerally, I have only fleeting details of the stories themselves: a hat, an airport, a tower, a car. In contrast, I remember nothing about the rest of Gilliatt’s collection apart from this story. For years, I thought the poet of the story was a real figure, and the documentary which frames the story, one which I’d actually seen:
“‘They’ll be here all day. They’re sure to want the poet’s wife,’ he said tartly. ‘You can tell them how much you love the work, can’t you?’ He always spoke about his poetry as ‘the work’; it was this sort of dispassion that so excited the BBC.”
First published in The New Yorker, December 1966 and available to read here. Collected in What’s It Like Out? Secker & Warburg, 1968; also available from Virago Modern Classics, 1990)
‘Especially Heinous’ is another story which satisfies my desire to be convinced of alternative realities. Or, if not alternative realities, then at least real fictions in our reality. Here, Machado details twelve seasons and 272 episodes of an alternative Law & Order, one which may be closer to the X Files than the source material, in which supernatural occurrences are de rigueur. Stabler and Benson contend with ghosts with bells for eyes, doppelgangers, and exorcist priests, and each of the 272 summaries is a Lydia Davis-esque short story in its own right.
““The Third Guy”: Stabler never told Benson about his little brother. But he also never told her about his older brother, which was more acceptable, because he didn’t know about him, either.”
At 16,000 words long, whether it counts as a short story or a novella is up to the reader to decide. The episodic summary form, however, compels ‘Especially Heinous’ not to miss a word. Perhaps long short stories are more interesting to writer-readers than lay-readers, but I’ve always been struck by the boldness, the audacity, of the long short story. It’s incredibly freeing as an artist; if you can rewrite an entire long running TV series and make it compelling, anything is possible.
Published in Her Body And Other Parties, Serpent’s Tail, 2019. Also available online in The American Reader
Like Gilliatt’s nature poet, Babitz’s boyfriend in ‘The Flimsies’ is a soap actor who is obsessed with his career. “Have you finished your piece?” he asks her. “Practically,” she replies. “Work on something else then. When you’re down, you should always work.” Work, he says, “really is the most important thing for people like us… For anybody. But mainly for people like us.”
A quarter of my picks constitute material that would not traditionally be called short stories, and ‘The Flimsies’ is one of them. I love the lazy flow of this story, the meandering yet concise narrative Babitz gives to this very clearly interim relationship between people who fall together only because they both work in an industry many don’t understand. ‘The Flimsies’ are the summary versions of the soap scripts, compiled by the writers to outline dramas before they’re fleshed out, and notoriously, the medium through which soap actors learn of their characters’ fates. Does it matter that the relationship Babitz is narrating is one which she actually experienced? I don’t think so.
Published in Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh, and L.A. by Eve Babitz, Knopf, 1977l also available from New York Review of Books, 2016
Ellen has been saving for a trip to Florence for a lifetime, partly to satisfy a never-realised desire to travel and see art, and partly to escape her bullying companion Caroline. Caroline strongarms Ellen into accompanying her on the trip, and proceeds to ruin the magic of the holiday with her overly sensible advice and complaints about certain sights being overhyped. Whether it’s through bloodlust, a kind of haunting or madness is never clear; but one night, Ellen is pushed to breaking point, and Caroline falls victim to a silk scarf round her neck. Broster sketches the violence of the scene with an elliptical impressionism:
“You can pull and pull at an artificial silk scarf. It stretches, but it does not break, even when you have your knee, your whole body, straining against the side of the bed for better purchase.”
Before the murder, we see Caroline through Ellen’s eyes, as a hateful bully sucking joy from the trip. But afterwards, when Ellen finally gets to enjoy her trip as she always wanted it, we see a new side to Ellen. She is spiteful, and relishes her chance to be cruel when she can. Broster delves into a certain kind of complicated friendship that exists between women, and was perhaps even more common in the past; one of single women pushed together more by circumstance than any love for each other, and where every slight and harsh word is begrudgingly stored for a future argument. While it’s nesting among a (broadly speaking) supernatural collection, it’s easy to ascribe Ellen’s act to something beyond herself; but Broster keeps it beautifully grounded, never allowing Ellen’s emotions to be anything but human.
First published in A Fire of Driftwood by D.K. Broster; William Heinemann, 1932. Collected in From the Abyss. Weird Fiction, 1907-1945, by D.K. Broster, Handheld Press, 2022
Some films are short stories. Other films are novels. Some still are plays, and others are albums. Occasionally films may also be paintings. This is nothing to do with the source material, and everything to do with the execution, the ambience. Éric Rohmer’s first film series, Six Moral Tales, was destined to be a short story collection until Rohmer realised that what he had written were not actually short stories at all, but films.
Six Moral Tales is, arguably, about as perfect and classical as a short story collection can be, with each film both distinct and tying into an overall theme and mood. At the heart of each is a man struggling with fidelity. (Interestingly, Rohmer’s future films tended to focus more on female points of view.) ‘Chloé in the Afternoon’ is not my favourite of the six, and it also feels less literary than its predecessors in the series. But watch the scene where the protagonist, about to finally succumb to Chloe’s advances, suddenly runs away, which we view via an overhead shot of a staircase. It’s the perfect short story ending, one many of us chase after.
Much as some films are short stories, some short stories can be films, or plays, or paintings, or all three. While ‘Abortion, A Love Story’ isn’t only a play, it pulls off the unbelievable (even after you’ve read it) task of incorporating an unperformable play (which is nevertheless still a play) into the flow of the story.
Natasha and Lucy are two dissociated, anarchic students with no respect for the college systems and even less for their theatre studies classmates. Lucy reads Natasha’s email and writes a play for them both to star in. Natasha rewrites and improves it, and agrees. The play they stage celebrates and rips on everything from their respective abortions to the history of women on the Irish page and stage. It’s 77 pages long and every one of them is a bizarre and utterly sincere joy. It really is the kind of story you have to read to believe how masterfully, and naturally, it works.
Published in Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery. The Stinging Fly, 2019
Highsmith’s collection, An Animal-Lover’s Guide to Beastly Murder, is predominantly narrated by animals taking their sweet revenge on some deserving human. The humans are all odious, and the animals Ripley-esque in their desire to right wrongs and (more importantly) perceived slights. The animals are just as prickly as Highsmith’s humans are, and it makes for a collection which is delightfully unhinged.
When authors begin to write dialogue in animal noises, I’ve usually considered it to be a sign to stop reading (the main culprits here are Enid Blyton and late Agatha Christie, and it’s usually dogs.) Highsmith’s truffle-hunting pig Samson carries out conversations which appear on the page like this:
“‘Hwun-nf!—Ha-wun-nf! Umpf!’ Samson had found a good cache and he knew it.”
Highsmith, I will always contend, is a very funny writer who too often worked against rather than with her own off-kilter humour. Each em-dash and italicisation here is lovingly placed. I’m not sorry we didn’t get a longer-form version of the pig-conversations, but how many other writers would commit to the pageantry of this?
Published in An Animal-Lover’s Guide to Beastly Murder, Heinemann, 1975; also available from Norton, 2002
I like a short story with a structural thorn in its side, some kind of constraint. Peter and Jane, formerly of the Ladybird series teaching children how to read, are now grown up, and living adult lives with precarity, depression, loneliness, and grief. The only words Prior uses in the story are from the list of 300 which Ladybird compiled, the 300 most commonly used words in spoken English.
“‘Do It To Me One More Time’ was on and I had nothing on. All at once the man I work for was under the bed. It looked to me like a game, so I put my hand on my privates and said, ‘Come back up here. I’m so wet, I’m so wet for you!’ Then I saw that his Mrs had walked in. ‘It is not what it looks like, Dear,’ he said from under the bed. Well, that was fun. How could it not be what it looked like?”
In her author’s note accompanying the story, Prior explains some of the challenges of using this form:
“For instance, the only emotion is love—there is no happy or sad. No feel or feeling. There is black, white, blue, red, green, and that’s it. No yellow. Nor does the word colour exist. Numbers are limited from one to five. Though there is man and woman, there are men but no women.”
Perhaps it’s this omission that gives the story such a deep melancholy, the omission along with the jarring naivety of the voices. The Keywords predetermined Peter and Jane’s fate, and as Prior says, “It’s no wonder they got so messed up.”
First published in The Stinging Fly, 2021
My final choice is another short-short story, to balance out my two long picks. Residing in its collection just before ‘Brokeback Mountain’, ‘55 Miles to the Gas Pump’ is a snippy reflection on what makes us tell stories in the first place. A grisly murder scene is interrupted before it really gets started, with a chilling quip that functions as something halfway between an explanation and a warning:
“When you live a long way out you make your own fun.”
Published in Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx, Fourth Estate, 1999