Introduction

I used to think I was someone who didn’t really like short stories. I mean I used to think that back when I was a dumbass, which I’ve obvs recovered from. Now when I look back I realise how very many short stories really affected me and held onto me over the years. Stories in books with scrawled writing of admiration beside them, or stories I can still vividly remember despite not having ever possessed a hard copy of my own. 

I think nowadays I am aware of the form’s tremendous potential for exploring blur, ambiguity and mood, for fucking with our heads, and almost betraying us as readers, in a way that would be difficult to do over the length of a whole novel. We allow a short story to mess with us. The shortness lets us both play, and also be played with. It can take a misreading and make it almost the entire subject of the tale. And over recent years, reading with a group who have no particular skills beyond basic literacy, I see that when a story really grapples with these kind of things brilliantly, it can take even the least experienced reader far, far from where they started, without requiring any more investment than an hour.

‘Porcupines at the University’ by Donald Barthelme

I somehow believe I can actually remember the feeling of standing in a bookshop in America and reading this story for the first time. How completely it blew my mind that Barthelme’s bonkersness was a genuinely possible way of doing the job of ‘writing stories’. It also made me sort of die laughing, having just spent a first year at university being party to the kind of anxious conversations the Dean has with his wife about ‘facilities’. And whether they have sufficient for ‘thousands and thousands’ of porcupines, currently marauding their way across the plains towards the university, and now on close incoming approach. “Maybe they won’t enroll”, says the Dean, trying to reassure himself: “Maybe they’re just passing through”. Honestly, Donald. That was enough for lifelong love. Porcupine emoji, heart emoji. 

First appeared in The New Yorker, April 1970 and available here. Collected in Forty Stories, Putnam, 1987. Also available online here

‘A Conversation With My Father’ by Grace Paley

Once a week I facilitate a reading group in some sheltered housing where we read one short story, out loud, together, stopping every paragraph or so to talk about what’s happening. It’s a therapeutic thing more than a critical or literary thing, but I still try to pick stories that work in both ways. The narrator is sitting with her father, 86 years old and confined to his bed for health reasons. The father says, I would like you to write a simple story, just once more, like Chekhov or Maupassant. And then they start to have a deeper, more critical conversation about what that means, with her attempting to do what he asks, using neighbourhood characters as her material. As she tells and retells the neighbour’s story to her father, adding and subtracting detail, the actual hard work of fiction in defining what we think of as ‘character’ is laid bare. After listening to the whole thing, one of our group member’s Polish carer, who’d come in to push her wheelchair and help her drink a cup of tea, piped up “This story is like a Matryoshka doll!!”. At which point you know the story has won: smiley face emoji. 

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

‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, by Jorge Luis Borges

I first read this when I was really young, way too young to understand that it wouldn’t be viewed by adults as part of a continuum with my other twelve-year-old reading, such as Joan Aiken and Isaac Asimov. And yet actually when I think about it, the story’s odd dark invention of an imaginary encyclopedia article that appears and disappears, an apparently unknown region of the world, hints of hidden brotherhoods, huge conspiracy and mysterious new planets, subject to the intervention of fate – those two authors are in some ways exactly where he belongs. 

First published in Argentinian journal, ‘Sur’, in 1940. First published in English, translated by James E. Irby, in the April 1961 issue of New World Writing and collected in Labyrinths, New Directions, 1961. Variously translated and collected since. Available online here

‘Launderama’ by Toby Litt

These days lots of us know that Toby Litt writes his fictional works in alphabetical order, but when I bought Adventures in Capitalism in 1996 he was still only on the A and the revelation of that stylistic flourish was well in the future. What I did immediately know from reading it was that I was encountering a witty intelligence that wanted to fuck with my head. Plus I knew the geography of Ealing so well that I could picture precisely the real-life location of the spooked launderette, its neighbouring Indian restaurant AND funeral directors. This excellent tale of a wash with a ghostly difference, reread this 2020 morning, still makes me go OOOOH at the very end. 

First published in ‘Adventures in Capitalism’, 1996 and available online here

‘In Sight of the Lake’ by Alice Munro

Alice Munro has written about the world in which she lives so many times, but this story from late in her life tackles the very real muddle of being old, so weirdly that it almost seems like science fiction. An ordinary story of being slightly lost in southwest Ontario is increasingly tinged with disorienting, blurry oddness, ending in what feels for me like tragedy. And the story itself, the prose style, has something of a reality where words are coming unattached to things, and familiar places are losing familiarity. Real and unreal, and the way they can coexist in the life of a confused old person. I want to put sad face emoji. 

First published in Granta 118, Winter 2012, and available online for subscribers here. Collected in Dear Life, Chatto & Windus/McClelland & Stewart, 2012

‘The Private Life’ by Henry James

NO ONE DOES A SPECTRAL PRESENCE LIKE HENRY JAMES! There are such a posse of good ones to choose from, but this story fascinates me. A group of creative friends are holidaying in Switzerland together: “We talked of London, face to face with a great bristling, primeval glacier”. The social life of the party is dominated by Clarence “Clare” Vawdrey, an excellent raconteur. However, does he find the time to actually write anything, the group wonders? (It’s like the ultimate short story for anyone who thinks their favourite writer spends too much time on social media.) Then, our narrator has a chance encounter in a corridor, which makes him suspect that Vawdrey’s ‘true’ self may have unsuspected hidden skills. Funny, slightly spooky, and enlightening about the weird ambivalence of the creative life. Henry James emoji. There is one right?

First published in The Atlantic Monthly, April 1892. Collected in the Everyman Collected Stories Vol 2. Available online here