When I was toying with ideas for a PhD thesis a few years back, one of them was to write about how short stories tackle the Big Subjects. I was interested in what a short story is, what it is for, and what a writer of the seeks to get out of them, and how they can often be the most incisive way of getting to the heart of something. I have a lot of sympathy for the Borges line about saying in one paragraph what novelists take 500 pages to say. I also like the Irwin Shaw line (I forget the exact quote) about the novel having to be about an entire man in all his aspects for all his life, whereas a short story can be about one man for a moment. But I also like that a short story lives beyond its pages. It is created with the express purpose of lingering in the reader’s mind, to go on and unfurl in the days, weeks and months and years after the first reading and keep revealing its meanings. I think my anthology picks stories that do this, but also, they are stories that use the short form to take on those Big Issues, from national identity to the Holocaust, from sexual politics to social politics, feminism, grief, loneliness, German philosophy, and just plain old growing up. It’s a bit eclectic, but therein lies the joy.
I’ve been commissioned to write a play about the life and work of Dorothy Edwards, the Bloomsbury lot’s ‘Welsh Cinderella’ (as her patron-of-sorts David Garnett used to introduce her). The play has been a real passion project (and if all goes to plan it’ll be touring Wales and further afield in 2023) and an important part of the process has been to frequently remind myself why I am doing it in the first place. Edwards’ fiction (she published a short story collection and a novel before her suicide in 1934 at the age of thirty-one) is strangely enigmatic, the very epitome of the work being done in the spaces between what is written. Her work is uniformly sublime. She wrote in her journal about her fiction being the place where she could arrange her thoughts “pure and unclouded” and that gives a sense of what her prose does. “The Conquered” is perhaps her most famous work, although I’d argue she is largely forgotten, especially when you compare her to other women writers who moved in similar circles, like Katherine Mansfield. Some Welsh writers, such as the novelist and poet Christopher Meredith, and academics like Claire Flay, did good work on bringing her back into the fold over the last twenty years, and I wouldn’t have ever read her had it not been for their revivalism (and then my wife reading her on her MA in Cardiff). ‘The Conquered’ is frequently anthologised and sometimes I feel it is to the detriment of her other stories, and her novel A Winter Sonata. But this is her only story that really touches on Wales – it is set in the marches but also “the conquered” of the story can be interpreted as the colonised people of Wales embodied by the self-loathing collaborative spirit of the Welsh upper-class characters the narrative introduces us to.
First published in Rhapsody, Wishart, 1927; subsequently anthologised and republished by Virago in 1986, and Parthian as part of the Library of Wales series in 2007. Available to read on the Library of Wales website here
I am slowly coming to the conclusion that Welsh literature (in the English language) owes its greatest unpaid debt to Caradoc Evans. He was much reviled – famously, his portrait was slashed with a knife as it hung in the National Portrait Gallery in the 1920s and the Western Mail called him Wales’s “best hated man” – he was, even if only legendarily, Wales’s Public Enemy Number One. My feeling on this is one of intense jealousy for his notoriety. I think Wales has always put too much stock in the toeing of the line when it comes to established narratives of what it means to be Welsh. Evans wrote unflinchingly and grotesquely about the village communities her grew up in and his stories are unflattering, to put it mildly – that was bad enough – but what was worse was that he did it from London, where he had been a journalist for a few decades before My People, his first and most controversial collection, was published in 1915. I am now convinced Evans’ detractors have and had a moronic view of both Wales and literature in general – what literature is for and what it can do. I’ve come to view Evans as a hero, even if that’s been a recent appraisal. I am writing a book for the University of Wales Press, a sort of history of Welsh literature, but from a creative rather than academic approach, and as I go on this journey, I keep coming back to an inescapable feeling that My People remains the most important event in Welsh writing. It knocked the stuffing out of everyone and a hundred and seven years later his stories still burn ferociously. I include here ‘A Father in Sion’ because it’s the first and what better place to start, but I could have had anything of his.
First published in My People: Stories of the Peasantry of West Wales, Andrew Melrose, 1915. Available to read on WikiSource here
At the risk of giving away too much information, a small 1950s edition of A Dove’s Nest my wife picked up in Hay-on-Wye an age ago is on the windowsill of the downstairs loo along with some other essentials like a Claire Keegan book and The Penguin Book of Exorcisms. Mansfield has lingered with me for a few years, but only recently, partly because her story reflects something of Dorothy Edwards (and of course, Woolf, with whom Mansfield had a complex respectful rivalry). I am consistently astounded at how modern Mansfield’s voice remains – she was the consummate modernist, I guess. She is forthright, fearless, and exceedingly good company. I love that Virginia Woolf just couldn’t keep away from her. I don’t think Woolf particularly liked her, but she was compelled to be in her presence, to discuss writing with her, to explore that mind of hers. Mansfield was a New Zealander, and I think it’s important to remember something I heard Eleanor Catton once say about the psychology of the New Zealand writer, that people just don’t realise how isolated a place it is, and how far away from their closest neighbours they are. That has an effect in many ways, but particularly on how a writer views the world. Mansfield was, as the experts would have it, an adventuress, and her life story is even more brilliant in its colours of passion and intensity than the fiction she dedicated herself to. As her death encroached (she probably caught her tuberculosis from DH Lawrence) she wrote incessantly, and ‘The Doll’s House’ comes from this period. It is a great example of that voice I am so enraptured by. It is lively, funny, it cuts you dead with its swagger. I just love being around it.
First published in The Doves’ Nest and Other Stories, Middleton Murry, 1923, and widely collected. Available to read on the Katherine Mansfield Society website, here
I was teaching an undergraduate creative writing class up at the University of South Wales last year and one of the students was building a collection of short stories all based around her experiences waiting tables in a bougee bistro pub somewhere in the south Wales valleys. I was reminded immediately of one of my favourite stories from one of my favourite writers. ‘Work’ sits rather awkwardly in Lloyd’s 2021 collection The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies – awkwardly in an entirely convincing and satisfying way – in that it isn’t quite as elegiac and grittily magical as the stories around it. ‘Work’ is about one of those aimless figures at a point in their life when it looks like this is it, this is what life is going to look like, and the journey has turned into a destination. I am in awe of stories that take the truth at the core of every life – that it is both wonderous and boring – and makes the most of both of those things. Dorothy Edwards did the same for her peculiar parade of well-to-dos in their country houses and retreats, kicking stones and wondering about how nothing ever happens. The last line of ‘Work’ is a gut-punch (I won’t give it away) and a return to that which is found in Edwards, although this is about the modern working-class experience – or rather that new modern class of university-educated worker bees hobbled by debt and a narrowing middle. ‘Work’ is a quiet masterpiece about that ignored (apart from by Ken Loach, maybe) strata of society, home to the people who fall between the cracks.
Published in The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies, Swift Press, 2021
Maybe a bit of a cheat as this was published as a novella, but it does also appear (and where I first came across it) in Bellow’s Collected Stories (2001), but it is such a great piece of work by… what is that cringey expression that’s currently going around?… the GOAT???… and it also falls in perfectly with this idea of how a short story can find a way into tackling the biggest issues around. ‘The Bellarosa Connection’ is generally regarded as Bellow’s only concerted effort to write about the Holocaust in his fiction. Setting aside the argument that everything Bellow wrote was in the shadow of the Jewish experience, it is telling that even a writer as unflinching and confident as Bellow waited so long before finding a way to take it head on. Even then, it isn’t head on. ‘The Bellarosa Connection’ is as much a story about storytelling as it is about the Holocaust, which is of course a central tenet to the legacy of that event – how do we tell that story? How do we pass it down? How do we make it more than history, slipping further from our technicolour understanding of things with every passing day. It opens with a typically Bellovian sentence – by which I mean almost every Bellow sentence is magnificent, only some are more magnificent than others. “As founder of the Mnemosyne Institute in Philadelphia, forty years in the trade, I trained many executives, politicians and members of the defense establishment, and now that I am retired, and the institute is in the capable hands of my son, I would like to forget about remembering.”
First published as a novella by Penguin, 1989, and then in Saul Bellow: The Collected Stories, in 2001
I still remember the effect that last line of this story had on me when I first read it however many years ago. I came to it, like so many, from the movie adaptation, which is something that has had a changing impression on me as I’ve gotten older (as a teen it was the last reels of the movie, and the terrible images as Donald Sutherland finally catches up with his obsession, but as I got older and started a family, it’s the beginning of the film, of course, that sticks). As a study of grief and loneliness, du Maurier is at her best, and Nick Roeg tapped into that for his film. But du Maurier also had this unshakeable darkness – the uncanny, academics like to call it now – this sinisterness bubbling away that is something other than the trauma of the worst life can throw at you. Nick and Laura are struggling in the slow levelling out of grief-into-life after the drowning of their child. Laura becomes entranced by a pair of psychic old lady sisters, and Nick becomes obsessed with a serial killer on the loose in Venice, where they have gone to try and realign. Du Maurier has a marvellous light touch considering all the plates she has spinning in the fifty-odd pages, but it all sets us up for that last sentence, the ellipsis trailing into the space of a fear I didn’t even know I had until she mentioned it…
First published in Not After Midnight, Gollancz/Don’t Look Now, Doubleday, 1971, currently available as a Penguin Modern Classic and NYRB Classic
I’ve picked this because I re-read it a few Decembers ago for the first time since I was a child picking through my grandfather’s complete Dickens he bought from a Reader’s Digest salesman in the fifties (which is incidentally the collection I now own, and was rereading from). I was surprised – I don’t know why – at how brilliantly funny it is. Not just strange and colourful and mercurial and witty like Dickens so often is, but proper funny – it has gags. I realise I may be cheating again, as this is a novella by any strict definition of the word, but I tend to regard anything I can read in one sitting (and I am not what you’d call a fast reader) as a short story. Dickens is a writer I seem to be drawing closer to as I get older, and it sometimes feels like joining a club. People I would never have thought into him will give you wide smiles and winks if you bring up Bleak House in conversation, and you find The Christmas Books (from which the most famous “A Christmas Carol” is taken) are genuinely read and beloved widely. People don’t just take their favourite movie adaptation (normally the Muppets) and stick. (I realise I am sounding like the guy who is being amazed that people read Dickens). But rereading ‘A Christmas Carol’ led me to realise this is not a light seasonal comedy with turkey and ghosts and snow and Victorian biscuit tin trimmings, and it is not just about a grumpy old miser who becomes happy and generous. It is about loneliness and isolation, and… another theme developing here… how we remember our past.
Originally published as a novella in 1843 by Chapman & Hall, and subsequently included in various iterations as one of the Christmas Books series
I’m compensating for having two novellas in this list by now including Amy Hempel’s one hundred-and-seventeen-word (I just counted them) title opener to her most recent collection. I could have chosen anything from Sing to It, because I think it is one of the great books of literature of our time, but I’m including the first story because it is a barnstormer of an opening track, like ‘The Thrill of It All’ or ‘The Queen is Dead’. It blasts you into the stratosphere. For its brevity, it is epic. I discuss this story often with students in my creative writing class at Cardiff University, and rarely do we get the same interpretation twice in one room. The literature takes place in the reader. And as for our theme of short stories tackling big subjects, ‘Sing to It’ is about death, but also death as the ultimate metaphor for life, and the fact the story is itself a metaphor while essentially just being a foggy account of a conversations about metaphors. I’m telling you; it has layers. And how else can you talk about death without veering off to the elegiac and the magical? Where the story ends is in transcendence. Hempel is a precious mind.
Published in Sing to It, Scribner, 2019. Available to read on Lithub, here
Okay, so I may be overcompensating for the two novellas now, as this wonderful snip from Simic is even shorter than the Hempel. But I think this is an example of literature at its purest. It is also, in the way I read it, one of the greatest pieces of immigrant writing ever I’ve read. Or rather, a story about the immigrant experience, about the psychological influences of being a stranger in a foreign land, trying to make a life for yourself. It is also, in another way, simply about growing up and finding the world outside the home more alluring than the one your family has built for you. The story is funny and grotesque and has a distinct Borgesian flavour. By including this (and the next one) I am also coming dangerously close to the debate about what is a short story and what is a prose poem? Simic is a poet, there’s no doubt about that, and you can find this story in the anthology of prose poetry Penguin put out a few years ago – I also abhor this debate, and I think it robs us all of valuable reading time. But I think of stories as something with some definable characteristics. Does it have a beginning, middle, and an end? Is there a central tension? If the answer is yes, then it’s a story. (It may also, I should say, be a poem – but it’s definitely a short story). Simic has all of these things in his gypsy allegory. It is also a story that once read, which you can do in about fifteen seconds flat, it can become as long and wide as a Russian novel in your mind. You carry it with you wherever you go.
Originally published in The World Doesn’t End, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1996. Available to read on Poetry International, here
Another Christmas story, and another story by a poet, and another story that many may just think is a poem, but I would argue again it meets the definition I go by as having a beginning, middle, and an end, and there is a point of tension within it. Carson is one of my favourite writers, and I don’t often think of her as a poet, more of an adventurer, an explorer, and language is her forbidden planet. I think ‘Merry Christmas from Hegel’ is one of the most effecting and lingering explorations of grief and loneliness that I have ever read. Just like the narrator, you don’t have to understand Hegelian philosophy to get what is being done here. Language, its knots and strands, is being used to push a boulder up a hill, not, necessarily, to unpick and explicate existential critical theory (did I just call Hegel an existentialist? – see, I told you you didn’t need to understand any of it to get the point). What blows me away about this story is the emotional journey we go on, from grief to quiet exuberance, all via a deep dive in Hegelianism and the art of building snowmen.
First published in Float, Cape, 2016. You can hear Carson read it here
Ali Smith is one of the greats, and it would be ironic if in my anthology of Big Subjects, I did not include as one of the Big Subjects the art of the short story itself. Of course, ‘True Short Story’ is not so much about the art (or history) of the short story. At least, it is at the surface, and then just beyond that it is about cancer, and just beyond that again it is about women’s healthcare. It is about more besides. The more you read it, the more it unfurls. Smith is a consummate stylist, and even though this story is based around a series of conversations – had, eavesdropped, and conducted via voicemail back-and-forths – it is still no easy trick to have a story feel like a conversation between friends. The story ends with a series of paraphrased quotes from the great and good about the art of short stories, that also seem to accumulate into something pertaining to the meaning of life, and ways in which to live a good one. One of them is from Grace Paley, and it says “she chose to write only short stories in her life because art is too long and life is too short”.
First published in The First Person, Pantheon, 2008. Available to read on Prospect, here
Always finish with an explosion. That might have been something Chekhov said, had he been inclined to build on his first-act-pistol-maxim. This is also a way of circling back to Caradoc Evans and the idea that fiction – particularly short stories – should be kicking over some statues and burning down some temples. In this sense at least, I am entirely on the side of the writer who’s having their portraits slashed. The controversy around this story was formed almost exclusively around the title, taken from a transphobic meme on the internet, and which Fall has since said she was using to subvert the ideas behind its power to cause distress. Just a few days after the story was published online by Clarkesworld Magazine, the editor took it down because of the barrage of abuse and threats Fall was receiving. The abuse drove her to a stay at a psychiatric hospital for suicidal ideation. Many people, me included, thought the story was excellent, an expansive and visceral takedown of the military industrial complex and the exploitative inclusiveness of corporate “progressiveness”. In the story, Barb has her gender “neuromedically reassigned” by the U.S. Army to “Attack Helicopter” so that she becomes a better pilot. Warfare is now a part of her psychological make-up. It is written with a great deal of poise and wit and taps into the finest elements of Ballardian social-commentary tech-horror (and I include this story in place of any number of J.G. Ballard’s I might otherwise have finished the anthology with). In 2021, it was nominated for a Hugo Award, and it now exists simply as “Attack Helicopter”.
Originally published under this title on Clarkesworld Magazine, 2020