‘Paper Lantern’ by Stuart Dybek

We’re taught that plots need forward momentum to keep you hooked, but Dybek, who writes prose and poetry, doesn’t pull you forward through a story in a straight line. In stories like ‘Paper Lantern’, he’s more interested in looking backwards – the narrative drifts about, structured around voltas and refrains rather than plot points. ‘Paper Lantern’ is dreamy, sensuous and a bit erotic – it’s formed like a Russian Doll, with stories within stories, memories within memories. It’s a cheap joke that the main character is working on a time machine – the story is a time machine.

First published in The New Yorker, November 1995, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Paper Lantern: Love Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Jonathan Cape, 2015, and The Start of Something: Selected Stories, Simon & Schuster/Jonathan Cape, 2016. Listen to ZZ Packer read it here

‘Summer Vacation’ written and directed by Tal Granit & Sharon Maymon

If the constraints are tight when writing short fiction, I imagine they must be tighter when creating short films. ‘Summer Vacation’ is impressive for the speed with which its stakes heighten. It shows one man’s life unravel as an ex-boyfriend reappears while he and his family are on holiday – if you like Ruben Östlund’s ‘Force Majeure’, you’ll love this. Despite the sunny vibes, it feels like a thriller, and there are certain scenes that still shock on rewatching. Big revelations appear in novel ways, and though it’s a cliché to say, it really does feel like you’re watching a whole feature film in a fraction of the time (it’s 22 mins long).

Released 2012

‘리코더 시험 (The Recorder Exam)’ directed by Kim Bora

Another short film – sorry, I’m terrible at reading(!) – with a simple setup: Eunhee is preparing for a recorder exam and this one small stress applies pressure to and sheds light on her relationships with family and friends. A classic short story, I’d say, which successfully puts viewers in the mind of its nine-year-old main character. 

Released 2011

‘Pee on Water’ by Rachel B. Glaser

Reading this story makes me jealous. The plot spans the history of the planet (I think). The voice is original and so many of the sentences are just *chef’s kiss*. A particular favourite: “Jackets didn’t used to zip up. There wasn’t a single door.” If anyone still thinks that short stories need to be small in scope, or reserved in tone, they should read this. To quote the introduction to the story on Vice: “‘Pee On Water’ is the type of story they’ll be saying, “Dang, this shit is, like, classic,” about in 500 years.”

First published in New York Tyrant and collected in Pee on Water, Publishing Genius Press, 2014. Republished on Vice here

‘Lulu’ by Te-Ping Chen

I love stories about sibling relationships. Here, Lulu and the narrator are twins that escaped China’s one child policy and take very different paths in life. It’s a story about social media, political unrest and eSports, and has a classic feel despite its very contemporary subject matter. Apparently, Chen worked as an investigative reporter before writing fiction, which might explain her exacting style. Her collection’s just come out in the UK and I’m excited to read more of her other stories. 

First published in The New Yorker, April 2019 and available for subscribers to read here; collected in Land of Big Numbers, Simon & Schuster 2021

‘Snow’ by Dantiel W. Moniz

It might just be me, but I don’t really visualise characters physically when reading. But Moniz’s characters are so fully embodied, and she writes with such vivid sensual detail that I can actually get a sense of their bodies. As her collection’s title suggests, she’s interested in the physicality of her characters, and this comes through in ‘Snow’, my favourite story of hers. It’s another classic set up (a stranger walks into a bar…) but it unfolds in surprising ways. With its description of a blizzard and a potential affair, I think it would be interesting to read it alongside Sam Shepard’s story ‘Indianapolis (Highway 74)’.

First published in American Short Fiction, Winter 2020 and collected in Milk Blood Heat, Atlantic 2022

‘Exhalation’ by Ted Chiang

I wrote my university dissertation on George Saunders’ ‘Escape from Spiderhead’ and Jennifer Egan’s ‘Black Box’ and ever since have sought out sci-fi short stories. I struggle with sci-fi novels because of all the world-building and lengthy descriptions – but Chiang, my favourite sci-fi writers, cuts through all of that. His stories might be about Science with a capital S (‘Exhalation’ is about entropy, I think?…) but don’t let that put you off, they’re genuinely fun. Reading Chiang’s stories make me feel dumber and smarter at the same time, and always hit me in the feels. 

First published in Lightspeed Magazine, April 2014 and collected in Exhalation, Picador 2020. Read online here

‘Baby Steps’ written and directed by Joe Swanberg

A lot of Swanberg’s mumblecore autofiction-y films aren’t very interesting to me, but Easy, his anthology series on Netflix, shows him looking outward rather than inward. Easy shows how different lives in one Chicago neighbourhood rub up against each other – something I’ve tried to do for West London in my story collection, We Move. It’s hard to pick a favourite story from the series, but I’d definitely recommend ‘Baby Steps’. I think a script is called a ‘scenario’ in French, and that seems a fitting word for what Swanberg does here. He sets up dynamic scenarios for his characters and the actors (who I believe largely improvise) bring them to life. Kate Micucci is so good in this episode. 

From Easy, Netflix, 2017

‘Seeing Ershadi’ by Nicole Krauss

I went through a phase of listening to the New Yorker fiction podcasts to help me sleep. Because of this, there’s a whole lot of brilliant stories that I know the openings to in great detail, but whose endings I don’t really remember. One of those is ‘Seeking Ershadi’, which, in the best possible way, always sent me to sleep. I promise this is a genuine compliment! It’s in no way boring, but the gentle flowing prose and dreamlike storyline takes you effortlessly along. In the story, the protagonist believes they’ve spotted Ershadi, the actor in Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Taste of Cherry’, a film I sought out after listening and relistening to Krauss’ story. The film, already dreamlike, took on an extra layer of surrealness, as I felt I’d already encountered Ershadi myself, even though I couldn’t quite remember what happened to his character. I recommend both the story and the film, but don’t ask me about either of their endings, because I can’t say I understand them…

First published in The New Yorker, February 2018. Subscribers can read online here

‘The Polish Rider’ by Ben Lerner

This is another ekphrastic New Yorker story. Here a painter forgets one of her canvases in an Uber the night before her exhibition’s opening night. We begin in third person but – spoiler – a first person narrator appears part-way through. The story is always shifting like that. On one hand it’s essayistic – our narrator is writing an essay for the art exhibition (could it get any more Lerner?) – but the plot that unfolds is closer to a police procedural, with digressions about Uber, 80s television and the fall of the Soviet Union thrown in for good measure. Lerner writes interesting essays about art, too, so there’s fun tensions at play here, especially between visual and written art forms – on one level Lerner holds up visual art as superior to literature, but he does so while being able to capture paintings brilliantly within language, showing literature’s power. That all sounds very stuffy, so I’d also say that ‘The Polish Rider’ is very funny, too. If you like writing about painting, I also recommend Ayşegül Savaş’ stories, many of which are available free online.

First published in The New Yorker, May 2016. Subscribers can read online here

‘Far from the Tree’ written and directed by Natalie Nourigat

As someone trying to write “LiTeRaRy FiCtiOn”, I avoid ever having a ‘point’ to my stories – there’s no message or agenda in We Move. But for much of history, stories have served real-world purposes, with messages that teach and help people. Important information (there are lions in that valley, that water isn’t safe to drink, etc) was conveyed through fiction because stories are easy to remember and interesting to consume. I think Disney and Pixar short films continue this tradition – I binged a whole collection of them with my girlfriend when we got a free trial of Disney+ a few weeks ago. Standouts include ‘Bao’, ‘Piper’ and ‘Far from the Tree’ which in different ways are cautionary tales about overprotective parenting. They teach and they entertain, two things that some literary short fiction may potentially lose sight of. It’s also worth noting that the racoons in ‘Far from the Tree’ are super cute. 

Walt Disney Animation Studios, 2021