The rules of this game require me to select a dozen stories, no more, no fewer – which is both a blessing and a curse. Twelve is enough to get anyone thinking, far too few to represent the range of writers and stories we should celebrate. But formal constraint can be a spur to invention, so I have invented another arbitrary rule to give myself a principle of selection. Which brings me to story number one:
This most playful of stories about truth and fiction kicks off with a boorish conversation in which two men in a café discuss the difference between the novel (“A flabby old whore!”) and the short story (“a slim nymph”). It careens through a litany of more-or-less awful jokes, a disquisition on friendship and time, a passage of literary criticism/creative writing tips (we’ll come back to that) and a heartfelt plea for wider access to the cancer drug Herceptin. So, is this even a story, let alone a true one?
Well, it contains facts: Smith’s friend, with whom she says she wrote the story in discussion, had cancer and would have to pay for the drug. The initial prompt for the story came, Smith has said, from overhearing a conversation pretty much exactly like the one described. But there’s the rub. The written story starts not with the conversation, but with Smith sitting in the café observing the two men and – in the way that we all do – speculating about who they might be, before the second paragraph begins: “I stopped making them up.” She starts listening instead. In this manoeuvre Smith simultaneously highlights the artifice of the story, claims to reject that artifice in favour of truth and employs a classic framing device beloved of so many ‘realist’ storytellers. Whether you like this sort of metatextual game is a matter of taste – I do, up to a point – but there’s no denying Smith’s skill and sheer chutzpah.
It’s also the perfect palate-tickler for an anthology. Smith chucks in reflections on the short story from a dozen or so writers and literary theorists. One of them, Elizabeth Bowen, says that the short story “creates narrative every time absolutely on its own terms”, which is certainly true of this story. Wondering how the other prescriptions might stand up gave me my self-imposed rule.
First published and still available in Prospect, Dec 17 2005; collected in The First Person and Other Stories, Penguin 2009
Tvetan Todorov says that the thing about a short story is that it’s so short it doesn’t allow us time to forget that it’s only literature and not actually life.
I’ve enjoyed AM Homes’ tough-minded, acerbic, emotionally off-kilter stories for years – from the one about dating a Barbie doll to the recent tour-de-force about love and atrocity, ‘Days of Awe’ (Granta 143; collected in Days of Awe, Granta Books, 2018). But I’ve chosen ‘Things You Should Know’ for purely personal reasons. When I studied Chemistry at school I always felt I was missing something basic: I muddled along, I passed the exam, but I never quite knew how or why. There must have been some explanation at the start of term that I had somehow missed. Over the years, this sensation recurred – remind me again why structuralism mattered? What is it you expect from me in this job, exactly? – until one day in 2003 I read: “There are things I do not know. I was absent the day they passed out the information sheets.” And I have never forgotten it. The sheets the narrator believes were handed out by her fourth grade teacher include, she guesses, “Not things to know, not things you will learn, but things you already should know but maybe are a little dumb, so you don’t.” It was perhaps the most banal epiphany ever because the fact that it’s a story – and the collection’s title story at that – means mine is obviously not a purely personal response at all.
Collected in Things You Should Know, Granta Books, 2003
Franz Kafka (Smith says) says that a short story is a cage in search of a bird.
Melville’s story – like Smith’s – employs a leisurely, nineteenth-century frame in which the narrator introduces himself and his other employees before getting on to Bartleby, and ends with an epilogue in which he explains what little he can and generalizes desperately: “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” It is desperate because all this paraphernalia is being deployed in a doomed attempt to capture the soul of the competent but wilful copyist whose power over our imagination comes precisely from the fact that he would “prefer not” – to work, to leave the office, to recognize the incongruity of his position. A man who would literally prefer to starve to death in prison than explain himself. Is Bartleby as free as a bird? Hardly, but the story’s inability to capture him is the reason it’s impossible to forget.
First published in Putnam’s Magazine, Nov/Dec 1853, included in Piazza Tales, 1856, and now published everywhere, including by Melville House Publishing, 2004 and online here
Nadine Gordimer says short stories are about the present moment, like the brief flash of a number of fireflies here and there in the dark.
I recently wrote a story in which a man in his sixties easily locates a book he hasn’t read since university, because his shelves are so well organized. Pure fantasy, of course: the set of books I’ve read is much larger than the set of those I can currently lay my hands on. I’ve chosen ‘A Walk in the Park’ from The Burn partly for its brutally ambiguous title, and partly, if I’m honest, because I simply could not find my copies of his earlier collections Greyhound for Breakfast and Not, not while the giro. If you’re only familiar with the novels – or not familiar with Kelman at all – these are a treat. Pure slivers of working class Glaswegian life, with all the poverty and alcohol and love and rage that the late 80s had to offer, but all rendered with minute attention to the detail of language and dialect. It’s prose you have to read at talking speed – which suits me fine: I’m a slow reader – tuning in to the demotic speech and thought-patterns of his frequently broken, but always human, characters. Some people found Kelman difficult to read – just as, more recently, some inexplicably declared Anna Burns’ Milkman difficult to read – but if you can’t hear Kelman’s people talking in your head, it’s because you’re not listening. Slow down.
‘A Walk in the Park’ maintains a perfect balance between banality and tragedy in the story of a man and woman, both weighed down by failed relationships; they meet and wonder what to do of an afternoon:
They stood staring at each other for several moments. Then she said: The library?
A walk in the park?
But a walk in the park it is. They even hold hands. She tries, she teases, and he tries, too, but all the while he’s keeping the lid on a boiling rage born of frustration, of an awareness of his own inability to cope.
A brief flash, indeed, if fireflies lived for thirty years.
First published in The Burn, Secker and Warburg, 1991; Minerva paperback 1992; currently available from Polygon, 2009
Eudora Welty says that short stories often problematize their own best interests and that this is what makes them interesting.
Which brings us to Beckett. I don’t go in much for heroes: Joe Strummer, maybe, Samuel Beckett. Beckett spent six decades writing stories that, in Smith/Welty’s words, increasingly problematized their own best interests – if you think it’s in the interest of a story to be a story, or even to be read. But when you can’t go on, and can’t not go on, either, what else can you do?
So where to start? I’ve plumped, perversely perhaps, for the end. Not The End, written forty years earlier, but Stirrings Still, the last completed prose he wrote. In it a man, unnamed but recognizable to Beckett readers from long before The Unnameable (1953), sits alone in a bare room and contemplates his own death. A barrel of laughs? Not exactly. Beckett is at heart a comic writer and fabulously funny (the two don’t always go together) but his humour, always bleak, was struck from harder and harder rock as time went on. However, there is a moment of clarity here, perhaps even of grace, that had eluded him in much of the later prose. He recalls an old friend (who had died and left him, naturally) and a favourite poem; there are hints of Beckett’s own literary hero, Dante, and in the end, a glimmer of a hint of an idea that he might, after all, have managed to fail better:Such and more such the hubbub in his mind so-called till nothing left from deep within but only ever fainter oh to end. No matter how no matter where. Time and grief and self so-called. Oh all to end. And you can’t say fairer than that.
First published in a signed limited edition, and in The Guardian, 3 March 1989; later republished in the posthumous edition As the Story Was Told (1990). Available in Company / Ill Seen Ill Said / Worstward Ho / Stirrings Still, Faber & Faber, 2009: and in The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989, Grove Press, 1995
Henry James says that the short story, being so condensed, can give a particularized perspective on both complexity and continuity.
I’ve paired James and Wodehouse partly because I can’t help thinking ‘The Master’ would be outraged, while Wodehouse would be tickled pink, and partly because “complexity and continuity” captures perfectly the essence of a Wodehouse story. Blandings will never change: the inadequacies of foolish young men and officious private secretaries will always be overcome by a combination of smart, attractive young women and the apparently accidental interventions of the ninth Earl; there will never be a tenth; the Empress will sicken and fatten, but never be slaughtered for pork chops. That we know all this is part of the joy, allowing us to wallow in the glory of the comic engineering like … well, like pigs in mud.
There are those, of course, who prefer the world of Jeeves and Wooster, and a handful with a soft spot for Psmith, against whom I say nothing; but for me, in the short form at least, nothing Wodehouse wrote could better ‘The Crime Wave at Blandings’.
First appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, October 1936, and the Strand, January 1937. It was included in the collection Lord Emsworth and Others, 1937, which is currently available from Everyman, 2002. The story is included in a number of collections and available alone as a ‘Penguin Modern Mini Classic’, Penguin, 2011
Jorge Luis Borges says that short stories can be the perfect form for novelists too lazy to write anything longer than fifteen pages.
It is rare for a Davies story to last that long: ‘The Coat” clocks in at eight and-a-half. Her recent novel, West,musters only 149. Mistress of the art of concision, her stories are also, like Wodehouse’s, precisely engineered, their final lines slotting into place in ways that both surprise and satisfy.
Evangelina Hine keeps her handsome blacksmith husband Joseph’s coat hanging by the door he walked out of a year ago because she can’t – or won’t – see him as “a man who was doing his best to disappear”. The narrator, Margaret, sent to comfort her, and perhaps make her see sense, finds herself feeling more than pity. When Joseph unexpectedly returns, it is not as a ghost, but as a woman; a story about pity for an abandoned wife suddenly becomes one about the self-pity of the still-married Margaret.
A lazy writer could get away with giving us far less plot: it takes real effort to craft so much in so small a space. But not everything is about concision. Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ runs to twice Borges’ outer limit. It plunges us straight into a rambling, chatty voice:
And so, in a certain department there served a certain clerk; a not very remarkable clerk, one might say – short, somewhat pockmarked, somewhat red-haired, even with a somewhat nearsighted look, slightly bald in front, with wrinkles on both cheeks and a complexion that is known as haemorrhoidal … No help for it! the Petersburg climate is to blame.”
In short, it looks like we’re in a tale (notably, the Granta edition is The Collected Tales– not stories), an anecdote that will follow the rambling byways of the teller’s mind; in reality, this first paragraph is as self-aware as Ali Smith’s, its descriptions as pitch-perfect as Wodehouse’s.
Half a dozen pages in, our not very remarkable clerk, Akaky Akakievich, visits the tailor Petrovich to get his old coat repaired. (“Of this tailor, of course, not much should be said, but since there exists a rule that the character of every person in a story be well delineated, let us have Petrovich here as well.”) Repair is impossible: Akaky Akakievich must buy a new coat he cannot afford; after months of scrimping – and dreaming of his new coat – he finally manages to buy it, only to be robbed at once. By now we’re twenty pages in, and we know the only question is just how much worse things will get for poor Akaky Akakievich.
And on we go, through a rollicking, devastating, genuinely affecting satire that makes one wonder whether Borges might not have got things back-to-front. Perhaps the novel is the perfect form for writers too lazy for short stories.
‘The Coat’, in The Redemption of Galen Pike, Salt, 2014. ‘The Overcoat’, in The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, trans. By Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Granta Books, 2003, and available online, including here
William Carlos Williams says that the short story, which acts like a flare of a match struck in the dark, is the only real form for describing the briefness, the brokenness and the simultaneous wholeness of people’s lives.
If Gogol’s artful rambling was part of the point, William Trevor was the master of the kind of writing in which every word earns its place, pays its taxes and volunteers for good causes on the side. Over 20-odd novels and a dozen story collections, there’s no shortage of broken lives to choose from. In the middle of the first page of ‘The Piano Teacher’s Pupil’ we find the following paragraph:
Now in her early fifties, slender, softly spoken, with a quiet beauty continuing to distinguish her features, Miss Elizabeth Nightingale considered that she was fortunate in her life. She had inherited a house on the death of her father, and managed without skimping on what she earned as a piano teacher. She had known the passion of love.
How’s that for giving us the briefness, the brokenness and the simultaneous wholeness of someone’s life? For telling us what she believes about the fullness of her life and what she lacks, and how both can be true at once. In less than sixty words.
Published in Last Stories, Penguin, 2019
Walter Benjamin says that short stories are stronger than the real, lived moment, because they can go on releasing the real, lived moment long after the real, lived moment is dead. (Smith, says: I’m sure Benjamin didn’t put it quite like that.)
When I was planning this anthology, I had a Rose Tremain story in my head about Nancy Reagan caring for Ronald after Alzheimer’s got the better of him. I remembered it for its audacity and its astonishing empathy. But I searched and searched and when I finally tracked down ‘The Former First Lady and the Football Hero’, I found it is in fact another A.M. Homes story from Things You Should Know. Which I should have known.
What I did know, but had forgotten, was that ‘The Darkness of Wallis Simpson’ is an equally audacious trip inside the mind of the dying Duchess of Windsor. The story for which the Duchess is known is not her story; the woman for whom Edward VIII gave up an empire has forgotten he ever lived.
It’s a brilliant, queasy read. But, in my fantasy anthology there’s a story that lives on past the real, lived moment, a story by Rose Tremain about Ronald and Nancy Reagan…
In The Darkness of Wallis Simpson and other stories, Vintage, 2006
Cynthia Ozick says … a short story is more like the talismanic gift given to the protagonist of a fairy tale – something complete, powerful, whose power may not yet be understood, which can be held in the hands or tucked into the pocket and taken through the forest on the dark journey.
Saunders is one of those writers who had a powerful influence on me when I started writing, and this story is the one that has stuck with me for eighteen years. Absurd, slightly twisted reality is nothing new in literature – I’d read a lot of Vonnegut when I was young – but Saunders’ combination of deadpan surrealism, a perfect blend of pedantic corporate- and slacker-speak, and a genuinely humane appreciation of the ways in which late capitalism fucks with our heads? That really was. Above all, Saunders trusts the reader to go with him, to work out what’s going on. Reading it gave me the gift – a talisman, if you will – of knowing that such things could be done. It helped me get going – as soon, of course, as I stopped trying to imitate the inimitable.
‘Pastoralia’ depicts an anthropological amusement park in which the narrator and his colleague, Janet, share a cave, are given a raw goat and a box of matches each day – a rare privilege – and are expected to grunt, not talk in English. Janet chafes against the absurdity and cruelty of it all; the narrator worries her chafing will get them both in trouble:
“Will you freaking talk to me?” she says. “This is important. Don’t be a dick for once.”
I do not consider myself a dick and I do not appreciate being called a dick, in the cave, in English, and the truth is, if she would try a little harder not to talk in the cave, she would not be so much in the shit.
Published in The New Yorker, April 3, 2000, and included in the collection Pastoralia, Bloomsbury, 2001
Alice Munro says that every short story is at least two short stories.
We’re back in Scotland, where I wrote much of this. Galloway’s stories are brutally funny: like Saunders’, they also trust the reader to work stuff out. “This was what happened: you thought you had problems till you found a whole new set in whatever ward they put you in.” (from ‘and drugs and rock and roll’)
In ‘jellyfish’, a divorced mother treats her son to a trip to the seaside the day before he’s due to start school. Being the parent of a four year-old can be funny and boring and full of love, and Galloway gives us all of that. It is also scary. His whole world rested on a terrifying level of trust that shocked and moved her in equal measure. And when they find jellyfish stranded on the beach, a story about a mother worried about how her son will cope without her gradually becomes – at one and the same time – a story about how a mother will cope without her son:
soft, transparent animals, open as wounds, lying where the tide settled them to simply wait.
jellyfish’ was commissioned for Headshook, ed. Stuart Kelly, Hachette, Scotland, and included in jellyfish, first published in 2015 by Freight Books, Glasgow. Republished with additional stories by Granta Books, 2019