A fellow writer once advised me that writing short form prose was a helpful way of developing the craft necessary for writing lengthier narratives but novels and short stories are different forms, and therefore require a different craft, I think. I find short stories hardest and so it is with Wayne’s World-style ‘not worthy’ bowing and scraping that I assemble this personal anthology of tales that have given me a jolt and in some instances caused a change of direction in my very personhood.

I have left out lots of favourites – I’m appalled that Lucia Berlin, Anne Enright and Alice Munro, mistresses of the form, didn’t make my final list, and Angela Carter is an obvious omission. Lesley Nneka Arimah’s ‘Who Will Greet You at Home’ and Sophie Mackintosh’s ‘The Weak Spot’ were close contenders, find their stories here and here. A couple of short stories which stayed with me are by unpublished writers – shout out to Carol Farrelly and Chetna Maroo. Hopefully their stories won’t remain unpublished – they are too good not to share. In this selection I have included half a dozen current writers alongside half a dozen of their predecessors – dead writers whose stories provide the foundations for my own tentative constructions in this most exacting of forms.

‘The Burrow’ by Franz Kafka, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir

The audacity of writing a story from the point of view of an unidentified rodent struck me as a young reader. The madness of the narrative voice and its utter relatability as it spirals into insanity and paranoia and then blooms with a kind of transcendent joy, seems to me an ideal structure for any piece of art. This story has shaped my understanding of reading and writing and I continue to appreciate it. I read it in Metamorphosis and other stories as a teenager and the volume also included ‘In the Penal Colony’, which I made the mistake of reading before bed. It continues to haunt me. 

First published in German in 1931. Widely available, including in The Complete Short Stories, Vintage 2005. Available online here

‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson

I stumbled across this one fairly recently and was unprepared for the sucker punch it delivered. I admire the queasiness of its atmosphere and the coolness with which the violence is handled. Like the Kafka and the O’Connor stories, this one made me gasp out loud. As a reader I am drawn to tenderness and restraint in a writer’s prose style. If a story can make me gasp out loud with shock at an action or a turn of events that is surprising yet inevitable and even signalled from the start, all the better.

First published in The New Yorker in June 1948 and available online to subscribers here. Widely collected, including in The Lottery and Other Stories, Penguin 2009

‘Cat Person’ by Kirsten Roupenian

Another story with gasp-out-loud impact. I was tempted to select Mary Gaitskill’s ‘An Affair, Edited’ or indeed any one of Gaitskill’s stories in Bad Behaviour, which are all brilliant but I chose to include ‘Cat Person’because it is such an important story in terms of its timing and its cultural impact. The reason the story went viral was because so many women recognised the equation of male-female relations it works out. The last word of the story says everything – with one word Roupenian sums up not just the narrative action but the entire sexual political conundrum.

First published in The New Yorker in December 2017 and available online here. Collected in You Know You Want This (Jonathan Cape 2019

‘101’ by May-Lan Tan

The romance of the central relationship in this story is a welcome antidote to the one described in Cat Personand the story’s eroticism contrasts powerfully with the horrible dysfunction of that relationship. In May-Lan Tan’s story a bride and groom’s brother and sister are thrown together during family wedding celebrations. The bride’s sister narrates the story, addressing the groom’s brother, recalling his “silken hair wound into a ballerina knot” and re-living the wedding (“our eyes locked as the minister described them man and wife. When they kissed, we turned away”) as well as subsequent encounters. Any potential awkwardness after they have sex (“you kissed me with the apple green taste of the pool on your tongue”) is dispelled by her saying to him “I hope it’s not going to be like this” and him assuring her “it’s not”. Of course, this being a short story, the relationship is delicately doomed and its ending slays me every time I read it.

First published in Things to Make and Break, CB Editions 2014. New edition from Sceptre, 2018

‘The Student’ by Anton Chekhov

Chekhov is surely the most compassionate writer there is. His worldview allows for all kinds of failures and he fully accepts human weaknesses, able to see the beauty in even the most ugly behaviour. I can’t find my copy of this story but I remember its contrasts – of dark night and harsh weather against the warmth of the women’s fire, their lack of education compared with the eponymous student’s. What stayed with me, strongly enough to feel as if my brain chemistry might  be altered by it, is the shape of the story and its movement from distance (the student’s observations of the “tall fat old woman in a man’s coat” and her daughter’s “stupid’ pock-marked face”) through emotion (the widow wipes her tears away with her sleeve), to catharsis (the student surveys his village from a hilltop and understands the meaning of life). The women are reminiscent of Macbeth’s witches as they wash up their cauldron and wipe away their tears and the student casts himself as St Peter as he warms himself by their fire. It isn’t lost on me that the women’s connection is human and small scale while the (male) student’s is epic, vast, historical, as he experiences connection with landscape and time. This is Chekhov’s point. I experience the catharsis he describes as I read his story, to such an extent that I feel physically transformed. This is also the effect of the Kafka and Welty stories I have chosen.

First published in Russian in Russkie Vedomosti, 1894. First translated by Constance Garnett in 1914. Available in various editions and translations since, including online here, no translator credited: boo!

‘Twin Beds in Rome’ by John Updike

This story, one of a series which charts the relationship between a married couple, Richard and Joan Maple, makes me weep every time I read it. Like Chekhov, Updike dares to bring an epic, historical quality to the most banal of life events:  ‘their bodies collapsed together as two mute armies might gratefully mingle, released from the absurd hostilities decreed by two mad kings. Bleeding, mangled, reverently laid in its tomb a dozen times, their marriage could not die. Burning to leave one another, they left, out of married habit, together. They took a trip to Rome.’ Some folk aren’t fans of Updike and perhaps he’s not as forgiving as Chekhov but he is similarly observant and humane and I find his writing incredibly tender. It is his forensic eye, especially where marriage and male/female relations concerned that has earned him the reputation of woman hater but I don’t think Updike hates anyone. His sensitivity to the ways in which this couple negotiate ‘degrading intimacy’ finds expression in a number of very moving details, such as the way Joan offers to carry her husband’s shoe box when he is ill and the way in which Richard construes his illness once he has recovered. The epithets they use for one another (“sweetie”, “darley”) clearly demonstrate the reluctance mentioned at the end of the story. Updike’s writing allows valuable insight into how a certain generation of men view their female companions and relatives and since we all continue to labour under these opinions and we inhabit a society they have shaped, I find his work of interest.

First published in The New Yorker, February, 1964, and available to subscribers here. Collected in The Music School, 1966, Too Far to Go, 1979 and The Maples Stories, 2009

‘Men and Women’ by Claire Keegan

There is a timelessness to Claire Keegan’s stories which makes them reminiscent of fable. I find the mythological feel to her work surprising, given the specificity of her prose and its attention to detail. She writes very powerfully of the gap separating children and adults and the lack of understanding between men and women. Her awareness of these gaping openings and where they occur, how they are made manifest, is what distinguishes this story. It is narrated by a young girl who wants to be big. ‘Big’ means licking the nibs of special pencils and sitting behind the wheel of a car while someone else opens the farm gate. For now, though, she is the one opening gates. At a dance at the local village hall she watches her father slow dancing with a neighbour “like slowness is what he wants” and she struggles to understand the strange atmosphere that gathers between her parents as a result – “like when a cow dies and the truck comes to take it away”. By the end of the evening she is not the one opening the gate and she is one step closer to being ‘big’.

First published in Antarctica, Faber, 1999)

‘Once in a Lifetime’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

Like Keegan’s work, Lahiri’s elegant prose often describes the chasm that exists between parents and children and between men and women. Her stories frequently examine this disconnect as it occurs among Bengali parents and their Bengali-American offspring. The span of her inter-generational stories and the sense they convey of this chasm of understanding is pure heartbreak. I find the attention she brings to bodies in relation to one another and in relation to space very moving and her use of physical detail (the way a spray of perfume temporarily darkens the narrator’s clothing at the beginning of this story, for example) is extremely evocative. There’s a beautiful coda to ‘Once in a Lifetime’ in the final story in this collection. 

First published in The New Yorker in April, 2006, and available online here. Collected in Unaccustomed Earth, Bloomsbury, 2008

‘The Bride of the Innisfallen’ by Eudora Welty

Claire Keegan introduced me to Welty’s writing but not to this particular story of hers, which I love on account of its human comedy. There’s a wild energy to the description of a train journey from Paddington to Fishguard, which vividly conveys an atmosphere of good humour among damp passengers in a busy train carriage on a wet day. The economic prose style (“a small passionate-looking man”… a red haired baby “with queenly jowls”) creates pace, while the confines of the compartment and the sway of the rattling train are apparent in the minute observations.

The palette of the story is strong – the woman’s “bright stained lap” and “flirtatious” hair “pulled out of its confines […] into two auburn and gray pomegranates along her cheeks” contrasts with black eyes, black suits, the “black of London [that] swam like a cinder in the eye” and “a black four o’clock in the afternoon of that spring that refused to flower”. Welty uses two greyhounds rushing in and out of the train corridor in plaid blankets “like dangerously ecstatic old ladies hoping no-one would see them” to illuminate the rain and dark. The mix of animals and strangers singing, reading, gossiping and eating fill this reader with joy. 

First published in The New Yorker, December, 1921, and available to subscribers here collected in The Bride of the Innisfallen and Other Stories, Harvest/HBJ 1955

‘The Sad Tale of the Sconce’ by Camilla Grudova

The atmosphere, characters, humour and aesthetic of each story in Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet are so consistent that the collection could almost be read as a jumbled novel occurring in some weird universe where women unstitch themselves and mate with sewing machines and keep tuber-like babies in the fridge. Short form allows not only the writer but the reader, too, breathing space which perhaps wouldn’t be possible in a novel, and sometimes we need a breather – these stories are pretty intense. I love the wit and imagination they display – the world they describe is characterised by a craziness and an exuberance worthy of Kafka and ‘The Sad Tale of the Sconce’ is possibly the most beautifully exuberant of them all. 

First published in Eleven Eleven Journal, 2016 and collected in The Doll’s Alphabet, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019

‘The Surrogate’ by Tessa Hadley

As a reader I appreciate it when a writer seems to deliver a secret message, underneath the words of the story, to me, their reader. That’s what I get from Hadley’s tale of sexual fantasy and its outcomes. This story seems above all an account of the act of writing and the act of reading. All the stories I have chosen for this personal anthology could be interpreted as such, I think – in one way or another they all describe the relationship between writer and reader, a relationship which serves as surrogate for the relationship between any fellow humans in the act of making sense of our existence. Hadley may explore this relationship in a very different way to Kafka or Grudova, say, but underneath all these writers’ contortions, the same issues burn below the surface.

First published in The New Yorker, September 2003, and available to read online here, or hear Curtis Sittenfield read it here. Collected in Sunstroke and other stories, Jonathan Cape, 2007