Introduction

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 A couple of short stories which stayed with me are by unpublished writers – shout out to Carol Farrelly and Chetna Maroo. Hopefully their stories won’t remain unpublished – they are too good not to share.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!