Forgive me, I suspect some of these aren’t even short stories. I can’t say I’m at all sure about what a short story is – any more than I’m certain about what a novel is. The (definite article, capital letter) Novel is different, of course, I know what that is. And whatever short stories are, I can’t help but think they’ve flourished partly by dint of not being pressed into service as a repository for something else entirely (national identity, masculinity, human frailty, even) and then endlessly handwrung about in a similar way. In any case, collecting these together has made me think that the novels I like most all aspire somehow to the status of short stories: little hothouse miniatures that say hardly enough, or too much too quickly, or both. If you’d asked me before doing this what kind of short stories I liked the most I would’ve had myself pinned as a fan of the “epistemological thriller” – I’d have had no qualms about calling them that either. It seems clear, looking down this list, however, that what I really can’t get enough of are stories about quiet desperation.

‘Self Portrait on Christmas Night: Year 1961 age 19 almost 20; Homage to George’ by Joe Brainard

Oh, Joe. You’re pure as anything.

There’s no genre called “rumination”, but I think perhaps there should be. This little fragment of gorgeous juvenilia is a big gush of worry about daring to disturb the universe – so wise and so Tiggerish. I was going to write “in a manner that only those aged ‘19 almost 20’ can muster”, but that’s an absolute lie.

From The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, The Library of America, 2012

‘Tropisms I’ by Nathalie Sarraute, translated by Maria Jolas

These little fragments are ur-short stories, really, for how they name and give slimy, botanical form to all that’s unspoken and not-quite-speakable, those “movements that are hidden under the commonplace, seemingly harmless instances of our everyday lives.”

First published in Tropismes in 1939, by Robert Denoël. First published in English in 1963. New Directions edition produced in 2017

‘The Balloon’ by Donald Barthelme

I first read this printed on the bible paper of Volume E of the Norton Anthology of American Literature. It was the first year of my English degree, and I was too tight and too skint to buy my own. Luckily, a flatmate in my halls of residence jacked in the course after the first week. She left her full complement of Nortons stacked on our kitchen table, with a note instructing me to “take these – or burn them, whatever”. Anyway, I’m not one for memorising anything but, I think if challenged I might be able to recite whole swathes of this off-book. Every time I read it, I get the distinct impression that these lines have been running in my head all the while.

First published in The New Yorker in 1961. Collected in Sixty Stories, 1984, and The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume E, Norton, 2002

‘Break It Down’ by Lydia Davis

I bought the big doorstep of collected stories a few years back and wolfed the whole thing right down, fully agape, all in one go, so that my belief got totally suspended and for a few days everything became Davisworld:  totally deadpan and credulous.

I pressed this copy on a friend and never got it back and I was happy, actually, just with the impression that these stories had left. But then just recently I found a different collection of hers at my boyfriend’s house and I dipped into it one morning while he was making coffee and somehow it wasn’t the same at all. It seemed flat and puny, not at all like the stories I’d been carrying around with me all this time. So, I bought another copy of the collected stories just to check, but I’ve been too wary to open it until by chance I heard this one read by a kind American voice (a Judy Blume voice, a Sesame Street voice) on the radio a few weeks back and there I was all agape again.

First published in The Paris Review. Collected in Break It Down, FSG, 1986. Also in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davies, Penguin, 2009. Hear ‘Break it Down’ read aloud here

‘Morning, Noon & Night’ by Claire-Louise Bennett

How can I recommend just one banger in a book that is absolutely chock-full of bangers?

I bought Pond on the strength of this interview, in which Claire-Louise Bennett seems like quite an extraordinary kind of human being – absolutely singular and perverse, exactly the kind of human who should be rendering consciousnesses on behalf of the rest of us.

But then ‘Morning, Noon & Night’ is the second story in, and as I started reading it I got a little bit concerned that we might be venturing into the territory of the lyrical or even the picturesque, and I wasn’t having any of that – but, no fear! That’s not what this story is at all.

From Pond, Stinging Fly/Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015, Riverhead, 2016. Read it online here

‘Living on the Box’ by Penelope Gilliatt

I sometimes wish I had half the icy-smooth scathing of a mid-century woman writer. Here, Gilliatt turns it on the pomposity of nature poets, and she’s absolutely lacerating. I love the way she scarcely bothers to finish the story, just whips the whole diorama away as if to say: come on now, don’t be daft.

First published in The New Yorker in 1964. Collected in What’s It Like Out? Virago Modern Classics, 1990

‘Red Rubber Gloves’ by Christine Brooke-Rose

I think I read somewhere that Brooke-Rose disowned the novels she wrote prior to Out (1964) on account of not having ‘read Saussure yet’ – which sounds like her, doesn’t it? Anyway, I hope she didn’t disown the short stories too – especially this queasy bit of domestic horror in which nothing much and something awful happen at the same time. It’s a bit Rear Window, this, and a bit Alain Robbe-Grillet, too.

Ali Smith described Muriel Spark as ‘blithe’ recently, and I think the word also applies to Brooke-Rose (and to Gilliatt too, in fact). Absolutely no messing about with ‘rounded’ characters and warm human hearts here.

From Go When You See The Green Man Walking, Michael Joseph, 1970

‘Mysterious Kôr’ by Elizabeth Bowen

It starts like this and then it goes on:
Full moonlight drenched the city and searched it; there was not a niche left to stand in. The effect was remorseless: London looked like the moon’s capital – shallow, cratered, extinct. It was late, but not yet midnight; now the buses had stopped the polished roads and streets in this region sent for minutes together a ghostly unbroken reflection up. The soaring new flats and the crouching old shops and houses looked equally brittle under the moon, which blazed in windows that looked its way.
First published in 1942. Collected in The Demon Lover, Jonathan Cape, 1945, and Collected Stories, Vintage Classics, 1999

‘Cicisbeo’ by M. John Harrison

I moved to London almost a year ago, not far from where this story is set as it happens, and for a few months I was flattened every day by this city’s sheer preposterousness, so I in a way I was primed for this very sad and very strange fabulation.

M. John Harrison is a proper treasure and the collection this is taken from is a proper gift. As with so much of what I admire the most, I have little of any use I want to say about it. This reviewof the collection by Patrick Langley does right by it, I think.

From You Should Come With Me Now: Stories of Ghosts, Comma Press, 2017

‘Conversations With Famous Artists’ by Deborah Levy

Beware Ingrid Meinz Syndrome:
So there I was, feet marinating in a puddle, bicycle turning to rust and I said WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THE SUMMER, ARE YOU GOING TO GET SOME SUN? and she said, No I’ll be working at home, I have six deadlines for articles I’m writing and twelve books on my shelves I haven’t glanced at and a major deadline for a peer reviewed journal so I guess I’ll have to open a tin of soup and spend the summer on an uncomfortable chair at my desk with my head down. And I thought, you know Ingrid Meinz THIS IS REALLY NOT VERY SEXY.
 Levy returns to the territory of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and finds that women can still only have either writing or living but never both. I took a photograph of a page of this on my phone, and for a while I had it set as my screensaver for courage.
From Pillow Talk in Europe and Other Places, Dalkey Archive Press, 2004

‘Ma Vie en Bling: A Memoir’ by Anne Boyer

Now I’m being quite cheeky really, since I know full well Anne Boyer is a poet, but this is… a sort of tract in lyric prose? Maybe? Can that be a short story too?

Writer bios are a pretty gruesome genre all of their own, but Anne Boyer’s is one of the best I’ve ever read – the most generous, the funniest, the most furious:

I have always wanted, and want now, a radical reordering of the world for the benefit of all who live in it, or as one of my favorite poets, Louise Michel, would say—everything for everyone.
 How many other author bios end like this? (Why don’t they all?)

Anyway, this story is about writing, in as much as when Boyer is talking about writing, she’s talking about everything else too. Including what she calls ‘not-writing’ – which is the opposite of writing, but also exactly the same thing.

Explaining it like this, I’m making it sound like one of those stories in which “writing” is a very special and very singular activity – but it’s the opposite. The rest of us are often squeamish about making visible the invisible scaffold (economic, cultural) that’s necessary for writing. We’re squeamish too about admitting that writing is at the same time for everyone and no more or less inherently valuable than any other sublimation. Boyer isn’t at all, and she’s marvellous.

From Garments Against Women, Ahsahta Press, 2015