I’m not sure what a short story is. I’m not at all sure about the ‘story’ bit. I suppose I’m more sure about the ‘short’ bit, though this can vary: shorter than a ‘novel’, I guess, and shorter than a ’novella’ (and I’m not so sure about these either), sometimes as short as a sentence. I would have liked to have included Gertrude Stein if Identity: a Poem were a short story; I would have liked to have included Anakana Schofield if Martin John were a collection of short stories; I would have liked to have included Anne Boyer if A Handbook of Disappointed Fate were a collection of short stories, but I’ll stick to things that have called themselves short stories, or have been published that way. I’m hesitant to make a list of ‘greats’, there are just stories that have been important to me at one time or another. This list is in no way either a lesson or a warning.

‘Helen and Vi, A Study in Vitality’ by Lydia Davis

Davis was one of the first writers I read who showed me writing can play with ‘non-literary’ forms and this story takes the form of a sociological report. A reviewer in Paste Magazine wrote: “Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality” details the lives of two healthy, elderly, working-class women (and a shadowy third whose wealth and narcissism negatively affect her health,” which seems to me a slightly odd interpretation, as the two women named in the title successfully inhabit feminised social strictures which mean they are endlessly at the beck and call of others. I read the story at a time in my life where there was a strong possibility that if I continued as I had been, I might end up like Helen or Vi. Instead I decided I would rather be like the third woman, who is called “Hope”. Helen and Vi is unusually long for a Davis story. In an interview with the LARB she wrote: “Usually I don’t put a story in a collection if I think it’s not quite finished or if it didn’t quite work but I was very fond of this story. I decided to put it in anyway; I thought, ‘This one will be for me, even if other people don’t like it or are puzzled by it.’”

From Varieties of Disturbance, FSG, 2007. Also in the Collected Stories, FSG/Penguin

‘The Poet and the Novelist as Roommates’ by Sheila Heti

A man I met in a bar, who was in fact a novelist, asked me if I liked Lydia Davis’s stories. I said yes. This was not enough: he asked me if I preferred her early or her later collections. I said ‘early’. He made it clear that this was the correct answer. And so he was able to continue his conversation with me. I have more usually gone for ‘poets’: they are worse.

From The Middle Stories, McSweeney’s, 2012. Available to read online here

‘Words Escape Me’ by Claire-Louise Bennett

It’s difficult to choose only one piece from this book, which was published as a collection of short stories, so I’ll pick this section I published at 3:AM around the time of the book’s initial publication in Ireland by The Stinging Fly. Like Lydia Davis’s ‘puzzling’ stories, it doesn’t so much tell as offer a set of things to thing about, and think about again. And Claire-Louise is very interested in things: “bon à penser” Lévi-Strauss wrote: goods are good to think with

First published at 3:AM Press. Collected in Pond, The Stinging Fly/Fitzcarraldo, 2015

‘Go When You See the Green Man Walking’ by Christine Brooke-Rose

Better known for her longer fiction and criticism, Brooke-Rose wasn’t very interested in having her stories collected. This is from a recent reissue by Verbivoracious Press, for which I wrote an introduction. I have not read anything more like being a woman walking alone through a strange city: “One could walk miles and miles obeying the code.”

From Go When You See the Green Man Walking, Michael Joseph, 1970. Reissued by Verbivoracious Press, 2014

‘Alight at the Next’ by Eley Williams

I published this at 3:AM Magazine and am in no way surprised by the subsequent wild success of her first collection. Eley combines a meticulous eye for language with the rare ability to write convincingly about happy love. She had me at “I am the first to admit that my spirit animal is probably a buttered roll.”

First published at 3:AM Magazine. Collected in Attrib. and Other Stories, Influx Press, 2017

‘Fantomas Takes Sutton’ by Isabel Waidner

I also published this at 3:AM. Out of a batch of about 200 submissions it was the only one to which I wanted to say immediately – unequivocally – yes! Isabel’s writing queers the form into the realms of pure language: her characters are words, her settings, the exhilarating freefall of an entirely linguistic universe.

first published at 3:AM Magazine

‘Homage to Switzerland’ by Ernest Hemingway

This is unexpected Hemingway perhaps: deadpan, strange, structurally experimental and in no way pursuing ‘realism’. I called one of my stories after it: ‘Homage to Homage to Switzerland’, which I wrote for Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith’s Winter Papers anthology.

Collected in Winner Take Nothing, Scribner, 1933, and in Collected Stories: Part One, Everyman, 1995. Listen to Julian Barnes read, and write about it here

‘Being Unhappy’ by Franz Kafka, translated by Michael Hofmann

I like stories that seem to have something missing, in which something of the meaning is located outside the story. ‘Being Unhappy’ is both restless and pointless, and slightly disturbing, as well as slightly distasteful. I don’t even know if I like this story any more. I just know it did something for me and for my work at some point. If I went with one of Kafka’s longer, better known stories, it wouldn’t be ‘Metamorphosis’, but ‘Josephine the Mouse Singer’; it wouldn’t be ‘The Hunger Artist’, but ‘Investigations of a Dog’.

First published in German in Bretrachtung, 1913. Widely translated, including in Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin, 2007Read it online, in a different translation, here

‘The Hen’ by Clarice Lispector, translated by Elizabeth Bishop

While you’re there you might as well read ‘The Smallest Woman in the World’ too. In both stories, Lispector writes female figures who become the instrument of a turn against narrative – as though to be female were to overturn the rules of form.

First published in The Kenyon Review, 1964. Collected in The Complete Stories, New Directions/Penguin Modern Classics, 2015. Read it online here

‘Shklovsky’s Zoo’ by Joanna Walsh

I am the biggest fan of my own work: if I didn’t take the utmost joy in my own writing, why would I continue? To compromise on any perceived narcissism, I’ve chosen a story you can’t read. Shklovsky’s Zoo was published by Tony White’s Piece of Paper Press. A story about the ways literature disappears on and offline, and particularly about the erasure of women’s words, the 2015 print run of 150 copies were given away for free and the story can no longer be read or reproduced anywhere.

Piece of Paper Press, 2015