I’ve noticed that my list, which I didn’t labor over, is entirely North American. I chose the first twelve great stories that came to mind, on the theory that the stories that had resonance enough to come to mind would make a good list, and would avoid the twin troubles of orthodoxy and right thought, which is fit for a genre meant to disturb and endure under the constraints of brevity.

It’s worth asking, though, why the stories that come to mind were likeliest to be by North American writers. I tried the same exercise with the novel, as a means of comparison, and found a much more international range (spanning six continents, if you must know). And certainly there are many writers of short stories from other continents whose work has meant much to me (Angela Carter, Yasunari Kawabata, Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Clarice Lispector, Anton Chekhov, Doris Lessing, and William Trevor, for starters.)

One answer might be that I’m an American. Another might be that there is something about the short story form that seems to appeal to contemporary American writers, who are more likely to commit to it for more of their careers, or maybe that there is something about the American education system that encourages more American writers to give more of their best energies to the short story.

I read through the anthology stories again after choosing them, to see if there might be any things they have in common which might reveal something about my inclinations as a reader. One is formal dexterity. Very few of these stories are traditional single-movement stories that pledge allegiance to the Aristotelian Unities. Another is clarity. The writer is doing the heavy-lifting with regard to the management of information and the forward motion of the story, which leaves the reader to the more interesting task of living for a while in the heads of these characters, and trying to understand alongside them the big mysteries stories often complicate and clarify but seemingly never reduce enough to fully solve:

Why did it happen? Why did it happen like that? Why did that do that? Why did I do that? What do I do with it, now that it’s done? What was all that? What was his life? What was her life? What is my life? What is life?

‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ by Katherine Anne Porter

A fever dream narrated through the altered consciousness of a young woman suffering through the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918. Some of the most value-added, special sentences I have ever read anywhere. ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ is also the title story of a book-length three-story sequence that is probably Porter’s best work, alongside her shorter story ‘The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,’ which pursues a not-dissimilar narrative strategy.

from Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Harcourt Brace, 1939; also Penguin Modern Classics, 2011

‘Seven’ by Edwidge Danticat

This story comes from The Dew Breaker, a cycle of stories about generational connections between pre- and post-Duvalier Haitians in Haiti and, later, in exile in Lakeland, Florida, and Brooklyn, New York, in the wake of the dechoukaj uprising and the abuses of the Tontons Macoute terror squads.

‘Seven’ is kind of an outlier in the collection. It’s a quiet ‘he said/she said’ concerning a man and woman who meet and marry at Carnival, then reunite in their new country after seven years of separation. It’s about the silences required to sustain what passes for love and devotion.

After I read this book, I read all of Edwidge Danticat’s other books. Then I spent a lot of time in Haiti for a while and mostly read Haitian literature and history for a couple of years. One comes to understand that Haitian history is, as I think I remember Junot Diaz saying, a kind of shadow history of the United States. I should take this opportunity, while we’re here, to recommend a few other Haitian writers: Dany Laferriere, Lyonel Trouillot, Marie Vieux Chauvet, and Rene Philoctete. And a few writers of Haitian history: Laurent Dubois, Michael Deibert, CLR James, Bernard Diederich, Mary Renda. Also Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier’s great novel of Cuba (with its great impossibly old narrator) The Kingdom of this World. Also, for writers, Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously, which is rather countercultural to many contemporary literary conversations about what literature is for, and what writers can risk and do, and which is worth reading for the time it spends on Camus and on Laferriere’s I Am a Japanese Writer alone. (Also worth reading, if you like Create Dangerously: Ha Jin’s The Writer as Migrant.)

First published in The New Yorker, October 2001. Collected in The Dew Breaker, Knopf/Abacus, 2004

‘HAGS’ by Jenny Zhang

“HAGS” was published as poetry, but it’s mostly prose, and it reads like a 500-page novel compressed into a 17-page story written in the form of a lyric essay. It’s about being a woman, a young woman, a daughter, a member of a family, an immigrant in New York, an Asian person in an American context, a politically-engaged person, a person who can wield language to match anyone else’s wielding, a consumer and critic of multiple cultures and pop cultures, a reader, a worker, a thinker. Everything about the story, especially the way it is written, is more interesting than the way I’ve just described it. Jenny Zhang’s fiction is in some ways the fulfilment of the promise made by William Goldman, when he described The Princess Bride as an abridgment, with only the good parts left in. Except that William Goldman was aiming for wish-fulfillment, and Jenny Zhang is aiming straight at the ugly and the true.

Originally published as GUILLOTINE Series Chapbook #7 in 2014; out of print but available as a PDF here

‘The Old Forest’ by Peter Taylor

An old man’s story about the world of his youth, now foreign in its rules and social codes, a world now passed away. And this is no doubt for the best, although the mysteries of others persist. Re-reading this story now, one is reminded how we all are destined to become older, and we all must make some accommodation with the way the cultural rules change, with the problems that attended to the culture that raised us up, and the ways in which we were complicit in all of it, when perhaps we should have known better. In this way, this quiet story is frightening.

First published in The New Yorker, May 1974. Collected in The Old Forest and Other Stories, Doubleday, 1985

‘What Went Wrong?’ by Tim O’Brien

This story, which I first read in O. Henry Prize Stories 2003, edited by Laura Furman, later became a chapter in O’Brien’s uneven late novel July, July. It is among the most elegant very short stories I’ve ever read. It concerns a group of friends and their preoccupation with a couple among them who married, divorced, and then continued to love each other forever. It is a story in part about the impossibility of knowing the people who come in and out of our lives, and the wonder and mystery that attaches to trying.

First published in Esquire, 2002. Collected in July, July, Houghton Mifflin, 2002/Flamingo, 2003