‘The Semplica-Girl Diaries’ by George Saunders

Though it’s already a modern classic, I only discovered this story a couple of years ago when I started teaching a course on writing short fiction, something I knew next to nothing about. I’ve hardly written any, and my dirty little book secret has always been that I never read short stories either. There were a few obvious choices for this list, but it wasn’t a question of what to leave out; in fact, it took me quite a while to come up with twelve. The truth is, I’ve never really had a nose for the stuff a writer is supposed to have read. Many of my picks for this list I stumbled across quite randomly in libraries or bookshops before I was 20; after that, I seem to have done my best to ignore contemporary short story collections, and to avoid the acknowledged masters of the form. I always used to tell people I found them frustrating, that if I was invested in a world I wanted to stay there as long as possible, but I’m really not sure that’s true. It just became a blind spot that I couldn’t shake. That’s changed lately, at last, and Saunders was a big wake-up call. This story is just about as good as he gets, and that’s an awful lot better than most writers, in any form. He’s supposed to have dreamed the set-up one night, and then taken fifteen years to make it work as fiction. The point is, he really really did. 

First published in The New YorkerOctober 2012, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Tenth of December, Bloomsbury, 2013. Also available online here

‘Grace’ by James Joyce

The half-informed discussion of Catholic doctrine and Vatican politics among these worldly businessmen always reminds me of my father, who was born in 1920, and took over the family business aged 17. As a young Irish wannabee writer in England I felt possessive about Joyce, but of course I’d never read him until I crossed the water. What struck me most when I finally did was a vision of the very world I was trying to turn my back on, rendered in loving detail without overt critique or comment, at the centre of an acknowledged masterpiece of world literature. It had never occurred to me that this sort of chat could be worth writing down, that these men would offer a valid subject for fiction; in other words, that the stuff I already had might be all I needed. That’s a lesson I’m still struggling to bring to my own writing.

First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914, now widely republished, including in Penguin Classics. Available to read online here

‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ by Herman Melville

This is a predictable choice, but most of the classics are classics for a reason. If by some fluke you’ve never read it, now’s the time to get it under your belt. A century and a half later, we’re still struggling to deal with the truths about the modern workplace that Melville was onto here. But like all the greatest fiction – or all my favourites, at least ­– there’s a genuine strangeness at its heart that can’t be decoded. Just step inside and live there for a while, and feel your spirit shaken.

First published in Putnam’s Magazine, November-December 1853, and collected in The Piazza Tales, Dix & Edwards, 1856. Now widely available, including in Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories, Penguin Classics. Available online at Project Gutenberg

‘I Sing the Body Electric!’ by Ray Bradbury

I never knew any of my grandparents; the last died when I was eighteen months old. So this story hit me hard when I found it in a collection of his, probably one I browsed and bought in Belfast Waterstones, looking for ways out of my childhood Doctor Who obsession. We’re talking late eighties. Bradbury’s SF stuff is great, of course, but it’s the straight domestic pieces that have really stayed with me. Decades later, I can still feel the precise quality of shiver I got from stories of his I’ve never read since. This one is a vision of artificial unconditional love, maybe prefiguring what we’re finally getting close to now in AI. But I don’t think Bradbury’s is a cautionary tale; I remember it as a celebration. I might be wrong, though. I haven’t looked at it since my teens. No need. I know exactly how certain moments in that story make me feel, and how much they mean to me, so why would I want to go back? I’ve got it locked up inside.

First published in McCall’s Magazine, August 1969, under the title ‘The Beautiful One is Here’; adapted from his Twilight Zone screenplay, first broadcast 1962First published under this title in the eponymous collection, 1969. Collected in Ray Bradbury Stories Volume 1, HarperVoyager, 2012, and The Stories of Ray Bradbury, Everyman, 2010

‘77 Pop Facts (You Didn’t Know About Gil Courtney)’ by Wendy Erskine

Wendy Erskine talks about meeting people in Belfast who insist they knew the real man she’s writing about, or his mother, or his music. Maybe’s it’s the comforting familiarity of the mode of writing, or the delicate precision of the detail; or maybe it’s just her profoundly humane imagination, and her love of the that particular side of Belfast, one that’s never been written about enough. Until Erskine came along, that is; and now, I doubt it’ll ever be written about better.

Published in the collection Sweet Home, Stinging Fly, 2018/Picador, 2019. Available online here

‘A Country Doctor’ by Franz Kafka

By contrast, this is a story I read maybe once a month, because I never know how it’s going to make me feel. It’s more of a full-on anxiety dream than many of Kafka’s, and I’ve already deleted a couple of attempted summaries of what happens, because there’s no point. I can’t get to the bottom of it, probably because there is none. I only started into Kafka about ten years ago, but it’s become a total addiction. I’m not especially interested in the man himself, though that stage of the disorder may well be coming. For now, I just marvel at what he uncovered and left us with, and how much of the writing I love from the hundred years since has its source in his remarkable spirit.

First published in German in the eponymous collection, 1917. Widely translated and collected, including in The Complete Short Stories, Vintage Classics. Available online here, translated by Ian Johnston

‘Boy Blue’ by Gerald Murnane

A few years ago Murnane had a moment, after being tipped for the Nobel in a splashy New York Times profile, and being a sucker for that kind of fuss, I bought loads of his stuff and got in deep. I don’t think he’d mind me saying it’s very hard work. And if you like that game, the whole Beckett-Bernhard-Knausgaard obsessive lone male routine, then he’ll be your cup of tea. I do, and he is. But a lot of it leaves you flailing and gasping for a drop of liquid on your tongue to leaven the punishment. 
This one is an exception. It uses the relentless monotony of the style and voice to push towards an extraordinary moment of emotional release, one that also illuminates something essential and unexpectedly moving at the root of Murnane’s very weird style. (Pro tip: this story works much better if you read it aloud to yourself. I do, more often than I should admit, and I’m available for the audiobook, if anyone’s interested. In fact, it’s my very dear ambition to learn the whole thing off by heart as a party piece, and I’m not even joking; though if that backfires, you might well find me huddled in the corner of the pub in twenty years, giggling to myself and muttering “The chief character of the story was a man who was referred to throughout the story as the chief character of the story.” I suppose there are worse ways to go.)

First published in the journal World Literature Today, Summer 1993 and available via JSTOR here. Collected in Collected Short Fiction, And Other Stories, 2020

The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb

Probably the saddest story I know. At bedtime, I could never get through it without crying, much to my children’s bemusement. I have a gut feeling it’s based on a true story, which makes it worse. Just heartbreaking, and not in a good way. I love it so much.

Macmillan, 2013. Available online here, read by the author

‘Gospodar’ by Garth Greenwell

Greenwell’s Cleanness is a really a novel, not a collection of short stories, but many of the sections were previously published as such. Either way, it’s a sensational book, probably my favourite of the decade so far. I wasn’t sure if I should include this one, as its impact comes, in part, from its place in the sequence. Out of context, I fear it may present as too unrelentingly intense; even so, it contains the most brilliant sex writing you’ll find anywhere. Considering the skill it takes to render any sexual encounter with narrative clarity, never mind this level of emotional insight, Greenwell’s achievement here is off the scale. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. 

First published in The Paris Review, Summer 2014 and available online here – in full for subscribers, with an extract for free. Collected in Cleanness, Picador, 2020

‘The Choise of Valentines, or The Merie Ballad of Nash His Dildo’ by Thomas Nashe

A nice counterpoint to the Greenwell, what we have here is a classic boy-meets-girl, boy-goes-to-visit-girl-in-the-brothel-where-she-works, boy-ruins-the-moment-by-coming-too-soon-and-girl-ends-up-using-a-dildo story. I first encountered this long-suppressed Elizabethan erotic poem at university, and a few years later, I read it live on stage in Belfast while being interviewed in a ten-foot bed. Nashe’s poem is as filthy as it sounds, and still very funny. What’s not to love?

Written around 1593, first published privately in 1899. Collected in The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works Penguin Classics. Available online at Project Gutenberg

‘Emergency’ by Denis Johnson

There’s no better subject for fiction than terrible people doing terrible things. I’ve been trying and failing to find a quote from Johnson I noted down a few months ago, along the lines of, “Some of us like to read stories about people shooting at each other, and some of us really are shooting at each other.” He made no secret that the stories in Jesus’ Son are from his life, or the lives of those close to him; all you really need to know is that the central character’s nickname, Fuckhead, was also Johnson’s. This is the story of his I keep circling back to, and to be honest it’s really only the first half I’m interested in – the stuff with the rabbits always feels like it’s trying a bit too hard. But what do I know? It’s obviously a masterpiece, and I could live in those opening pages for a long time.

Originally published in The New Yorker September 1991, and available to subscribers to read here. Subscribers can also listen to Tobias Wolff read it here. Collected in Jesus’ Son, Granta Books 2012. Also available to read online in Narrative Magazine)

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Fine, this is a novel. So what? My only definition of a short story is that it invites you to read it in one sitting, so this fits the bill. And everything about it says short: the fragments it’s made up of; the weird formatting; the bluntness of the plot; the diffident compression of the style. Plus, it’s really very short. And it’s probably my favourite thing I have in the house, apart from people and animals. You can often find me hanging around near the Os in bookshops, hoping I can vibe browsers in its direction. At home, I usually have one of my several copies within reach, and I read the whole thing a couple of times a year. I’ve started teaching it now, but even that hasn’t helped, and me and the students just end up sitting there reading our favourite bits out to each other. Offill said somewhere she was trying to emulate Johnson in Jesus’ Son, but that Johnson used to say he was ripping off Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel; so I bought that too, but I still haven’t read it, and I’m not sure I actually know where it is. Never mind, let’s just read Dept. of Speculation again.

Granta Books, 2014