Introduction

Obviously twelve stories out of the world’s millions is a ridiculous ask, and there is nothing definitive about this list, but here are some stories that have stayed with me. Looking at them together, now, I see they’re pretty flashy, lurid in places, and I feel obliged to wave a small and compensatory flag for the quiet, subtle stories in the world – the wallflower stories that are nevertheless full of beauty and value and what-have-you. Still, they didn’t make it, and these did.

‘The Red Bow’ by George Saunders

As a shameless Saunders fangirl, I could pick a dozen of his as my anthology. I accept that perhaps he’s written one too many dysfunctional-theme-park stories, but to me he is The Master. Stumbling across ‘Sea Oak’ changed my writing life, while ‘My Flamboyant Grandson’ and ‘The 400lb CEO’ manage to feature exquisite moments of human feeling too complex to name… then there’s the perfect ‘Home’, so full of taut bitterness… Oh, George. After much agonising I’ve chosen ‘The Red Bow’ as the exemplar. It has everything: a just off-real scenario, perfect character motivation-action-reaction, fantastic dialogue, and that dark-tender humour he does like no one else.

First published in Esquire, September 2003 and available to read online here. Collected in In Persuasion Nation, Riverhead Books/Bloomsbury, 2006

‘End of the Line’ by Aimee Bender

Whenever I think of this story, I get a funny feeling. A bad, funny feeling that makes me want to go and read the story again and prolong that bad, funny feeling. A man buys a little man in a cage and keeps him like a pet, and Bender pushes this scenario to its extremes, exploring our darkness and our innocence at more or less the same time. I can’t tell you how much I love this story – and the reason I can’t tell you is because I worry about what that says about me.

First published in Tin House, Fall 2004. Collected in Willful Creatures, Doubleday, 2005/Windmill Books, 2013

‘Girl’ by Jamaica Kincaid

Ah, the voice! The pace! The concision! A whole childhood and burgeoning adolescence, plus a mother-daughter relationship, plus all the eyes of the neighbourhood, plus the wider system, is packed into just a couple of pages. It’s a forerunner of so many of those “rules for” or “instructions for” stories, but without any of the coy fluff they often have. It just kicks arse.

First published in The New Yorker, 19 June 1978. Collected in At the Bottom of the River, FSG, 1983

‘The Doll’ by Daphne du Maurier

I can’t handle contemporary horror but I love du Maurier and her modernist Freudian-horror flavour. The Birdsis a masterpiece. Then there’s this hysterical shocker, which is the filthiest 1930s story I’ve read (though maybe I’ve been sheltered), which pre-empts contemporary angst about sex robots. It’s not just the luridness that’s great, though; the story also deploys that “found narrative” framing device that I find irresistible every time.

First published in The Doll and Other Stories, Virago Modern Classics, 2011 – you can read about how it was discovered here– and available to read online here

‘Agata’s Machine’ by Camilla Grudova

Transgressive, unboundaried female sexuality colours and textures everything about this story, so it feels like a kind of second cousin, though decades removed, to The Doll. It also recalls that horrible D H Lawrence story ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’ so strongly that I wouldn’t be surprised if Grudova said this was a modern retelling, or more likely, a rebuff. It comes from a superb, dense collection published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, The Doll’s Alphabet, which name I take as further proof of du Maurier’s ghost looking over Grudova’s shoulder.

First published online in The White Review here. Collected in The Doll’s Alphabet, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017

‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’ by Nam Le

I normally disdain stories about writers and writing, but this one is an exception. Well, is it a story, or is it non-fiction? The question becomes irrelevant – or, more accurately: it’s super-relevant, but inconsequential. The writing is beautiful: suffused with the weariness of the recently-young, by which I mean, a person who’s spent the first third of their life striving hard and harder, trying to beat life into simplicity, and who’s just realising that, actually, striving isn’t going to work. And it’s a father-son narrative, and an immigrant story that pushes against that label. Soft, sad and masterful.

First published in All-Story, Summer 2006, and available to read online here. Collected in The Boat, Canongate, 2008