For most of high school, I hated short stories. It might have been the kind of stories we were taught—at an all-boys school, a certain kind of masculine New Zealand short story was favoured—but in class we always approached the form as a kind of puzzle, an allegory where, if you worked out the right symbolism, the story would spit out the ‘correct’ answer. Then, in my final year, I had a brilliant teacher who gave us the stories of Katherine Mansfield. Reading ‘The Garden Party’ for the first time, I realised stories could be like poetry—emotionally and syntactically complex—and at the same time, do all the storytelling work of a novel… just in a smaller, denser, more powerful package.
Mansfield remains a touchstone for me, both as an Aotearoa New Zealand writer whose professional life was centred in the UK, and as an example of the way the best stories gesture outwards, refusing a simple, allegorical answer.
First published in Saturday Westminster Gazette, February 1922. Collected in, amongst others, The Collected Stories, Penguin 2007. Read it online here)
It wasn’t until university that I would find confirmation of my “short story as poetry” theory, in the transcript of a talk given by Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar published as ‘Some Aspects of the Short Story’. Here, Cortázar describes the short story as a “snail of language, a mysterious brother to poetry in another dimension of literary time.” More persuasive than Cortázar’s theories on this front, though, are his stories themselves. Shadowy figures take over a family house, a tiger stalks a countryside villa, a man slowly metamorphoses into an axolotl: these were not the realist fictions of the nineteenth-century, not even the poetic intensity of Mansfield—these stories were transporting, fantastic, and true.
‘Letter to a Young Woman in Paris’ shows both of Cortázar’s major strengths to their best advantage. The conceit of the story balances the surreal with the convincing in a way few other writers can manage. And the narrative itself is perfectly paced, with voice and structure pulling you towards the precipice you both crave and hope never to reach.
Included in Blow-Up and Other Stories, Pantheon 1967. For another translation online, see here
‘Candy Glass’ stands out amongst the dazzling stories in May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break for two reasons. One is formal: unlike the other stories in the collection, which look fairly standard, ‘Candy Glass’ is presented as a script (it’s fitting—the story follows the relationship between an aging actress and a younger stunt double).
The other is stylistic. Tan handles long stretches of time superbly. Her dialogue is at its sharpest and most knife-edge in this piece. And I suspect that, if you were to re-edit this as a conventional story, the language would still stand out as almost filmic, it is so beautifully, immersively visual
In Things to Make and Break, CB Editions, 2014. Now also published by Sceptre
Before I read any of Paul Bowles’ stories, I had the vague impression his works were like dark, more adult versions of a Tintin story, replete with white travellers in exotic lands who meet sticky ends. Certainly this is how his contemporaries viewed him in the 1950s: as an adventure writer first and foremost.
And if you wanted to read this kind of ‘Paul Bowles,’ there are plenty of stories you could choose. But Bowles’ best works are psychologically and emotionally rich: claustrophobic and twisted, with protagonists pushed to the brink, on the verge of collapse. Like Cortázar’s story, ‘Pages from Cold Point’ uses an epistolary form—here the diary, rather than a letter—to slowly ratchet up the narrative tension. And though, like many great short stories, this hinges on a turning point, where the reader only belatedly sees they have misunderstood the relationship at the heart of this story, the revelation is not a gimmick, but the dark truth essential to Bowles’ vision of the world.
Collected in The Delicate Prey, Random House 1950; Ecco Press 1972. Note: this story was omitted from the first British edition of Bowles’s stories, on advice from Somerset Maugham that it might lead to censorship or prosecution
I am constantly surprised that Jane Bowles’s fiction is less well-known (and less regarded) than her husband, Paul’s (though, like many readers, I came to her by way of Paul). This is in part a matter of scale: Jane’s published stories number less than ten to Paul’s excess of one hundred (though the collection Everything is Nice brings together fragments, sketches, and an excised section of her novel, Two Serious Ladies, that works brilliantly as a self-contained narrative). But where Paul is inconsistent, each of Jane’s stories is a perfectly formed strangeness, a queered, compelling insight into small, daily actions that give way to yawning depths.
Her descriptions of the waterfall in ‘Camp Cataract’ showcase her ability to summon the sublime not through poetic description but brief, alienating observations. And though the characters in this story might superficially resemble the outsider-protagonists of Carson McCullers’ stories, I am inclined to agree with Bowles’ assessment: that McCullers’ “freaks aren’t real”—at least, they aren’t as real as Jane’s isolated, unconventional women.
Collected in Plain Pleasures, Peter Owen 1966, and republished in Everything is Nice, Sort of Books 2012
Maybe it’s the old trope that novels tell the story of a community, short stories an individual. Maybe it is the way the brevity of a short story throws small details into greater focus. Whatever the reason, I’m always surprised by how bodily so many short stories are. Margarita Garcia Robayo takes this tendency towards the haptic and corporeal, and amplifies it: the bodies in her short stories and novellas are disobedient, abject, and frequently unpleasant. She is a master at tracing how we are undone by ourselves, how bodily cravings and rebellions thwart our plans and ideals. But through an alchemy she seems to have perfected, her stories transmute these flawed bodies into things beautiful and dignified. I could have chosen any of the pieces from her first collection in English, but ‘Like a Pariah’ always stays with me, thanks to its final line, rendered Carver-esque by Coombe’s excellent translation: “I’m perfectly alright.”
Collected in Fish Soup, Charco Press 2018
A short story is not a tableau or static image; by definition, it tells us a story. It goes somewhere. But because the short story is defined by its brevity, the most powerful stories often gravitate around a single, dominating image that gives the rest of the events their structure and meaning. Yoko Ogawa’s ‘The Diving Pool’ is a twisted and complex story about Aya, the only girl in a house of orphans who is not an orphan. It traces her relationship with her parents, the orphaned children they raise, and with the house—the Light House—in which they live.
At the same time, the story revolves around a single, recurring image: Aya sitting in the bleachers beside the local pool, watching her foster-brother Jun climb the ten-metre board and dive, again and again. Ogawa is a virtuosic writer, and not all of her fiction is so creepy or emotionally murky, but it is in stories like this, where the possibility of danger or imminent collapse is always present, where every turned page threatens new cruelty, that she really excels.
First published in Zoetrope 11.2, 2007. Collected in The Diving Pool, Picador, 2008
The mid-twentieth century was a turning point for the short story, particularly in America. The decade from 1940 to 1950 saw more single author collections of short stories published than the previous twenty years, while at the same time, the form lost its critical status, apparently never to be regarded as highly by critics again. From this wealth of writing, though, I could easily furnish a dozen anthologies: Richard Yates, John Cheever, Katherine Ann Porter, Truman Capote—but in my view, no story better captures the mid-century sensibility than Mary McCarthy’s ‘Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt’.
This story was the ‘Cat Person’ of 1941: a scandalous tale of embarrassingly bad sex on a Pullman train, and the desultory affair that follows. Frank and self-deprecating, no-one is spared here, least of all her protagonist (whom many saw as a thinly-veiled self portrait). When the story was published, McCarthy was already well-known in New York circles for the acerbic wit of her theatre reviews, but this story catapulted her into the spotlight as a leading writer and cultural critic, opened up a space for a new discourse around female sexuality, and led to a rush of imitative stories in Harper’s Bazaar and the New Yorker.
First published in Partisan Review, 1941. Collected in The Company She Keeps, Simon and Schuster, 1942; Harcourt, 1970
In anglophone countries, the short story has sometimes been regarded as a training form; it rewards experimentation, allowing writers to play with voices or structures that would not hold up if stretched out to novel-length. The downside is that many short stories end up being just that: pure experimentation. Prabda Yoon’s stories are endlessly inventive—he is often described as the postmodern master of Thai literature—but, in my view, his stories never sacrifice a compelling narrative for the sake of a stylistic trick.
Take ‘Pen in Parentheses’. The story is in, essence, a single sentence: “The sheet of paper fell (…) so I bent down and picked it up.” But the real story (the story of the narrator’s growth, of his eccentric grandfather, his relationship with his aging grandmother, of the way life changes us, regardless of whether we want it to or not) unfolds between those parentheses, so that the narrator’s life becomes one long aside suspended in a single action. In Yoon’s hands, experimentation is a way to enhance, not replace, a good story.
Collected in The Sad Part Was, Tilted Axis, 2017. Read it online here
While short stories can, of course, draw on anything the writer likes, there are certain subjects that writers seem to cluster around. And ever since F Scott Fitzgerald’s epoch-naming collection of 1922, The Jazz Age, the short story has enjoyed an especially intimate relationship with jazz.
‘Sonny’s Blues’ follows a rough script set down by Langston Hughes more than twenty years earlier in ‘The Blues I’m Playing’: an unconventional, but talented young jazz musician repairs a broken relationship through a moment of transformative performance (buried under this is an even older script, the script for the short story: an individual experiences something transformative that changes their relationship with those around them). But Baldwin does so much more than this simple template suggests. The story is a rich exploration of communication, storytelling, and the way communities are made and unmade. It is the jazz story and Baldwin at their keenest.
Collected in Going to Meet the Man, Dial, 1965, and available online here
Laura van den Berg’s stories grip me. They leave vivid impressions on my mind—I find myself turning over details days after reading them—but also demand re-reading, calling for another look, a deeper plunge. Her second collection, Isle of Youth, is a thing of beauty: seven stories that each work as perfect microcosms but, when read together, reverberate thematically, building layers of significance.
But the title story of her first collection, ‘What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us’, is my favourite of her works. It helps that the premise is instantly intriguing: a young woman who dreams of being an open-water swimmer travels to Madagascar where her mother is studying the collapsing lemur population. Where the story really shines, though, is in the way it unravels the complex interaction between mother and daughter—what Kazuo Ishiguro might call a ‘three dimensional relationship.’ The final shift in the story, projecting us forwards in time, is a killer.
First published in One Story 102, 2008; collected in What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us Scribe. 2011. Read the opening here
It might seem rash to include a story in this anthology that was only published last week—it probably is, though Sydney S. Kim’s writing is superlative. This story brings together visceral bodily descriptions, the threat of an environment irreparably damaged by man, and the fraught dynamics of artistic creation and parental nurture, all through the image of tears transformed into abstract black and white photographs. The prose is, like the title, crystalline; moving and unsettling, it left me rubbing my own eyes in sympathy.
But more broadly, this story represents why I love the short story, and why it is so important now. Far from a midcentury relic, writers continue to push the limits of what the short story can do—there is a new, excellent story being published literally every week. And Kim’s story is not collected in a book (yet), but was published online, in a form perfect for consumption in our age of distraction, whether over lunch, on the train, or in the blue light of your phone between snatches of sleep.
Published in American Literary Review, Spring 2019. Read it online here