Introduction

I thought of having a theme, but I couldn’t keep myself disciplined. Instead, I’ve chosen as wide a mix as possible – from classics to things that some wouldn’t really consider short stories at all. As soon as I finished, I wanted to tear it all up and start again – but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Perhaps the best way of describing this list in the end is that, rather than being the best stories I know, it’s the ones that have stuck with me, and spring to my mind most readily.

‘Razor’ by Vladimir Nabokov, translated by Dmitri Nabokov

“Chin like an elbow” is, I think, as good a description of a face as you can get. This is nasty, brutish and short, but written with such clarity that the character of Razor leaps from the page, while remaining entirely, properly inscrutable. Nabokov does amazing things with the short story, clever things, but I think he’s never better than when actually telling a story, and in this case, telling one that seems very close to the classic, simple genre stories of the thirties.

First published in Russian as ‘Britva’ in Rul, 1926. Available in English in Collected Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, 1995

‘Out, Out’ by Robert Frost

This is the first thing I thought of. Technically, it is a narrative poem, but it feels like a short story. It unfolds fluently, with an unforced ease, and turns on a perfect note of shock. It’s brief, and spare in terms of any real detail, but it contains a whole life in one moment, and ever since I first read it in my early twenties, it’s lingered somewhere deep in my chest. Life has never felt so fragile as this.

First published in McClure’s, July 1916, then collected in Mountain Interval, 1916. Available online via The Poetry Foundation

‘Fellow Travellers’ by Agnes Owens

This is not a famous story, or a new one, but something about the way it dramatizes the experience of talking to a stranger on a train stuck in my brain. I love trains, and buses – and I’m also scared of them. The possibility that that conversation might turn weird, or that threat might suddenly erupt out of everyday pleasantries, is always present. In particular, this seems very modern, in a world where we are newly interrogating the power play of everyday interactions in the light of gender, race and class. And more than that, Agnes Owens is just great.

First published in Lean Tales, Jonathan Cape, 1995, also collected in Complete Short Stories, Polygon, 2011

‘Butcher’s Perfume’ by Sarah Hall

My wife is from Cumbria, and we go all the time – not to tourist central, but to the south lakes, the bits where Cumbrians live. Sarah Hall’s story might be from the other end of the county, but I love it for the feel of the grit and scramble of poor rural life, the strangeness of the out of the way corners of England, and above all the language – the odd, rough, Viking-inflected words of Cumbrian dialect.

First published in 2010 by Comma Press as part of the shortlist for the BBC National Short Story Award, then collected in The Beautiful Indifference, Faber, 2011

‘Hunters in the Snow’ by Tobias Wolff

Wolff is a fantastic writer of short stories – but I’ve chosen this story as illustrative of something that runs across all great story writers. The short story form gives you a great deal of freedom. You don’t need to worry about anything except the thing you are writing now. You don’t need length, development, incident. But you do need to stick the knife in, and then you need to twist. Wolff does this, and does it again.

First published in In the Garden of North American Martyrs, WW Norton, 1982; collected in Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories, Bloomsbury, 2008. Available online here

‘Clean Work’ by Naomi Booth

I was thrilled to be included in Test Signal, an anthology of contemporary writing from the North of England, but my excitement was tempered by classic imposter syndrome when I read some of the other stories. Pick of the bunch was this, by Naomi Booth, a claustrophobic tale that played with characteristic coolness on ideas of motherhood, femininity and cleanliness, as well as having some wonderfully nasty business with a rat.

From Test Signal, Bloomsbury, 2021

‘The Crank that made the Revolution’ by Alasdair Gray

Alasdair Gray is the most wonderful, anarchic, infuriating talent. His writing (and the art that goes with it) soars at times to magnificence, while sometimes his playfulness and general atmosphere of seedy chaos results in odd and uncomfortable misfires. His stories have an unchecked abundance to them – not bound by any sense of decorum or genre. This one – and the delightful illustrations that go with it – is a blunt takedown of the industrial revolution, a kind of Morris-esque Marxist allegory of the problems of modernity. And a very funny story.

First published in Unlikely Stories, Mostly, Canongate, 1983, then collected in Every Short Story by Alasdair Gray, Canongate, 2012. You can hear it read by the author here)

‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy has his flaws, but I challenge anyone to find better, more precise, more careful delineations of human psychology and behaviour. His novels are masterworks, but he applies the same rigour and compassion to his stories. This might be halfway between the two, but in its focus and intensity, I’m claiming it for a story. I have never read anything by him and come away less than amazed – but reading this gave me a sense of profound and life-changing understanding that very few works of art or literature can manage. 

First published in Russian, 1886. Widely available in translation, including as a Penguin Classic, 2006, and online, including here

‘Guy Walks into a Bar’ by Simon Rich

And I love this one in a very different way. It makes me laugh out loud. Before I read it, I carried exactly this story in the back of my mind – something that riffs on the fact that jokes are essentially stories. It works brilliantly – at least for someone with a mind as puerile as mine – by balancing the shift between two modes. You have an out and out gag-based structure, with a series of punchlines, that are then undercut by deadpan seriousness about their implications. 

First published in The New Yorker, 2013, and available to subscribers to read online here. Collected in Spoiled Brats, Serpent’s Tail, 2014

‘Walker Brothers Cowboy’ by Alice Munro

You can’t really do a list of short stories without Alice Munro. You could say that about other people I’ve missed out here, of course – Joyce, or Raymond Carver. But Munro seems to me the person who has engaged the most, and most persistently, with the form itself. Over decades, she’s honed what a story can do – and this is a great early example. It’s all about the gaps – the things missing from the character’s lives, the things missing from the narrator’s understanding, the information missing from what Munro reveals. Short stories can play with this in the way longer writing can’t – they can let the gaps within the story extend out beyond its confines and sketch out the larger emptiness beyond.

From Dance of the Happy Shades, Ryerson Press, 1968, and collected in Selected Stories, McClelland Stewart, 1996

‘The Library of Babel’, by Jorge Luis Borges

I do also have to have Borges in here. His stories are undoubtedly some of the most important pieces of literature of the twentieth century. I could have chosen any of them – I’m not sure there is any other writer of whom I can say that I have read as much as I can find, and never yet encountered a dud. They are jewels, little reflective, magical worlds that shatter as you read them. I could choose any, so I’ve gone for the one that is emblematic of the whole project – the labyrinthine Library of Babel. It is a game, a philosophical exploration, and a surprisingly straight bit of science fiction fantasy.

First published in Spanish as ‘La biblioteca de Babel’ in El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan, Sur, 1941. First published in English in Labyrinths, New Directions, 1962, and Fictions, Grove Press, 1962

‘I Hung my Head’, as sung by by Johnny Cash

I know I’ve already pushed the boundaries by including a poem, but I have to finish with this. Frost’s poem feels like a story, reads like a story. This one is undoubtedly not just a poem but a song. Part of the storytelling is Johnny Cash’s voice – gravelly and old, weighed down with guilt, backed by the metronomic swell of the music as the title is repeated again and again. But it is also nothing if not a narrative – and one that proceeds with astonishing, sparse vigour. The images are crystal clear, the story vivid and precise even as the central mystery – why does the speaker shoot? – is never touched. The moment of realisation is a proper epiphany – “I orphaned his children; I widowed his wife” – that is devastatingly blunt and totally heartbreaking.

Original version by Sting from Mercury Falling, 1996; Johnny Cash version from American IV: The Man Comes Around