There must be a name for those of us who constantly force-feed friends with short stories that they simply must read, but whatever we are called, here is my list. Just twelve, albeit with the sneaky side hustle that they come from on-line magazines which will introduce you to more. And then some more. We have a wealth of excellent online literary magazines and sites now (like this one), often run by writers who are just doing it for the pure love of the written word. So this list is also a thank you to the editors, readers, and amazing people who keep this strange form thriving. I’ve picked very short stories here, because it’s increasingly what I write and so I know exactly how hard it is to do well. But these are also stories that play on the page – with forms, genres and words. Enjoy.
The first time I read this story, I only realised half way through that I was holding my breath, so worried was I that it would lose its momentum. It didn’t. From the very start we find that the Ida of the title has “broad shoulders. One is three meters long, the other, stretches sixty two miles.” Once worshipped as a goddess, she’s now a tourist attraction, Bird Island. But in the middle of the story there’s this glorious line: “If she doesn’t move, no-one will know she is breaking down.” Oh yes, something’s going to happen…
First published in Atticus Review, Nov 2017, where it was Flash Fiction Contest Runner-up
Collective nouns are famously beautiful, almost poetic, but Kathy Fish’s extraordinary list of collective nouns takes it to another level. She begins almost playfully – “A group of toddlers, a jubilance (see also: a bewailing)” – before pitching us straight into our worse nightmares. It’s current, shattering and urgent. And all in less than a page.
First published in the Jellyfish Review
I marvel at everything Lydia Davis writes, and this one is typical in that it is as much about what it doesn’t say as anything we read directly. Take the first line: “A friend of mine told me a sad story the other day about a neighbour of hers.” Her characters don’t even need to make the story their own for us to be intrigued, and of course, this distance becomes an important part of the story as we read on. Glorious. And heartbreaking.
First published in Five Dials
An old woman freezes in a sewing factory, and the boss takes her to unthaw before sending her back to work. So far, so good, but of course there’s so much else going on, and every reading tells another story. I picked this one because the writing shows how everything matters: the rhythm of the sentences, the choice of verbs, and even the title can point us in many different and possible directions. Glorious.
First published in Smokelong, October 2017
I don’t think I’ve laughed at a piece of prose as much as this one. Several years on, and I keep going back to laugh so more. I’m not sure if it’s actually a story, but I do love how McSweeneys have taken it even further by publishing actual stories based on these prompts. It’s all genius – even if, as a creative writing tutor, I feel both seen and mocked.
First published in McSweeneys, May 2006
Just one short paragraph long, this story covers a simple incident over a time span of about ten minutes, but it tells the back story and suggests the future too. I feel I’ve read a whole novel.
First published in Flash Frog, July 2021
God, I love this story. It’s everything I long for in a very short story – heart, cleverness and that killer ending. But it’s mostly for the craft I appreciate it. The use of anaphora feels like a prayer, once once once, and then the almost but oh so not quite repetition in the last sentence. And now this review is nearly as long as the original piece.
First published in twoseriousladies.org
Choosing these stories has made me realise how much I value writing that is crafted to such a high level that the reader doesn’t realise the tricks involved. That’s what happened with this story for me. I read it, appreciating the power and language before I realised that every sentence began with the same letter, G. Clever. And the g-g-g-g sounds give it a roughness too. Pure poetry.
First published in Reflex Fiction, June 2020
Or as it’s subtitled, EXCERPT FROM THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF ART SMITH, THE BIRD BOY OF FORT WAYNE, INDIANA. This is a beautiful act of flight, and childhood dreaming. Art Smith, born in 1926 was one of the pioneers of skywriting – it’s amazing what you learn from fiction, or do you? I’m still wondering if even the Wikipedia entry isn’t a clever part of the story. I wouldn’t put it past Michael Martone.
First published in Split Lip Magazine
I love stories that are character sketches with a narrative. And this is one of the best ones I’ve read recently. A perfect plait of how we appear on the surface to the world, and how we feel inside. What we inherit and what we take for ourselves.
First published in Lost Balloon
I feel this story should be put into a time capsule for folk in the future to find and – hopefully – feel lucky that times have moved on. Victoria McCurdy captures the longing behind any new relationship so perfectly that it sings off the page and, having said it’s contemporary, actually the theme about relationships is probably universal. Perhaps this is what cave drawings were all about.
First published in Monkeybicycle, November 2017
K B Carle is a genius at the hermit crab narrative – using a different form to tell a story. I’ve been following her with admiration for several years now, and this one is perfection – a story in the form of a word search. I’m excited about this kind of originality but like all the stories here, it wouldn’t work if the form didn’t perfectly fit and add another layer to the theme.
First published in Craft