When I started compiling my personal anthology, at first I thought it would be more of a Desert Island short stories, the ones that have stayed with me for years, the stories I use over and over again in workshops and which leave me reeling each time I read them (my requirement for a great short story). But then I stepped back and noticed a theme running through: Family. Not just the one we are born into, but the families we choose, be that in romantic relationships or friendships. This is something that crops up in my own work again and again – my first collection turned out (unplanned) to be about different ways to approach parenthood, or non-parenthood, and all my stories (as perhaps all stories of any length are) address the difficulties of relating to other people. These are 12 of my all-time favourites, varying in length from a few hundred words to a few thousand, and moving from the UK to America, New Zealand, Ireland and Israel. I would be very happy with them on a desert island – and they are all available to read online too. I hope you are left reeling from some of them too.
This is one of the first very short stories I ever read, in an anthology of “sudden fiction” edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas and published by Norton in 1983, and I was knocked sideways by it. How is it possible to do all this in just over a page? It sparked my love for these tiny stories, which are often magical, illustrating just how few words, precisely and carefully chosen, it takes to conjure up a world and to have an impact far beyond the duration of their reading. Here, Paley talks about her mother, yes, but in these 420 words she is also telling us what it is like to be a child, a daughter, and imagining herself into her parents’ marriage before she arrived. She enlists us as fellow time-travellers, eavesdropping on her young parents. And, of course, this is a story – as all short stories are, says Ali Smith – about death. Beautifully. Once again, it has caught me in the chest. Right there.
First published in Later The Same Day (FSG, 1985), included in Sudden Fiction, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas (Peregrine Smith, 1986), and available to read online here
This short story hovers around 800 words and manages to destroy me each time I read it. It’s hard to talk about a short story without any spoilers but let’s just say Janet Frame’s stories are a masterclass in everything a short story could do. Like Paley, she travels in time, and like Paley she is here painting a picture both of a child’s relationship – during childhood and looking back as an adult – with her parents, and imagining the parents’ marriage, using the apparently small and specific to tackle the largest issues, from love and death to war and government. I use this short short story in workshops, cutting it up and handing around only one piece at a time, to give students a sense of how a writer sets up expectations and then both fulfils and subverts them brilliantly. And, of course, how few words it can take to do this.
First published in Between My Father And The King: New and Collected Stories (Counterpoint, 2013), and available to read online here
Before I set up my online journal, The Short Review, in November 2007, I was a narrow-minded short story reader. I thought I didn’t like science fiction, fantasy, anything that wasn’t found on the “literary” shelves of bookshops. I was very wrong, and delighted to be proved so. The Short Review published ten reviews of short story collections old and new every month, and as editor I decided I would review a book for each issue – and I would go beyond my comfort zone, asking for review copies of books I would never have chosen for myself. One of these was The Collected Stories of Carol Emshwiller: Emshwiller, who is now 96, was described as a writer of “feminist science fiction”. But this didn’t prepare me for the astonishing, imaginative, entertaining, dark and moving stories. Who could resist a story that begins: “Grandma used to be a woman of action. She wore tights. She had big boobs, but a teeny-weeny bra. Her waist used to be twenty-four inches.” This is a grandma you need to find out more about! This story is just under 3000 words – I am no length snob either, if a story grips me I will read it, whatever length. If, like me, you tend to be a bit of a genre snob, let Carol Emshwiller open your eyes to the stories you’ve been missing.
First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (March 2002), included in The Collected Stories of Carol Emshwiller (NonStop Press, 2011), and available to read online here
Here, we are back to the tiniest of stories and another of the geniuses of the shortest prose, Lydia Davis, who takes everything we thought might have been “rules” of writing and breaks them, necessarily, purposefully, brilliantly. Once again, it’s hard to describe this piece, I’d rather you go and read it, to see what Davis does with language, how she chooses to name and unname, whose voices she brings us, and how. This is a perfect example of writerly choice – in showing us what she shows us, she opens up the world of this story, taking it beyond the very specific to the universal of human relationships, of families past and families present, of love and ex-love, of loneliness. Another piece I use often in writing workshops to give writers permission to let go of everything they think they “should” – isn’t the writing world full of “shoulds”? – do, to see what they might do, can do.
First published in Almost No Memory (FSG, 1997), also available in The Collected Stories, and available online here
In case you thought this would be a list of short stories written by women, let me subvert your expectations. This is another very short story that on the surface has hardly anything going on at all – a woman goes to Lost Property to ask about a coat – but is so full of emotions, so full of loss, that for me it is only just on right side of unbearable. It’s beautifully understated, and told from the point of view of the person running the Lost Property office, making it is also about what can happen between two strangers, what we see when we really look and listen to someone else.
First published in This Isn’t The Sort of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You (Bloomsbury, 2012), available to read online here
I have been recommending this short story to everyone recently. I first read it years ago, but then someone linked to it on Twitter and I was reminded of it all over again. Another body slam of a story, this one about friendship, the family we create for ourselves, if we are so lucky. I find it hard to even write about this story without feeling tearful, and Hempel does this because of her complete lack of sentimentality. It’s about loss, about death, but written so sparely, with a dark, dark humour, and with almost everything unsaid, unwritten, left for you in the gaps. It’s one of the most powerful, beautiful and harrowing stories about the love between friends that I’ve ever read.
For her I would always have something else.”
First published in TriQuarterly magazine in 1983, included in Reasons to Live (Harper Perennial, 1985), and available to read online here
This story of two feckless brothers who nearly became pioneers of aviation is deftly told in the language and format of an encyclopaedia entry. I love Mangla’s story, it’s ridiculous, funny and dark, and such a brilliant example of getting the tone of your piece exactly right and how much can be conveyed by the perfect phrase in the perfect place (“gravely impaired judgement”, “an impeccable collection of ivory mustache combs”). This is a story about family, about striving, about failure. And it’ll also make you laugh.
First published in BOOTH, 2015 and available to read online here
“The girl was young when she did it, and she didn’t live there.” A hell of a first line to start this story which, in around 1500 words, tells of two families, the one that owned the table in which the initials were etched, and the one from which the girl who did the etching came. This story is told by an omniscient narrator and it slips around in time and space. It tells of history, of love, of what the idea of ‘family’ can mean, of unfulfilled dreams and mysteries, of how one small act has ripples that sing across decades.
First published in The Southern Review, 2001, included in Esther Stories (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), and available to read online here
This flash story has a hint of magic about it, something the very short story can pull off beautifully, conjuring a world just slightly out of step with ours from the very first line: “Years ago, before their son was born, she stopped asking his name.” For me, this story is about the unknowability of the other person, even the person you are “supposed” to be the most intimate with, the one with whom you have created another life. I see it as also being about women, our fears of putting our needs front and centre, taken to the extreme of her not even being able to ask her husband his name or where he goes every day. Again, as in the best fictions, a tiny story set in a tiny space, which illuminates the biggest questions: our human ridiculousness, our desire for connection.
First published in Smokelong Quarterly (2008), included in Feeding Strays (Lost Horse Press, 2011), and available to read online here
Talking of ridiculous, this short short story pushes it even further, imagining a world where every biologist has given up lab work and is instead studying a schoolgirl called Grace. “One biologist sits at the breakfast table and says he’s an uncle visiting from Norway. One kidnaps the bus driver and studies Grace in the rearview mirror.” I love fiction inspired in any way by science, I do quite a lot of this in my own writing, and this is one of my favourites because of the humour, but underneath, as students in my workshops point out, there are serious questions. Where are Grace’s real parents? Isn’t it creepy that all these people are following a child? What is science for exactly?
First published in Paper Darts and available to read online here
This flash story is, for me, a perfect example of the use of the second person, addressing “you” directly. “There are things you can do when your husband sleeps with your sister,” is how it begins. This story is not funny. It is disturbing and visceral, about love, family, and, obviously, betrayal. It doesn’t go where you think it is going to go, as all the best stories don’t. It draws you in, you are right there with her and “the pain that pinches like a body brace”. You may find you are holding your breath for the entire time it takes you to read 500 words, which feel like a universe.
First published in the Dublin Review of Books (2011), included in Of Dublin and Other Fictions (Tower Press, 2013) and available to read online here
Israeli writer Etgar Keret has become well known for his very dark and surreal stories dealing with what often characterizes life in Israel – where I lived for many years – from terror attacks to military service. His is a bizarre humour, which is what is often needed to cope when living in strange times and violent, unstable situations. This story, one of his most anthologized, is ostensibly about a marriage, about loss of love, and what happens when everything is turned upside down.
But, like all the stories here, and perhaps like the majority of stories we tell and are told, it’s really about the mystery of The Other – how we have so very little understanding of what goes on in our own heads let alone another person’s. Isn’t it a miracle when we manage to connect at all, those crazy moments where you and I are right there, laughing at the same thing, looking directly at each other, seeing each other for the first time? Isn’t it, though.
In Suddenly, A Knock on the Door (Chatto & Windus, 2012) and available to read online here