In his introduction to this project, Jonathan Gibbs quoted Borges: ‘My preferences have dictated this book. I should like to be judged by it.’ When it comes to this Personal Anthology of short stories I should not like to be judged by it. All but two of the stories are by men. All but two are by English or North American writers. None are in translation. All the writers are white. Something is wrong here. It’s good that I am not a publisher.
Around 2000, when I started writing stories seriously, I discovered, in a fated and improbable sort of way, The Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford, among a pile of unwanted books dumped in the hallway of the block of flats where I was living. This anthology turned out to be my route into the work of so many wonderful writers – a number of whom are on this list – exactly as an anthology should. Tobias Wolff was one of them. In 2008 I went to a conference in Cork, mainly because Wolff was going to be there, reading his work. My own collection was about to come out and I was carrying the manuscript around in my bag, with some idea that I would find a way to give it to him, following which he would read it and insist on providing a quote for the cover that would celebrate my genius. In the event, someone did introduce me to him, but I bottled the moment. Instead he signed my copy of his collected stories ‘with best wishes for your own work’ which in the end felt good enough.
In ‘An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke’, an academic is obliged to attend a conference with a flashy colleague that he despises, in part because of his ‘unnecessarily large moustache’. In the end it is Brooke who behaves poorly and he and we are left wondering exactly what sort of man he is. With all very good or great writers it is extremely difficult to say what it is that they do or how they do it – certainly without making a fool of yourself. In this story it is something about the exquisitely achieved tone, the gap between the narrative voice and Brooke’s own, the way the relative plainness of the language and directness of the storytelling belie a vast understanding of moral and human complexity. Something like that.
First published in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (Ecco Press, 1981) and anthologised in The Granta Book of the American Short Story.
In any list of the best short stories ever written, you have to include something by Flannery O’Connor. It’s an actual crime not to – and with good reason. She was a flat out, one of a kind genius. O’Connor is someone else I first read in the Granta anthology and it’s that story, ‘Good Country People’, that I want to include here. It tells the story of Mrs Hopewell and her daughter, Hulga, a morose 32 year old with ‘a number of degrees’ and a wooden leg who has changed her name from Joy specifically to spite her mother. When a bible salesman visits, Hulga is fascinated by the possibility of seducing him and he by the thought of her leg. Usually, when I admire a writer, it makes me want to write like them, but not in O’Connor’s case. You know that you could never write something so strange, so savage and so funny – and you shouldn’t even try.
First published in A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (1955, Harcourt, Brace and Company) and widely collected and anthologised.
I could pretend that my favourite John Cheever story is not the one that everyone knows and about which a million undergraduate essays have been written and which was made into a film – but it would be pretending. In ‘The Swimmer’, Neddy Merrill sets out one hungover afternoon to swim home via the swimming pools of his wealthy neighbours and in doing so reveals not only the delusions and hollowness of his own life but of the entire American project – possibly. Not many stories have a genius idea or conceit at the centre of them, it’s more just a case of writing well. ‘The Swimmer’ has both. The obvious but beautiful ironic-mythic metaphor of Neddy’s journey is a triumph in itself. But then Cheever wrote hundreds of pages and condensed it into just 12 of the best prose ever written.
First published in The New Yorker (1964) and collected in The Stories of John Cheever
Whilst I’m on the mid-century Americans, here’s someone who wasn’t in the Granta book. The reason he isn’t is because at some point in the 1960s Salinger stopped giving permission for his stories to be anthologized. As a result I came to his collection For Esme with Love and Squalor (or Nine Stories, as it was in the US) late – a shame, because they are completely wonderful. The title story takes the form of an American soldier’s recollection of meeting a child, Esme, in a café whilst billeted in a rainy part of England just before D-Day. She asks him to write her a story that is ‘extremely squalid and moving’ and this, we understand, is that story. It has many of the Salinger tropes – a traumatised young man, a precocious child, a thick vein of melancholy as well as a dash of sentimentality. Cheever was reportedly jealous of Salinger and it’s easy to see why. As a writer it is difficult not to be both dismayed and joyful at the pure and apparently effortless talent on display.
First published in The New Yorker (1950), and collected in Nine Stories (the US title; elsewhere the collection takes its name from this story)
I’m afraid it’s true – I prefer her early work. The later stories – so spacious and surprising, technically extraordinary and self-effacing – are brilliant in their own way but it is in the first few collections, where the language is fuller and the emotion is allowed to flow more freely that Munro really does it for me. In ‘Postcard’ the narrator, Helen, has had a long affair with Clare, the scion of a grand local family. When Clare returns from Florida one summer with a wife, Helen’s mother tells her it is her own fault: ‘But once a man loses his respect for a girl, he is apt to get tired of her’. Munro seems to me very like Wolff, in that her subject has always been the complexities, surprises and essential unknowability of human character and behavior – yes, all that vague stuff! – a notion that is perhaps intrinsic to the short story form.
First published in Dance of the Happy Shades (Ryerson Press, 1968)
I first read McEwan’s debut collection, First Love, Last Rites, when I picked it off my parents’ shelves as a teenager, and the stories impressed me then for their sheer imaginative nastiness. When I read them again much later, I saw how brilliantly made they were – the preciseness of the language, the control of the tone, as well as the wit. In ‘Homemade’ the fourteen-year-old narrator is in competition with his friend Raymond to undergo a range of adult rites of passage, a journey that ends with the rape of his own sister. It is easy to forget, now that McEwan is such an institution, how shocking the book was considered when it was published in 1975. Almost everything he has done since has its echoes – or, more correctly, its origins – in this collection.
First published in First Love, Last Rites (Cape, 1975)
McEwan apart, I have looked for and found most of my short story gods in the United States, and it’s certainly the case that few English writers have specialized in the form. One English writer whose stories have obsessed me – to the degree that I had to stop reading him for fear of being fatally influenced – is James Lasdun. He shares with McEwan, I think, a little of the English gothic sense, a preoccupation with innocence and the sense of characters being drawn irrevocably to some compromising act. In ‘The Half-Sister’, Martin, an under-achieving musician is unhealthily fascinated by the wealthy family he visits as a guitar tutor. Among the children is an older, rather unwanted sister, and their father appears to be making Martin an offer he cannot refuse.
First published in It’s Beginning to Hurt (Cape, 2009)
In my own writing I have found myself pulled between the realism of writers like Wolff or Munro and the more heightened, fabulistic effects of stories like ‘The Swimmer’ or Jim Crace’s first book, Continent. Sometimes described as a novel, Continent is a collection of short stories each of which takes place in the same unnamed country where the struggle between tradition and progress, science and superstition is a constant theme. As elsewhere with Crace, it is a miracle of style and language, a completely accomplished debut that set the template for everything that he would write afterwards. I refuse to choose a single story. Read the whole book.
(William Heinemann, 1986)
In the struggle to find out what sort of stories I wanted to write, along with Jim Crace, it was Peter Carey whose brilliant, strange and surreal early work that kept dragging me away from a more conventional realism. In ‘The Fat Man in History’ – also the title of his first collection – a post-revolutionary society has marginalized fat men, believing them to be the embodiment of pre-revolutionary oppression and greed. Alexander Finch, a depressed former political cartoonist, lives in a dilapidated house with his fellow fat men plotting to overthrow the new order. It’s funny and sad and full of beautiful writing.
First published in The Fat Man in History, (University of Queensland Press, 1974)
I haven’t read all that many stories in the past few years, as part of an effort to stop writing them (long-story, for another time). As a result, I had Colin Barrett’s Young Skins sitting on my shelves for ages before getting round to it a few weeks ago. I could choose one of several stories but The Clancy Kid is the first in the book, the one I read first, and so the impression of it’s low key brilliance has stuck with me the most. There is very little to it. Two friends drink in a pub. They leave, turn over a car, and meet some kids on a bridge. There is an unresolved affair, a preoccupation with a child that has gone missing in the next town, an almost randomly collected bunch of things. And yet it is so beautifully done, so unforced, so life-like, that it takes your breath away.
First published in Young Skins (Cape, 2014)