‘To Do’ by Jennifer Egan

On the odd occasion I’ve given writing workshops, ‘To Do’ by Jennifer Egan has been one of my favourite stories to respond to. Even someone who has never written a creative word will have written a list at some point. It is as you might expect in the form of a “to do” list.

Egan’s list starts relatively benignly:

1. Mow lawn
2. Get rid of that fucking hose
3. Wash windows

though the expletive highlights the writer of the list is somewhat exasperated. By “9. Buy Wig” we are paying more attention. The whole story is a joy of small details, and the list writer’s motives become darker. And what a writer can do, of course, is cheat, for at the end we learn that this is a list that isn’t written down – that can’t be written down. 

First published in The Guardian, Summer Fiction Special, 2011 and available to read here

‘Career Move’ by Martin Amis

In ‘Career Move’, Amis shows both restraint and empathy, perhaps characteristics not usually associated with his writing. Prefiguring the literary jealousy that informs The Information, in ‘Career Move’ we have two writers, one who is rich, successful and highly praised, the other scrabbling away submitting to little magazines hoping to get the attention of his peers. One is a poet, one is a screenwriter. The catch (and the “career move”) is that the screenwriter is the one submitting to magazines, whilst it is the poet who is pitching ideas for his next “poem” to his agent. 

Of course Amis’s father was both a novelist and a poet, so this is a world within which Amis grew up in, despite his own subsequent success. Here we have a quieter, more humane Amis – wondering what if the only success you ever get was the occasional magazine acceptance? 

First published in the New Yorker, 1992, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Heavy Water and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1998. Available to read online in the New York Times here

‘Nudibranch’ by Irenosen Okojie

I had to include at least one story that had been selected for Best British Short Stories edited by Nicholas Royle. I’ve been reading the series since it had started, and over ten years or so it’s mapped the British short story scene wonderfully, and introduced me to lots of brilliant writers.

It was so great to be included in the 2020 alongside great stories by Luke Brown, Sarah Schofield and David Rose, but I wanted to include the Okojie because it’s so different from many of the other stories on my list. 

Told in the form of a myth it’s a story of transformation, of love, of sexual power, of desire. It’s intensely poetic, yet has details that ground it, even as it gets more and more dreamlike. The Goddess Kiru appears on a beach, and shape-shifts throughout the story, becoming the dream woman that each man she meets would want to meet. The story starts with the description of the “Nudibranch” – “soft-bodied, marine gastropod molluscs which shed their shell after their larvae stage… noted for their often extraordinary colours and striking forms.” 

Published in Nudibranch, Dialogue Books, 2019, and selected for Best British Short Stories 2020, Salt

‘The Embassy of Cambodia’ by Zadie Smith

The Embassy of Cambodia appears incongruously in a Willesden street, and its inhabitants wonder how it ended up there, aware of that country’s tragic history, and finding the appearance of an embassy in a North London suburb surprising. This is the story of Fatou, a Ghanaian woman, who acts as a live-in maid, and – since she has no access to either her passport or a salary – wonders whether she is a slave. On balance, she thinks not, mainly because on the morning when she is free, she goes and swims in the local health club using the guest pass of her “employers” which they’ve forgotten they even have. 

Smith is a novelist who nonetheless often thrives in the shorter form – and, to my mind, is best when writing about her North London stomping-ground. It’s a beautifully humane story of our globalised cities – seen from the ground up, the optimistic Fatou, but also suitably damning of the elites that the Fatou’s serve. 

Published in The New Yorker, February 2013, and available to subscribers to read here. Republished as a standalone volume by Hamish Hamilton, 2013

‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’ by Delmore Schwartz

I only knew Delmore Schwartz from the mention on the Velvet Underground’s ‘European Son’, a tribute from his student Lou Reed. 

I like stories that try and tell a whole life within a few pages, and this seems a good example. The narrator is in a movie theatre, but the film playing is the one that we are all a part of: that of our own life. He is watching as his mother and father meet, on the day that his father will ask his mother to marry him. In his “dream” cinema he constantly interrupts the film with interpolations, as he wishes he could stop or change the narrative. His father, 29, is becoming successful, and now needs a wife, his mother, younger, is a frail woman, wanting to escape her family into marriage. They are, as the narrator knows, particularly ill-suited. In the “film” their day out at Coney Island is in some ways a disaster, yet both achieve their aim. 

It feels such a layered story, but also detailed in its telling of time and place, the formal inventiveness of the dream cinema acting as a counterpoint to the realistic descriptions of this crucial day for the characters, early in the century. 

The post-script to this is that Schwartz was the brilliant young man who was finished by thirty, became an alcoholic and never wrote the great work he had promised. Yet this story, at the very start of his career, still startles. 

First published in The Partisan Review, 1937. Collected in In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, New Directions, 1938

‘The Winter Father’ by Andre Dubus

I don’t think anyone writes better about men and masculinity than Andre Dubus: not Carver, not Updike, not Ford. Like Carver his characters live at a specific place and time, an America recovering from Vietnam (many of them are Veterans), and struggling with their personal lives. In The Winter Father, a local radio DJ is separating from his wife, and in doing so begins to discover his children properly for the first time. He’s not a bad man, that’s the thing, but the separation is a sign of how he and his wife have fallen out of love, if they ever were given they married young. He takes his children on a Wednesday evening and on weekend days, and takes them to the places where other divorced men are with their kids, the cinema, the fast food joint; sledging on the hills in winter, then on the beach in summer. What separates Dubus from other writers is that every line seems to resonate with detail, he unpicks the minutiae of lives, and from it builds up a complete picture. The father meets a woman and immediately realises he is trying to recreate a happy family.

Divorced kids go to the beach more than married ones… because married people do chores and errands on weekends.

First published in The Sewanee Review. Collected in Finding a Girl in America, David R. Godine, 1980, and The Winter Father: Collected Short Stories and Novellas, David R. Godine, 2018

‘The Company of Wolves’ by Angela Carter

Angela Carter’s most famous book, The Bloody Chamber, is godmother to an entire genre, with its re-imagining of fairy tales through a feminist perspective. I sometimes wonder, as yet another young writer comes out with a book of inverted fantasy stories, whether they have been directly influenced by Carter, or whether the genre she created is so established that they don’t even realise. 

I first read this at university, not so long after it had been published, and it had already spawned the excellent film of the same name as this story. That the story of the film is a mere 11 pages long gives you a sense of the richness of Carter’s vision. In the revision of Little Red Riding Hood, the young girl who meets the charming hunter in the wood on the way to see her grandmother, is no ingenue, and no way is she going to be a wolf’s dinner. The phrase “some men are hairy on the inside” remains resonant. The story itself is a strange beast, part a history of wolf lore, part the Red Riding Hood tale. It continues to astonish. 

First published in Bananas, 1977. Collected in The Bloody Chamber, Gollancz, 1979, and in Burning Your Boats: Collected Stories, Vintage, 1996

‘Low Energy Meeting’ by Ben Pester

This story is a delight. An over-caffeinated line manager has brought treats to the meeting to counter everyone’s low energy. There’s been a slime leak and Raj has grown a third eye but the manager keeps himself peppy with Maltesers – full of brio and childhood confession. I’ve heard Ben read it aloud twice and I’m thinking of recording him just so I can listen to it whenever I want.

First published in Am I in the Right Place, Boiler House Press, 2020

‘Compartment’ by Ursula Scavenius, translated by Jennifer Russell

I could have chosen any of Ursula’s stories from her hallucinating-with-anger collection but this one has the unshakeable image of the three grown-up siblings travelling in a train carriage to Hungary, the three of them sat with their mother’s coffin.

It has been adapted into an excellent film by Maj Rafferty. 

First published in English in The Dolls, Lolli Editions, 2021 and online at Granta

‘Prosinecki’ by Adrian Duncan

This story is about a journeyman footballer and the shocking potential for violence and beauty in his line of work. It leaves you with a crystal-clear sense of what it is like to do a job in front of baying crowds, the ideals and principles at football’s rarest heights, and the magical way Duncan describes manipulating the spaces of a football pitch.

Listen to Wendy Erskine’s amazing reading of it (on The Stinging Fly podcast here).

First published in The Stinging Fly 38:2, Summer 2018, and collected in Midfield Dynamo, Lilliputt Press 2021

‘Let Nothing Come Between a Man and His Kite’ by Avee Chaudhuri

There’s hardly any friction in Avee’s stories, things just slip wondrously to their natural and erm… unnatural conclusions. The shootings, lapdances, beating-ups and politics of kite-flying administration all operate with a perfectly drunken logic. 

First published in Electric Literature, April 2020, and available to read here

‘Memento Mori’ by Wendy Erskine

Dance Move is the most consummate book of short stories I know. Just as there is no out-of-place word in each story, there is no weak story in the collection. I only singled out this one for the image of the hedge outside Gillian’s house and what people want it to mean. The temptation is to bang on and on about it, but anything other than Wendy’s telling is a waste of pixels.  

First published in Dance Move, Picador 2022