Once a week I facilitate a reading group in some sheltered housing where we read one short story, out loud, together, stopping every paragraph or so to talk about what’s happening. It’s a therapeutic thing more than a critical or literary thing, but I still try to pick stories that work in both ways. The narrator is sitting with her father, 86 years old and confined to his bed for health reasons. The father says, I would like you to write a simple story, just once more, like Chekhov or Maupassant. And then they start to have a deeper, more critical conversation about what that means, with her attempting to do what he asks, using neighbourhood characters as her material. As she tells and retells the neighbour’s story to her father, adding and subtracting detail, the actual hard work of fiction in defining what we think of as ‘character’ is laid bare. After listening to the whole thing, one of our group member’s Polish carer, who’d come in to push her wheelchair and help her drink a cup of tea, piped up “This story is like a Matryoshka doll!!”. At which point you know the story has won: smiley face emoji.
First published in the New American Review, 1972. Collected in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, 1974, FSG, and Collected Stories, FSG/Virago, 1994. Hear Ali Smith read it on the Guardian podcast here
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say I left art school because of Ian McEwan. I applied to do a Literature BA at UEA instead, and in my first class I was introduced to this Grace Paley story by a young lecturer called Rosemary Jackson. I fell in love with both of them. Paley was a generation older than McEwan, a New York Jew, a lifelong anarchist, activist, feminist, and her voice couldn’t have been more different from his: sassy and wise, sorrowful, exuberant. I read everything she’d written, and spent the next three decades regretting there wasn’t more. But as she said, “Art is too long and life is too short.” The enduring appeal of this story, and most of her stories, lies in its rejection of plot, the tidy tales her father enjoys. Paley’s fictional alter-ego wants to please him, but she despises plot – “the absolute line between two points” – because “it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”
First published in New American Review, 1972. Collected in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Virago, 1979 and Collected Stories, Virago, 1984
Grace Paley’s stories should be in the birthing pack for new mothers, along with the muslins and nappy wrap. No one else is as a good at the way women talk to each other, especially in the mothering-places like the playground and the park. Her women are difficult, funny, fantastically diverse, frank and above all resilient, making the best of some hilariously bad jobs. The talk seems to go on through the stories, one to the next, in a never-ending stream, but I’ve picked ‘Friends’ because its ending – “I was right to invent for my friends and our children a report on these private deaths and the condition of our lifelong attachments” – has become a sentence that lives in my head, like Harriet’s eating or Mansfield’s budding girl.
First published in The New Yorker, June 1979. Collected in Later the Same Day (1985) and the Collected Stories (FSG, 1994/Virago Modern Classics, 2018)
‘Oh man in the very center of your life, still fitting your skin so nicely… why have you slipped out of my sentimental and carnal grasp?’
If I could only read one short story writer it would be Paley, whose stories, rooted in the immigrant experience of life in the Bronx in the 1970s, explore (as her obituary stated) “what happened to the women that Roth and Bellow’s men loved and left behind”. Many centre on a loose alter ego, Faith Darwin; in ‘Listening’, the last story Paley wrote, Faith’s sons are growing up (“trying the find the right tune for their lives”), her marriage is going through difficulty, she is involved with writing and activism, and is debating a new baby. The story presents the range of life choices opening up to people in the ‘70s and how this was both liberating and overwhelming – decisions on when to commit suicide, how to be a father, which arty sandwich to choose. Faith watches a young man cross the road and muses about his vitality. Her friend Cassie dismisses him as just a “bourgeois on his way home”. Faith responds: “To everyday life, I said with a mild homesickness”.
Her contagious, funny, beautiful prose is organic and highly personal; Paley was suspicious of plot and craft, preoccupied instead with how to be a good person, a good woman, a good citizen. The story ends with Cassie launching into a bitter rant at Faith that seems to suggest Paley did not feel successful in this quest: “Why don’t you tell my story? Where is my life? Where the hell is my woman and woman, woman-living life in all this?” Cassie owns the last line – “I do not forgive you” – not just the final line of the story and the collection, but revealingly, the final line Paley ever wrote.
In The Collected Stories (Virago Press, 1994)
A 42 year old woman – Faith, Paley’s alter ego – leaves Manhattan and takes the subway out to her childhood neighbourhood in Brooklyn. It is the early 1970s and entirely African American now; Faith is the only white person on the street. The neighbourhood is run down, neglected, and rife with heroin addiction. Then, a preposterous exchange causes Faith to seek sanctuary in what is – literally – her childhood home, moving in with the family who now live there. Their interaction is both hilarious and touching – Faith tries to explain the place she knew and the family tries to explain the world they know. When Faith leaves after several weeks, she realises she both can and cannot return to the place she came from. Paley’s stories repeatedly confront the most serious of subjects (love, death, war) without ever taking themselves too seriously, and therein lies their power. The titles of her collections (this story is from Enormous Changes at the Last Minute) are playful, comforting, knowing, like she’s sitting in an all night diner and wants you to know that, in the end, That’s life, darling.
From Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), first published in Esquire, March 1974 and available online here
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
Here is an object lesson in how to take a seeming triviality (these don’t really exist of course) and, in barely three pages, create from it a long life— several lives, in fact— laid bare and interrogated to the full. Paley does this every single time. The really important thing with Paley is the voice. From the highly specific milieu of working-class Jewish New York, this voice jumps off the page as if you’re reading a direct transcript of conversation. The choices here, though, are a writer’s choices. So much has been left out, with just enough left in to imply everything else.
(1971; now in The Collected Stories of Grace Paley, Little, Brown. Online here)