So, I lied. The list of short stories includes some very good ones that I couldn’t trim the list to include just 10.
- This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You
Jon McGregor (2012)
The best short stories should haunt you for days and weeks. The stories in McGregor’s collection have stayed with me for months on end. They are linked by a unity of place – the fenlands of Norfolk and Cambridge – and by precise, elegant prose that elevates everyday occurrences into small, perfectly rendered pieces of art. As Maggie O’Farrell put it in her Guardian review: “The stories wrap themselves around the wholly disconcerting premise that catastrophes can rear up in anyone’s life without warning.”
2. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?
Raymond Carver (1976)
Possibly the most economical short story writer in this list, Carver, with his precise, punchy prose, conveys in a few words what many novelists take several pages to elucidate. In stories such as “Fat” and “Are You a Doctor?” he writes with flat understatement about suburban disenchantment in mid-century America. The collection – shortlisted for the National Book prize – was written during what Carver called his “first life”, when he almost died of alcoholism. His “second life” started in 1977, when he gave up drinking with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous.
3. Tenth of December
George Saunders (2013)
Winner of last year’s inaugural Folio prize for fiction, Saunders is, according to Entertainment Weekly, “the master of joy bombs: little explosions of grin-stimulating genius that he buries throughout his deeply thoughtful, endlessly entertaining flights of imagination”. Stories such as “Victory Lap” demonstrate his deftness of touch in mixing humour and humanity, as well as showcasing his technical brilliance, incorporating several different points of view in a contained space. And “Sticks”, little over a page in length, is one of the most moving stories I’ve ever read.
Alice Munro (2004)
The Canadian writer won the Nobel prize for literature in 2013 for her extraordinary work as “master of the contemporary short story”. She also won the 2009 Man Booker International prize for her lifetime body of work and has been called a modern-day Chekhov. Runaway is among her best collections and displays all of Munro’s mastery: the effortless shifts in time, sometimes across decades; the ability to convey an entire life in a few pages; the exploration of complex truths in uncomplicated language.
5. Interpreter of Maladies
Jhumpa Lahiri (1999)
This debut collection of nine stories won the Pulitzer prize shortly after it was published in 1999 and was named the New Yorker’s debut of the year. The stories, written with what Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times described as “uncommon elegance and poise”, deal with the diversity of Indian-American immigrant experience and the curious alchemy of love and relationships. My particular favourite in this collection is “A Temporary Matter”, a beautiful mediation on grief, love and loss as a couple try to come to terms with the stillbirth of their child.
6. That Glimpse of Truth
David Miller (ed) (out 23 October 2014)
Some of the best short stories contain unexpected moments of felicity on which the plot pivots. And so it was that, just as I was compiling this list, I received a giant package containing this doorstep of a book. It might be the most comprehensive collection of short stories… ever, featuring an all-star cast including Angela Carter, Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl and more, selected by David Miller, a literary agent.
Julian Barnes (2011)
Barnes is best known as a novelist and won the Man Booker prize in 2011 for The Sense of an Ending. As a result, his short stories are rather overlooked and shouldn’t be. Pulse is Barnes’s 17th book and is a masterclass in the shorter form. He is brilliant at evoking social nuance and has an unfailing eye for the tiniest detail that will shine light on the whole. Two particularly wonderful examples from this collection are “Complicity”, about the delicate beginnings of a love affair, and “East Wind”, about a relationship between an estate agent and a foreign waitress.
8. For Esme—with Love and Squalor
No list of short stories would be complete without the work of J.D. Salinger, and “For Esme” is one of his finest. First published in 1950 in The New Yorker and anthologized two years later, the story takes place in England during World War II and involves a soldier who meets an adolescent girl during a church visit in Devon. A year later, the soldier suffers a nervous breakdown in the weeks following V-E Day, but a letter from Esme, the young lady, inspires his recovery. This beautifully written story sings with a message of redemption.
9. The Three Questions, by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy is the recognized master of epic novels, but few appreciate his skill with the short story. This story was first published in 1885 and is written in parable form. A king seeks answers to the three questions he considers most important in life and after receiving inadequate responses from the educated men in his kingdom, he looks to a wise hermit in a neighboring village. In an ironic twist, the king learns the answers to his questions as he helps the hermit care for a severely wounded man who shows up at the hermit’s hut. This story is classic for its timeless answers and masterful way they are revealed.
10. A Good Man Is Hard to Find
In this 1953 story, Flannery O’Connor tells the tale of a manipulative grandmother and her son, his wife, and his children, who encounter a dangerous escaped criminal after their car overturns on a journey from Georgia to Florida. It is a stunning and disturbing story that deals with universal themes of cowardice, selfishness, redemption, and grace—and coming to terms with a person’s true self. The controversial final scene is the subject of endless scholarly debate and will be indelibly stamped in your brain once you’ve read it.
11. To Build a Fire (1908) by Jack London
A classic Man versus Nature story set in the Yukon Territory in Northwestern Canada. “The dog did not know anything about thermometers” but it had the sense to know “that it was no time for travelling.” A brilliant story to read in the depth of winter when a freezing spell is in the forecast or gripping your region.
12. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1890, 1891) by Ambrose Bierce
A short story masterpiece: This a suspenseful story about a Civil War soldier, Petyon Farquhar, who has been captured by enemy troops. The story opens in a dangerous predicament, with the soldier about to be hanged, “A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama … A rope closely encircled his neck.” Will Farquhar succeed in his effort to make a daring escape?
13. Lorry Raja by Madhuri Vijay
One of the newest voices on this list, Vijay tells the story of Indian children mining the ore used to construct Olympic stadiums in China with remarkable poise and vision. While the inherently political nature of the story is certainly important and the writing is ruthless in its detail, to approach “Lorry Raja” in only that way is to miss the quiet power of Vijay’s prose, as well as its ability to look honestly into the subtleties of family and the scales of desire without denying beauty where it lurks.
14. Painted Ocean, Painted Ship by Rebecca Makkai
This humorous, deceptive story, loosely descended from Coleridge’s most famous poem, follows an unreliable English professor as a single compound error (mistaking a bird, then a student) births another and another, eventually threatening her potential marriage, job, and fate. The best part, however, is the turn at the very end, which reveals the entire story to perhaps have been something different all along, a sneakily stunning mediation on the limits of self-awareness, guilt, and penance. Originally published in Ploughshares, curious readers can find it in the pages of the Best American Short Stories 2010 anthology.
If you have some more recommendations, I’d love to know. For now, this is your weekend sorted. Some of these are so moving that they’ll leave you pondering about a lot of things for a long time. Happy Tuesday!