Where were you when you found out that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize? I was woken up out of a deep sleep because my aunt texted me, clearly thinking that I am a better person than I actually am, that I am, in fact, the kind of person who wants to be woken up at 7am with the breaking news of the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. But so, I was happy that Munro won. I was happy because I love Munro—”The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is still one of the most profoundly affecting things I’ve ever read. But I was also happy because I love short stories as a form, and was happy to see a short story writer get the acclaim that she deserves. And so in honor of Munro (who, obviously, you should read and read and read again), I thought it would be a good time to highlight some other masters of the form. Some of these writers focus primarily on short fiction, and others write novels as well (and are perhaps better known for longer form writing), but all of them have elevated short fiction to heights that are rarely seen in any kind of literature.
Oh, you haven’t read Grace Paley? STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING RIGHT NOW AND START READING GRACE PALEY. This amazing woman was so much more than a writer, and yet so completely was she a writer. She was a feminist and a political activist and an agitator and a New Yorker and just sort of the perfect role model for all people everywhere really. But also, man could she write. Her story “Wants” is one of the most perfect examples of the short story that I’ve ever read. Not unlike Munro, Paley gave voice to women who had never before been represented in fiction. She has an incredibly vital and timeless voice that should be read by everyone, everywhere, immediately. Go, now. Go.
I first discovered Keret when I was in Jerusalem many years ago, exploring an independent bookstore. I asked an employee for help finding good translations of Israeli authors and she gave me a novel by Meir Shalev, and one by David Grossman (which I loved), and then asked, “Do you like weird things?” Which, yes. And so that’s how I was introduced to The Nimrod Flipout, and was immediately won over by Keret’s dark, twisted humor and the way he so beautifully captures the absurdities of life in such spare prose. Read “Glittery Eyes.” And then read everything else you can get your hands on. Including this great holiday story he wrote for Electric Literature a few years ago! It’s pretty fucking funny.
Well, so, you probably all know about Saunders, right? After all, he wrote one of the best books of 2013, Tenth of December, featuring the heartbreakingly funny and familiar dystopic story, “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” Saunders is highly acclaimed, and deservedly so. His stories tend to take place in a world that is not quite ours, tilted an extra degree or two into a place of absurdity that is all too recognizable, despite not quite being our current reality. And, if you’ve ever been to Colonial Williamsburg, you’ll take a ton of pleasure in reading “Pastoralia.” Even if you haven’t been, you’ll still love the story, because you’re human right? Right. Also, please read this amazing gChat interview from The Paris Review that Saunders did with Katherine Bernard. You will love him even more than you thought possible, or at least, I did.
Perhaps best known for the first short story she ever wrote, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” Hempel is one of those rare celebrated writers (like Munro) who only works in this form. Unlike Munro, she is much more experimental, sometimes writing whole stories that are just a single sentence. The detached tone she uses in much of her work doesn’t resonate emotionally with everyone, but me? I love it. It’s like every word she chooses is so deliberate, all part of an intentional construction designed to make sense of the chaos of the infinite. She works small because everything is really so big, too big. Anyway, read “The Harvest.” It is perfect. And while perfection isn’t everything, it’s still something to be admired when you come across it.
I’ve never been all that into Moore’s novels (it was actually painful for me to get through A Gate at the Stairs) but I love Moore’s short stories, especially those in her collection Birds of America. I mean, “People Like That Are the Only People Here” is on just about every creative writing syllabus in this country for a reason. It’s an amazing look into the desperation parents—really all of us—feel when we confront death and the infinite and then get lucky enough to forget about it again, for now. Moore is a master.
Read everything by Baldwin. Hell, the first thing I read by him was an introduction he wrote to one of my favorite unknown books ever, Daddy Was a Number Runner by Louise Merriweather, which is sort of like A Tree Grows In Brooklyn if Francie Nolan had been African-American and growing up in Harlem in the 30s. Anyway, even after just reading Baldwin’s introduction, I knew his was a voice I wanted to read more and more of. And his short stories are an excellent way to read Baldwin, especially “Sonny’s Blues,” which is one of the most well-crafted pieces of short fiction that I’ve ever read. Really, it’s a flawless master lesson in craft, and perfect to read again and again.
Hmm…so, first of all, yes. Yes, there should definitely be a moratorium on things titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About [fill in the blank].” But! Englander’s short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank can get grandfathered in because it’s about a couple of years old, and it’s wonderful and funny and sad and pretty much a perfect collection. The title story is great and, in just a few pages, speaks volumes about marriage and values and trust and all the important things in life, really.
Ah, the stories by Amanda Davis are wonderful and demonstrate great, great talent and empathy and so the story of Amanda Davis is all the more tragic, because she was killed in a plane crash just prior to her first book tour. But, maybe that’s all the more reason why you should pick up her short story collection, Circling the Drain, and relish the work she left for us all. “Faith, or Tips for the Successful Young Lady” is particularly powerful.
Should I even be telling you to read O’Connor? You know to do that, right? Well, just in case, READ O’CONNOR. The best of her stories—”A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People” and “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”—are so dark and twisted and creepy in that Southern-Gothic way, that it’s easy to imagine the flickers of hellfire that O’Connor, good Catholic that she was, most probably felt lapping against the corners of her mind at all times.
E. Annie Proulx
Proulx is known more for her novels (The Shipping News in particular) but she also writes beautiful short stories, and is perhaps best known for having written “Brokeback Mountain,”on which the film was based. But, as is often the case and despite the fact that the film is beautiful, the original text is so much more compelling and emotionally investing than you could imagine from just watching the film. Even if you don’t read any of Proulx’s other stories, read “Brokeback Mountain” because it’s one of the most beautiful thwarted love stories of all time, and if it doesn’t leave you a quivering, crying mess, well, then, I just don’t know what to say.
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