The short story often gets short shrift. Years ago, when I was a newbie at Half Price Books back in the 70s, the woman training me to shelve Literature held aside all short-story collections. “We don’t put those on the shelves,” she told me. “They aren’t real literature.” (I should clarify that her stance most definitely went against company guidelines.) I’ve always loved to read short stories, and the best of them have a place among the best literature.
In honor of the great Canadian short-story author Alice Munro receiving this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, here’s a salute to Ms. Munro and some of her peers and predecessors who mastered the art of the short story. It’s a very personal list of writers who’ve had a big effect on me, so no complaints, please, about all of the great writers I’ve left out—Chekhov, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Salinger, Updike, and others.
Edgar Allan Poe
Like many readers, I devoured Poe’s stories when I was a kid, and many of Poe’s images have stuck with me to this day.
“The Cask of Amontillado”
“The Masque of the Red Death”
“The Pit and the Pendulum”
(all from Tales of Mystery and Imagination)
Right after Poe, Ray Bradbury came into my reading life, and I recall several mornings pedaling my bike to the bookstore to use my allowance on a Bradbury paperback. Decades later, I still respond to the vivid, deep-red cover of my copy of The Illustrated Man.
“The Scythe” (from Dark Carnival)
“The Long Rain” (from The Illustrated Man)
“Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed” (from A Medicine for Melancholy)
When I was in college, it was cool to read Flannery O’Connor. Her dark, Southern-gothic tales dealt with mysticism, superstition, and racism, and featured a memorable cast of Southern misfits trying to make sense of their changing world. All these years later, she still seems pretty cool.
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” (from A Good Man is Hard to Find)
“The Displaced Person” (from A Good Man is Hard to Find)
“Everything That Rises Must Converge” (from Everything That Rises Must Converge)
Like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty was a Southerner who set her tales in The South, but her stories tended to be much gentler, even when they dealt with racial tension.
“A Worn Path” (from A Curtain of Green)
“Powerhouse” (from A Curtain of Green)
“The Wide Net” (from The Wide Net)
Cheever was a New Yorker. Most of his stories were set in New York or nearby, and many of his stories first appeared in The New Yorker, but they still appealed to this Texas boy. Cheever caught the idiosyncrasies and failings of the “Mad Men” set while it was happening.
“The Sorrows of Gin” (from The Housebreaker of Shady Hill)
“The Swimmer” (from The Brigadier and the Golf Widow)
“Chimera” (from The World of Apples)
Carver pioneered the minimalist, slice-of-blue-collar-life story. Many featured people living at the margins: “men behaving badly,” and women trying to understand them.
“Neighbors” (from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?)
“Tell the Women We’re Going” (from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love)
“A Small, Good Thing” (from Cathedral)
I discovered the dark, inventive stories of George Saunders when many other readers did—early this year when his book Tenth of December received glowing reviews and made the bestseller lists. Saunders has three previous short-story collections, and I hear they’re all great but haven’t located them yet. I’ll keep checking the shelves at HPB. Some favorites from Tenth of December:
Munro said, “For years and years I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel. Then I found that they were all I could do, and so I faced that. I suppose that my trying to get so much into stories has been a compensation.” She announced at the time of the publication of her 14th collection, Dear Life, that it would be her last. We’ll see whether it really is, but either way, she has created a consistently fascinating body of work.
“Tell Me Yes or No” (from Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You)
“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (from Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage)
“Chance” (from Runaway)
My honorable-mentions include Katharine Mansfield, Jorge Luis Borges, T.C. Boyle, William Trevor, and Tobias Wolff, and I’m leaving out many others. Who are your favorite short-story writers?