It seems only right that a list of recommendations of great short fiction be just that: short. So with a respectful nod, we’ll hop over the Sakis and O. Henrys, the Cheevers and the Weltys, and move to the quick (by which I mean practitioners of the short story) who are still quick (by which I mean: still living).
There are short stories, and then there are short-short stories. And with a word limit of only 500 words, the Xpress contest fell into the latter category. Writers of novels are often asked by nonwriters, “How do you fill up all those pages?” — as if great length equates to great difficulty. When, in fact, short is often harder. And writing a good short-short story can be hardest of all.
If you’d like to read more short-shorts, check out the collection Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, by Lydia Davis. Her acceptance last year of a MacArthur genius grant only cemented this writer’s reputation as the master of the form. (Also by Davis: Almost No Memory: Stories and Break It Down.)
Canadian author John Gould’s Kilter: 55 Fictions was recently nominated for a big prize in his home country. It was a surprising coup for Gould (most of the other nominations were novels) and a testament to the worth of this quirky, ultra-smart collection.
Also highly recommended is the anthology Flash Fiction: Very Short Stories, edited by James Thomas, Denise Thomas and Tom Hazuka.
After the constriction of a short-short, the good old short story may seem as spacious as a ballroom. A rash of exciting new short-story collections have appeared recently. Among the standouts: How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer, and Jim Shepard’s fabulous Love and Hydrogen. I knew I would love Orringer’s collection as soon as I read these sentences, from the story “When She Is Old and I Am Famous,” about a young woman’s relationship to her more beautiful cousin: “Aida. That is her terrible name. Ai-ee-duh: two cries of pain and one of stupidity.”
And if you missed it before, do not skip Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri. It’s just about perfect.
On the anthology front, dive into Juncture: 25 Very Good Stories and 12 Excellent Drawings, a Soft Skull Press softcover edited by Lara Stapleton and Veronica Gonzalez, with stories by Kelly Link, Jonathan Lethem and Colson Whitehead. I’m also a fan of McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. Edited by Michael Chabon, it features lots of big-name authors — like Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers and Chabon himself — trying their hand at more plot-driven, spooky, creepy and, yes, thrilling stories than the traditional “not much happened and then I had an epiphany” model associated with The New Yorker. Also, the annual New Stories From the South, edited by Shannon Ravenel, tends to be excellent.
Finally, “One Story” is the best new magazine concept I’ve heard of recently. Subscribers receive 18 issues a year — each featuring a single short story. Find out more at www.one-story.com.
[Carrie A.A. Frye is a writer of fiction and nonfiction and a frequent leader of book clubs.]