My Favorite Short Story Collections

Mark Kerstetter, Kafka/Leaves, oil sketch on paper

Mark Kerstetter, Kafka/Leaves, oil sketch on paper

I just found out that the 22nd of this month is International Flash Fiction Day. Who knew? I’m not sure how I’m going to celebrate this event, other than read some stories. But it gives me an excuse to list, in an informal manner, ten of my favorite collections of short stories, just for the fun of it.

Let’s pretend we’re having a tea party. I prefer strong coffee; you can have that if you like, but I also have Earl Grey and some fine Japanese green tea. Oh, and some great organic chocolate cookies. We’re talking books. Short story collections, to be exact. Anyway, let’s pretend that we’ve already discussed what “flash fiction” is supposed to be, that basically it just means really short short stories, and the word “flash” is misleading—as in “flash in the pan”—here a moment, and gone. No, they don’t flash like a camera, they’re the snapshots themselves, taken with great care, keepers. We’ve already discussed that the term “microfiction”, although merely descriptive, is better (after all “short story” is a merely descriptive term), but like the poor and misleading terms “Minimalism” or “Post-Modernism” we seem to be stuck with “flash”. Oh, and we’ve already mentioned the so-called connection between flash and prose poetry, that basically flash is more concerned with narrative and less with the “poetic moment”, but that nobody really knows what a prose poem is anyway, because the “poetic moment” cannot really be defined (and that’s why we love it and them), so we’ve agreed to skip a discussion that just travels in circles and go right to the list:

1) First, let’s get Raymond Carver out of the way with the Library of America edition of the Collected Stories, which contains the original versions of the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love before Gordon Lish got his hands on them. We’ll save the discussion of their differences, as well as the broader issue of the role of editor for another day, there’s no time for that now. I discovered Carver just a few years ago when a neighbor in a creative writing class gasped in disbelief that I’d never heard of him, then shoved the book in my hands, uttering, YOU. MUST. READ. I took the book home and read it straight through, stopping now and then to turn it over and over in my hands, in absolute disbelief that I’d never heard of him. And everything you’ve heard is true. He’s incredible.

2) And let’s just agree, shall we, that Hemingway is the bees freakin’ knees. ‘Nuff said. No? Oh please don’t tell me you’re one of those who say they don’t see what the big deal is. Please don’t tell me that. Try a very short one, say Old Man at the Bridge. Aren’t you there? Don’t you see it, even more vivid than a picture or a film? Try Cat in the Rain. Could any scene of words be more vividly constructed, and with such economy? This is the closest the art of placing one word after another on a sheet of paper gets to chiseling in stone. Oh, I guess you have something against Michelangelo too? Too hard, too masculine, too many “toos”?  Oh, brother.

3) Sherwood Anderson was one of Hemingway’s teachers, but he could teach anyone who’s interested in putting together a collection of stories that really work. And what I love most about Winesburg, Ohio is the way the stories work together; here the whole is greater than its parts. We get portraits of some of the residents of this town, very precise portraits that capture each in a specific moment of their “grotesquery” (the word is Anderson’s). Many of them find their way to George Willard, reporter of the local paper and promising young writer, somehow feeling that by using him as a sounding board their peculiarity will come into focus. Willard has not yet been deformed by life, and in the end he leaves town. The contrast between these “grotesques” and the unformed young man is exquisitely painful and profoundly moving, and it is Anderson’s genius that he found this simple device for drawing a portrait of American small town society.

4) From the country to the city. Because of copyright issues no “Collected Stories of Donald Barthelme” exists, a damn shame. If I were forced to pick a favorite from his collections, it might be City Life. But I’ve written about it before, so let me read a passage instead, from The Genius, in the collection Sadness, which is probably just as good as City Life.

5) Once in Key West I came across a tattered old book at a library sale (yes, Key West actually had a library. This may have been their going out of business sale). It was the Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken. I had heard of Aiken, having found pleasure in some of his poems in an anthology. In the years since then Aiken’s star has been fading and fading. Just do a search on Amazon. It’s sad. Maybe he’ll come back. Writers do, sometimes. James Purdy seems to be coming back, hurray. As of now, that dilapidated collection of Aiken’s stories is gold. As a storyteller Aiken is as sophisticated as Flaubert. Don’t ask to borrow it. Maybe I’ll let you see it.

6) Murder! Revenge! Faith! Doubt! Politics! Corruption! Death! Horses! Is it a Hollywood blockbuster? No, it’s Michael Kohlhaas, written by Heinrich von Kleist in 1810. He wrote some of the best stories and plays of all time and then, at the age of thirty-four, committed suicide with his girlfriend. The story of his life is as volcanic as one of his fictions, one of those people who burned way too hot. He was a postmodernist before modernism even entered the lexicon, a hundred and fifty years ahead of his time. Kleist, one of Kafka’s favorite writers. And one of Barthelme’s favorites, too.

7) Problems by John Updike. I bet you didn’t see that coming. I read it as a teenager and it’s still one of my favorites—such a variety of storytelling forms. Updike gives the impression of having read every type of discourse imaginable, just so that he could use them as devices for fiction. Within this collection he uses Plato, natural history, math, the quiz, minutes of a committee meeting and the plotline structure of a TV commercial, to name a few. My only criticism of him is that he is sometimes too good, too literary. But that’s a bit like saying this coffee’s too rich, or these cookies have too much chocolate in them (have another, you only live once). He is too good. I could write for a thousand years and never be as good. Come to think of it, I don’t like Updike at all. I hate him.

8) Herman Melville’s short stories are just as good as his novels. I know, I know, we have another I-just-don’t-get-what-all-the-fuss-is-about writers. Do you like Shakespeare? The King James Bible? No? Well then that explains it. Don’t get me started. Melville is sacred to me.

9) Borges, the Collected Fictions. Of course. I’ve written about one of my favorites, here.

10) Kafka. It’s always been Kafka for me, and probably always will be. But by now you’re sick to death of hearing me go on about Kafka. So I’m done, and now it’s your turn. What are your favorite collections of short stories?


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18 Responses to My Favorite Short Story Collections

  1. Kathleen Nix says:

    Anton Chekhov’s short stories (Norton critical edition). Chekhov is a master at both plays and short stories.

  2. Susan Scheid says:

    It’s been such a long time since I’ve read a short story, yet for a long while, I lapped them up. Carver (the unedited version) was a favorite. And Lorrie Moore had that wonderful story, People Like That Are the Only People Here. Grace Paley had a story, I think it might have been Later the Same Day, that ended “I do not forgive you.” I loved that. Borges, The Library of Babel, was a favorite as well. But perhaps the royalty among short story writers for me were William Trevor and Alice Munroe (who has been called our Chekhov, deservedly so, I think). I remember going to a reading at an odd sort of place in NYC, where Munroe read one of her stories. The way the place was set up, the readers came up from below ground, up a stair case then there she was, regal and still.

    • Thanks for playing along, Sue. Sounds like I need to read both Chekhovs. I have a book on my shelf by Grace Paley with a great title: “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” – I need to dip into that.

      P.S. listened to your May Selections 4 playlist last night and enjoyed it very much, the Grisey chants in particular – really fascinating and unexpectedly exciting use of steel drums. Gubaidulina’s Offertorium for T S Eliot is great too. Thanks very much for these introductions.

      • Susan Scheid says:

        If I remember correctly, and I may well not, the Grace Paley story I’m thinking of is in that volume–I think it’s the last story in the volume. (I’m separated from my short story books, so can’t look directly.) Thought of another one: John Cheever’s The Swimmer. Ah, it’s been too long since I’ve dipped into this territory!

        That Grisey is terrific, isn’t it? (I have to go back now and listen for the steel drums specifically!) I haven’t actually listened to G’s Homage to T.S. Eliot yet, but have it on my list. (Offertorium is the violin concerto, a separate piece.)

        It’s fun to “swap” like this!

  3. Don says:

    Highly recommended: THE COMPLETE STORIES OF FLANNERY O’CONNOR, as well as her letters, THE HABIT OF BEING.

  4. newleafsite says:

    Mark, I was so sure that my selections would appear among others’ responses, that I hesitated to jump in and steal everyone’s choices. But I don’t find mine mentioned yet, so I’ll speak up for some of my favorites. And I must begin with thanks for your open invitation – Japanese green, please!

    I also hesitated because I haven’t been reading for some time, and talking of favorites felt like cheating. But Susan begins by saying that she hasn’t been reading short stories lately and yet talks with such enthusiasm of past reading, that I am encouraged to talk of my own, the way we do of any pleasant memories. Your list goes back as far as teenage years, so I will begin by asking, with surprise, didn’t everyone love J. D. Salinger, Katherine Mansfield, and Dorothy Parker? I read and reread them in paperback collections all through high school, straight through to the end of each and starting again at the beginning.

    More recent years found me trying a variety of writers and settling on the following favorites. Henry James, for his insight and his elegant understanding of even the most trying character – any collection as long as it includes “Mrs. Medwin” (mine is an old Modern Library edition). Virginia Woolf, whom I appreciate particularly for her talent at looking at unknown persons and imagining an entire life around them – again, any collection, as long as it includes “Three Pictures.” And last, R. K. Narayan, “Malgudi Days,” engaging stories portraying the intertwined lives of the residents of a fictional village in India.

    I end by copying your closing sentiment about Updike. I loved short stories while I was reading them, and felt sad, cheated, and filled with longing for more, when they ended. How could they leave me there? I imagine myself turning the last page and looking and looking for more. I wanted to know the characters, live near enough to drop in for a chat – perhaps a green tea – and grow old with them. So I don’t love short stories at all. I hate them.

    • I drink Japanese hojicha roasted green tea – most delicious. I haven’t read Mansfield and Parker but I do recall enjoying some Salinger stories many years a go. I’ve just begun to read Woolf, just read ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and purchased ‘The Waves’ – didn’t even know she wrote short stories. I like James too, although his stories seem to all be on the longish side.

      I think many writers would die to leave the impression you describe in your last paragraph. To cause such exquisite torment!

  5. friko says:

    I have just been introduced by Lydia Davis; who won this year’s Man Booker International Prize. She has blown me away. I rarely say stuff like that.
    As she’s an American writer she is probably well known to you, but she’s been an absolute revelation to me.

  6. Susan Scheid says:

    Well, when Friko is blown away, we must take notice, mustn’t we?! I’ve just added Davis’s Collected Stories to my every-growing wish list. I also didn’t know she was a short story writer until she won the Man Booker Prize. I did know of her as the translator of the most recent translation into English of Proust’s Swann’s Way (which struck me as quite beautiful). I just looked her up now and found out an interesting musical connection to her stories, which of course I must share, too:

    “Recently, the composer David Lang based the libretto for his retelling of “Tristan and Isolde” on Davis’s short stories. Performed last winter at BAM by Anonymous 4, the result was haunting and true but also playful and funny. Which is not an easy thing to pull off in a retelling of Wagner.” The quote, along with a bit of the Lang video, is here:

  7. angela says:

    Hmmm.. I cannot figure how I have missed your last three postings – grrr… anyhoo, look forward to reading your critique later this week… I’m certain I shall add more to my ‘to read’ list. ~ a

    • angela says:

      (first order of business tonight after work – read list.)..good list! I’m always searching for that Carver book at used bookshop, may just have to buy. Melville is this weeks reading list for Coursera course – I was going to skip… now, I hope to find time. I have seen that Anderson title a dozen times, always thought it was a Garrison Keillor story – guess not! I think you would dig Berlin Stories by Robert Walser – bought it last year and every short inspired a poem. I have always enjoyed Vonnegut for a laugh and O’Connor for her observation of people.

      • If Garrison Keillor had a dark side… I may have read a few of the ‘Berlin Stories’ in another collection, but that book is on my wish list. Walser probably would have been #11 on the above list. Vonnegut’s novels are among my favorite things, and he’s one of my favorite prose stylists.

  8. Jeff says:

    Great to see Michael Kohlhaas in a favourites list. I vividly remember the holiday I was on while reading it and restraining the laughter. Does everyone remember where they were when they first read it, or is that just me? Maybe it was because the Kleist was accompanied by Poe.
    Like Susan, it’s been a while since I read short stories. They don’t carry that same burden of guilt at failing to rise to the commitment of a novel.
    Also quite like Calvino’s Invisible Cities. I do find Calvino of an ilk with Borges and Pessoa, whatever that ilk is.

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