A lot of people dislike short stories, but it’s Short Story Month and time to reevaluate how you feel about the form. For one thing, short stories are the perfect length for waiting in line, reading before bed, or taking a bath; if you struggle with attention span, short stories are generous in their brevity. But if craft is your passion, consider the economy short stories require. There’s no room for extraneous plot or characters or philosophical musings. They don’t have the luxury of getting interesting 50-100 pages in. When experimental, short stories must be 100% committed to their form. My favorite short stories, by authors like Kelly Link, Nathan Englander, and Lauren Groff, are darkly humorous and unsettling enough to flicker through my brain years later, but the form is also ideal for zeroing in on everyday dramas or interior spaces that often go overlooked.
I read somewhere that children have to try a new food 10-plus times to develop a taste for it. Think of short stories as eggplant. Yeah, maybe it’s oddly spongey, and there are all those little brown seeds, and few people cook it correctly. But a deep roast can turn it luxurious, and a deep fry turns it salty and sweet. It’s not that you don’t like short stories — you just need another taste, a different preparation, to become an avid fan.
Here are 12 collections to try:
Nebula winner Johnson’s Reconstruction features 10 stories, two new, that range from historical fiction with a speculative twist to horror and comedy. This collection is for the Kelly Link and Carmen Maria Machado fans out there who enjoy a writer’s sly use of disconcerting places and situations to illuminate existing social problems. With aliens, vampires, underground chambers, wizards, and war, there’s no room for boredom here, only wonder.
Liu’s Monstress series is hugely popular among Powell’s staff, in part for Sana Takeda’s beautiful illustrations and because Liu crafts exquisite, epic, women-centered fantasies about magic, revenge, and fighting one’s demons. In a starred review of Liu’s new short story collection, The Tangleroot Palace, Kirkus writes: “[Liu] doesn’t waste a word or a comma, nor does she miss an opportunity to dive into what makes us human, no matter who we are or who we love.” In six short stories and a novella, Liu explores alterative histories, Sleeping Beauty, Amish vampires, and more with the same attention to self-knowledge and commitment to action that make her comics such a rare treat.
Smart and funny, Nopca (a Catalan journalist, in his first English-language translation) gently — and not so — skewers Barcelona’s youth culture, intellectualism, class, and intimacy, all with an eye on the tension generated by the Catalan separatist movement. Witty enough to belie its depth, readers will find themselves getting more out of Nopca’s stories than they expect on first read.
In a starred review, Kirkus notes: “Regardless of what the story is ostensibly about, it’s also about race because there is no escaping or eliding race.” Evans is adept at illustrating how situations that may seem unrelated to race (losing a parent, social media, toxic masculinity) shift when the subject is or is not a person of color. Current and stunningly smart and imaginative, the stories and novella that comprise The Office of Historical Corrections offer a master class in style and form and in many of the issues affecting 21st-century Americans.
My coworker Jeremy brought this title to my attention. It’s a new English-language release of three dozen short stories and novellas by 91-year-old Norwegian short story master Kjell Askildsen. This is a blanket statement, but I tend to like stark Scandinavian literature, and Askildsen’s melancholy yet incisive portraits of familial and romantic relationships make for engaging reading. Just don’t open this (giant) compendium on a day when you’re already feeling blue. Its best companion is a sunny day with nothing to do but get lost in beautiful writing.
Have you ever felt seen by a book in ways that make you feel both grateful and disgusted? In various guises, Lauren Groff’s Florida takes the ambivalence of motherhood and plumbs it down to its icky, self-flagellating depths. Not every story in this fantastic collection is directly about mothers (one harrowing story features siblings abandoned on a beach, and another explores a grad student’s decline into homelessness) but each story involves domestic dissatisfaction, alienation, and deep, complicated love, mostly set in the foreign country that is Florida.
Isabel Yap’s Never Have I Ever is on a lot of people’s short story lists this year, but this speculative fiction debut rooted in Filipino folklore and mythology is too fun to leave off our list for fear of joining the crowd. Another great pick for Machado fans, Yap moves easily between different kinds of narrators and characters, focusing on the redemptive and destructive powers of transformation. If you enjoy stories that put you on edge, and thrill to a bit of creepy magic, Yap’s should be your new go-to collection.
There are a lot of Hempel fans in the proverbial house. Hempel’s stories are often just a few pages long, mordantly funny, specific, exacting. You kind of have to read her work as you would a collection of poetry — never too fast, with close attention to the words she’s chosen. This makes her Collected Stories an especially good introduction to the form, because while you don’t need to invest much time in reading a story or two, you’ll emerge from the experience wholly immersed in the characters’ world and experiences. There’s nothing speculative in this collection, but Hempel’s gift for capturing the anxieties, ambivalences, and obsessions of modern life is spooky.
If you’re looking to explore new narrative perspectives, the Nigerian migrants who populate award-winning author Chika Unigwe’s interlinked collection, Better Never Than Late, are remarkable guides to the feelings of loss, displacement, and conflicted identity that often accompany leaving one’s home. Each story explores a facet of emigration, focusing particularly on the ways it reshapes marriage, motherhood, and the female sense of self for both the Nigerian émigrés and white European women who marry into Nigerian families.
I had to put this dynamic collection down briefly, to catch my breath and commit myself fully to Adjeh-Brenyah’s brutal satire of race relations in America. Engaging and funny, but often disturbingly violent (an earned violence, but difficult nonetheless), Friday Black examines ongoing brutality against Black bodies, America’s rickety justice system, and capitalism in witty, often speculative stories that use dystopian tropes to explore current problems. If the daily news hasn’t helped you register the profundity of American racism, this collection will get you there.
I haven’t read this collection yet, but when I was chatting with coworkers about what to select for this list, Renee had this to say: “It can be hard to pinpoint what makes Lydia Davis's writing so magnetic. Her precise, no-nonsense language combined with her liberal definition of the short story? Her attention to the overlooked, the mundane, the clutter in our lives that holds so much meaning? Her understated sense of humor, so deeply ingrained in her observations about the absurdities of life?” I have to know the answers to these questions, and Davis’s classic short stories are now high up on my TBR.
If you haven’t read Israeli writer Keret’s blisteringly funny super-short stories, you may have heard them dramatized on This American Life. Keret’s hapless narrators, resigned to whatever predicament he’s placed them in, lend themselves well to being read out loud. Despite pessimistically poking fun at his characters (potheads, unrequited lovers, middle-aged ladies trying out philanthropy), Keret’s work acknowledges the need for connection and love; his penchant for absurdity never tilts all the way into meanness. Fly Already is his most recent work, but The Nimrod Flipout is my all-time favorite.