The Contemporary Short Story

A Pick of the Best Contemporary English-language Short Story Collections

Short stories appear widely in literary magazines, as well as in the relatively small number of mainstream publications that publish literary short stories, notably The New Yorker. There are also plenty of anthologies and single-author collections of short fiction published, and the form seems to be becoming increasingly popular.

Short fiction should not be considered as a somehow “lesser” form than the novel: as the Scottish writer A. L. Kennedy has noted, short fiction is “small, in the way a bullet is small”.  The short length that defines short fiction means it can be more accessible in our internet-heavy, information-overloaded times, while it also has a sense of immediacy that the longer form can lack. Moreover, where a novel may be too time-consuming to read twice, a short story demands to be read again. A good short story often benefits from a second reading, as the abbreviated form means that information that could be spelt out in a novel must instead be deduced. The short form is constantly evolving, and I’ve listed here some examples of the best collected short fiction written in the English language in the last decade.

British writer Sarah Hall is a past winner of both the National Short Story Award and the Edge Hill prize, which was founded in 2006 to recognise outstanding single-author short story collections. Her most recent collection Madame Zero was published in 2017, shortlisted for the Edge Hill prize in 2018, and appeared on several “book of the year” lists. The collection opens with the award-winning Mrs Fox, and continues with tales from a wide range of genres, both realist and post-modern, which sometimes lean towards the surreal or science fiction, and are never less than rewarding and entertaining.

The debut collection of short fiction by writer and playwright Lucy Caldwell, Multitudes, was published in 2016, and is set in Belfast. She skewers the experience of, in particular, girlhood, and her characters are so real, it’s as if she crawled inside their skin. The subjects of these stories, with their moments of teenage epiphany, resonate with my own memories of growing up. You don’t need to have shared her characters’ experiences to enjoy them: Caldwell is an insanely talented writer. I’ve also recently really enjoyed reading Irish writer Kevin Barry’s collection Dark Lies the Island (2012), described by the Financial Times as “a shot of joy in the dark”, a description that really can’t be improved upon! These stories are, in a way, the diametric opposite of Caldwell’s tales, with male voices, sometimes bawdy — and again, consistently brilliant.

There are many excellent American short story writers.  George Saunders is never not innovative. His dark, well-characterized and often mordantly funny collection Tenth of December was published in 2013, and is an accessible introduction to this brilliant writer, whose Lincoln in the Bardo won the Man Booker Prize in 2017. Lauren Groff has been shortlisted for the 2018 US National Book Award for fiction for her collection Florida, set in that state, is full of evocative and lush descriptions, and she writes in eloquent prose. An honourable mention must also go to Ottessa Moshfegh’s collection Homesick for Another World, published in 2017, in which a motley collection of disconnected and lonely misfits try to find their place in the world; often shocking, sometimes grotesque, these stories are completely unique.

Renowned writer Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes (2009) is a collection of five stories predicated on the subject of musicians and the night. They largely document the fragmented lives of self-absorbed, sometimes narcissistic, always misunderstood and misunderstanding characters, who consistently fail to fully connect with those around them. The stories are sometimes very witty, and indeed the second story, Come Rain or Come Shine, I found laugh out loud funny (I hope it’s not just me).  Stand-out collections also include Jon McGregor’s This Isn’t The Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You, published in 2012. This, McGregor’s first short story collection (he is best known as a novelist), is a confident and accomplished book composed of haunting and ominous stories set in the fens of eastern England. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is also known to most people for her novels, notably Half of a Yellow Sun. Her 2009 short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck discusses the lives of predominantly Nigerian women, often US migrants, and usually middle class. Stories such as Cell One are quietly devastating and humane, as the narrator’s ‘golden boy’, privileged brother experiences a moment of revelation in a Nigerian prison.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and there are many other authors out there waiting to be discovered. Of course, the fiction discussed here has all been published very recently. Next year I intend to revisit this theme, focusing on some of the vast amount of excellent work published a little longer ago.

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