10 best short story collections

Brad Davies

The short story can be a slippery category. The stories that feature in this round-up range from sentence-long sketches to almost novel-length narratives, with little in the way of thematic or stylistic consistency to add some unity to an already fractured genre. In these tales we find ourselves moving from the tortuous puzzle-parables of Danilo Kiš to the playful portraits of library-goers in Ali Smith’s Public Library, then from the harrowingly bleak worlds imagined by Ottessa Moshfegh in Homesick for Another World to the equally gloomy but markedly more masculine worlds of Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women.

Here, we’ve included recently published collections from contemporary authors as well a handful of new collections from some 20th century greats like Kiš, Jean Rhys and one of the genre’s masters, Franz Kafka.

Whether you’re into fast-paced thrillers, political parables, or slower and more ruminative tales, the talent and variety of the authors collected here ensures that there’s something for everyone.

1. The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen: £12.99, Little, Brown

​Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American author whose 2015 novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize. In The Refugees, his first collection of short stories, he deals with the ever-topical subject of exile, though, as with most short story writers, he is less concerned with the loftier questions of his chosen subject than with the more personal stories of the individuals it encompasses. Thus we find in the first story a refugee woman who has made a successful career for herself as ghostwriter, but cannot stop dreaming of her brother who died on the boat journey to the US, and in another, a young Vietnamese refugee discovering an overdue outlet for his suppressed homosexuality. Nguyen’s fluent portrait of the many faces of exile makes for a touching and timely read.

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2. Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith: £8.99, Penguin

Ali Smith’s latest book, Public Library and Other Stories, reads as a celebration and defence of not just libraries but of books themselves. From reading them to buying them, from memorising poems to just browsing bookshelves, Smith’s characters both exhibit and extol a passion for books. However, Public Library also serves as a warning: between each of her stories Smith draws attention to the mass closure of libraries in the UK, providing the reader with gloomy but increasingly plausible glimpses of a post-library Britain. In Smith’s own words: “Because libraries have always been part of a civilization they are non-negotiable” – and almost everything about the stories in this collection, from the language to the characters to the narratives themselves, functions as a defence of this philosophy. For adamant bookworms British or otherwise, Public Library is one of the must-reads of recent short fiction.

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3. The Collected Short Stories by Jean Rhys: £9.99, Penguin Modern Classics

Jean Rhys was a Dominican-born British writer who was better known for her longer works, especially her novel Wide Sargasso Sea which she wrote as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This new Penguin edition collects all of her stories – stories in which she deals with diverse but almost exclusively sombre topics such as suicide, alcoholism, loneliness, lovelessness and poverty. The stories span several geographical as well as thematic frontiers – wherever her characters go they find little but callous characters in impersonal cities where women are ignored or maligned, expected to “grow another skin or two” and “sharpen” their “claws” if they want to get on. Among the more solemn of recent short story collections, this book fully exhibits Rhys’s extraordinary talent for prose without which these sullen stories would be unreadable.

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4. Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky: £12.99, Penguin Classics

According to Vladimir Nabokov, Russian literature enjoyed a brief Golden Age from the mid-nineteenth century until 1917, whereupon it was blown apart in the chaos of revolution and civil war. With its particles settling in cities like Berlin and Paris (and some other non-European cities, like Harbin and Shanghai), it underwent a similarly brief renaissance before drifting into a prolonged but no less beautiful twilight. This newly translated collection of émigré stories features many of the most famous authors who laboured to keep Russian literature breathing after it had been uprooted and replanted on opposite sides of a continent. Famous writers like Nabokov and Ivan Bunin feature, as well as some other lesser-known writers like Sasha Chorny, and in this collection we find these writers dealing with such disparate topics as anguish, terror, joy, love and, of course, the longing for a lost Russia – what Nabokov once called the “pangs of exile”.

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5. Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh: £16.99, Jonathan Cape

Ottessa Moshfegh is an American writer whose novel Eileen was shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize. Eileen is a bleak and unhappy novel, following an eponymous protagonist who longs to escape the oppressively dreary life in her hometown of “X-ville”. With its near unrelenting focus on all that is bad, Eileen often skirts close to misanthropy, and we find similar preoccupations in Homesick for Another World, where Moshfegh’s characters find themselves trapped in the most unglamorous American backcountries, ensnared in loveless relationships and tormented by anxiety, drugs, poverty, sickness and innumerable other afflictions that would make these stories a struggle to read if it weren’t (as with Rhys) for Moshfegh’s unquestionable command of the English language.

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6. Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami: £16.99, Harvill Secker

Haruki Murakami needs little introduction: a literary sensation abroad as much as in his native Japan, he has won multiple international awards for his novels such as Norwegian Wood and 1Q84. In a 2004 interview with The Paris Review, Murakami remarked that one of the best things about writing books “is that you can dream while you are awake”. The dreamlike quality of the stories in Men Without Women is undoubtedly one of its chief attractions. Murakami’s womenless men live in perpetual daydreams, a state of mind often prompted by a loss of some kind. In one story, for example, an ageing plastic surgeon grows obsessed with a younger, idealised woman whose perfection causes him to fade, quite literally, into nothingness. Murakami’s latest is a hypnotising study of male loneliness.

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7. The Encyclopedia of the Dead by Danilo Kiš: £9.99, Penguin Classics

Danilo Kiš was a Serbian writer who lived through the worst of the 20th century. Born into a Jewish family, he survived the Holocaust and with the end of the war found himself living, studying and working in the capital of Tito’s newly consecrated communist republic, the federal Yugoslavia. In Belgrade he established his literary reputation, occasionally incurring the party’s displeasure for his fiction (for the story “Simon Magus”, included in this new collection, Kiš was disqualified from a literary competition on the grounds that he was slyly critiquing the politburo). In the brief but informative introduction to this new collection by Penguin, the translator Mark Thompson justly compares many of Kiš’s stories with those of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, whose awareness of history, fondness for short fiction and talent for writing meandering prose puzzles we find mirrored in Kiš. This new collection is an exquisite and appropriate tribute to one of Central Europe’s more neglected writers.

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8. The Burrow by Franz Kafka: £9.99, Penguin Modern Classics

Much has been made of Franz Kafka’s bizarre and, given his early death from tuberculosis, possibly fatal daily routine whereby he would sacrifice his much-needed sleep for the sake of his writing. Scribbling through the small hours he often awoke despising his compositions, but as the stories in this newly translated collection demonstrate, this rigorous nightly regime did bear fruit. Many of the stories in The Burrow follow solitary creatures – men, women, heroes, gods, monsters and even rodents – who find themselves trapped in the same worlds that we recognise from his more famous works: worlds that are monotonous, terrifying, dreary and, most prominently in this collection, dark and obscure. From forty-page narratives to paragraph-long vignettes, this newly translated collection captures the full breadth of Kafka’s nocturnal imagination.

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9. 99 Stories of God by Joy Williams: £10, Tuskar Rock

Despite their brevity, short stories are often considerably denser than novels. Packed with meaning and often intentionally elusive, it is often difficult to read a collection cover to cover and Joy Williams’s latest collection of stories is exactly this type. Williams is an American writer whose novels and story collections have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and several other prestigious awards. 99 Stories of God is a bizarre book, full of Kafka-style micro-fictions that take minutes, hours or even days to properly process. Williams’ paragraph- or sentence-long “stories” are unusually inscrutable, lacking entirely in narrative and often austere in language. The source of their allure is puzzling, but it is strangely fulfilling to decipher a story’s meaning after it has been sitting in the back of your mind for some time (which they do). One of the more curious recent collections, 99 Stories of God is a clever if occasionally frustrating exercise in short fiction.

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10. The Man Who Wouldn’t Get Up and Other Stories by David Lodge: £8.99, Vintage

David Lodge is often touted as the quintessential British post-war novelist: facetious but not fatuous, irreverent but not iconoclastic, wry, perceptive and inhumanly industrious. Since his 1960 debut novel, The Picturegoers, he has published dozens upon dozens of novels, essays, memoirs, screenplays and short stories – many of which make their way into this newly published collection by Vintage. As with Murakami, Lodge’s preoccupations in these stories tend to be masculine, though not exclusively. The stories deal with the tumult and mysteries of relationships in a style at once serious and farcical. (To one story – a modern reimagining of Robert Brownings’s poem “My Last Duchess” – he gives the title “My Last Missis”). This collection shows Lodge at his most playfully imaginative.

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The Verdict: Short story collections

Many of the short story’s greatest practitioners have been better known for their longer works. Some, like Vladimir Nabokov, seemed to think very little of the genre, regarding it as a constricted form, and more a means to an end than a full-time artistic occupation. Contrary to this line of thought, among literary forms the short story is unique for its versatility – and the books collected here attest to that. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees and Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women are particular standouts, but the variety of style and subject matter in these collections makes it difficult to choose just one. In many of the stories we find the authors dealing with the dreary and absurd worlds that we lazily describe as “Kafkaesque” (“that woolly watchword,” according to Martin Amis); in others, like Public Library, we encounter markedly more upbeat, celebratory tales, and in others still we find masterly writers like Danilo Kiš and Sasha Chorny rescued from undue neglect. Given the quality and originality of many of the stories collected here, we can see that the short story as a genre is as healthy and dynamic as ever.

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