Bridge, 1998

Bridge, 1998

Lately I’ve been thinking about the range of stories out there, and authors who changed what readers expect from the form. Writers who stretched and reshaped it, influencing later writers or (if obscure or contemporary) suggesting story shapes the future might hold.

What modern-day tale-teller, for instance, devoted to compression and unity, doesn’t work under the shadow of Poe? Joycean epiphanies are so ingrained in us it takes an extra effort to resist them. And who besides Clarice Lispector ever magnified scenes so fervidly, to the extent that despite their lack of plot they pull us in and don’t let go?

Good writers can be rebels, but it isn’t mere orneriness that leads them to break rules and find new ones. New forms, new rules are means of expression, tools to dig deeper, to approach problems specific to one’s time. “Stretching” a story can mean reconfiguring its building blocks, questioning accepted wisdom when the truths of the narrative—found in its characters, its emotional core, its subjects—lead elsewhere. A risky business, but one that when successful imparts vigor and diehard honesty to the prose.

Below are collections of stories (roughly chronological) that in some way or another shook the form. The list is subjective and incomplete, and I’ve left out many amazing authors whose work is, at least surfacewise, more traditional. Also, some stories might seem traditional now, but they weren’t at the time they were written. And note that a few works, such as those by Baudelaire and Michaux, are sometimes labeled “prose poems,” but they seem to me more “prose” than “poem” and even more like today’s “flash fiction.”

I hope these help you to discover what short fiction is—and what it can do and might be.


Edgar Allan Poe, Complete Tales and Poems

Nikolai Gogol, The Collected Tales

Anton Chekhov, Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov

Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen

Sarah Orne Jewett, A White Heron and Other Stories

Henry James, Complete Stories, 1892–1898

Gertrude Stein, Three Lives

Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories

Robert Walser, Selected Stories

James Joyce, Dubliners

Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio

D. H. Lawrence, Selected Stories

Isaac Babel, The Collected Stories

Ernest Hemingway, The Complete Short Stories

Henri Michaux, Selected Writings

Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass

Nathalie Sarraute, Tropisms

Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones

Raymond Queneau, Exercises in Style

Jean Ferry, The Conductor and Other Tales

Clarice Lispector, Family Ties

Julio Cortazar, Blow-Up and Other Stories

Janet Frame, The Selected Stories of Janet Frame

Paul Bowles, The Stories of Paul Bowles

Grace Paley, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute

Alain Robbe-Grillet, Snapshots

Donald Barthelme, Sixty Stories

Italo Calvino, The Complete Cosmicomics

William Gass, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country

Samuel R. Delany, Aye, and Gomorrah

Robert Gluck, Elements

Lars Gustafsson, Stories of Happy People

John Barth, Lost in the Funhouse

Raymond Carver, Collected Stories

Kobo Abe, Beyond the Curve

Lorrie Moore, Birds of America

Steven Millhauser, The Knife Thrower

Aimee Bender, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt

Peter Orner, Esther Stories

Carol Emshwiller, Report to the Men’s Club

Lydia Davis, The Collected Stories

Kelly Link, Get in Trouble

Charles Baxter, There’s Something I Want You to Do