11 Very Short Stories You Must Read Immediately
From Lydia Davis to George Saunders to Sofia Samatar
This weekend, Lydia Davis—crowned master of the very short story, not to mention a preeminent translator of classic French literature—turns 70. Davis didn’t invent flash fiction, but she is certainly its most famous—and perhaps its best—practitioner. Her work is always where I start when I get into a flash fiction reading jag, but of course, it’s not usually where I finish, else what kind of jag would it be? While flash is sort of out of fashion at the moment, I’ve been hearing rumors of a resurgence—The New Yorker has a flash fiction series going on this summer, for instance—so perhaps it’s time to remind ourselves what very short stories can do. For that reason, and in honor of Lydia Davis’s birthday, here are eleven very short stories that you must—and can, thanks to the magic of the internet—read at your earliest opportunity. NB: this list should by no means be taken to reflect the “best of all time,” merely “my own personal favorites,” and is only a taste of what’s out there—so do us all a favor and point us to your own beloved micro-fictions in the comments.
Lydia Davis, “The Outing”
It’s hard to pick a favorite from Davis’s massive body of work (“Break it Down” and “The Center of the Story” are two more that I love, though they’re a bit long for this list), but on the flip side, pretty much everything she writes is good. I like “The Outing” because it’s the skeleton of a story, poking fun at the notion of “what happens”—and yet still creates a powerful sense of what indeed happened. How does she do it?
Deb Olin Unferth, “Likeable”
When I first heard Deb Olin Unferth read, I was so desperate to write down what she’d said that I scribbled her phrases on my own pants in eyeliner. This piece, originally published in NOON, is one of my favorites of hers, and a very fine commentary on the plight of the “unlikeable” woman.
George Saunders, “Sticks”
This story slays me. Saunders builds meaning out of nothing, slowly, it seems—although in a story this short there’s hardly room for slowness—and then rips it all away from you in the end, leaving you gutted and empty, which is just the sort of abject cruelty you really want from a writer.
Lucy Corin, “Miracles”
This is my favorite story from Corin’s collection of (mostly) flash fictions, One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses. (My second-favorite story, just to be maximalist about it, is “Witches.”) The creepy presence of one mother and absence of another, the glossed-over apocalypse, the temporal swerve—all of these make the story echo for a long time.
Amelia Gray, “The Swan as Metaphor for Love”
I’m sorry, but Amelia Gray doesn’t get enough credit for being fucking hilarious. This story makes me laugh every time I read it, and also has taught me several facts about swans.
Sofia Samatar, “The Huntress”
Every sentence here is a story in itself—and then there’s the actual story, of a huntress (or two). I’m always impressed by the way Samatar conjures an sustains mood; this piece would poke a a wet black hole in any shining day.
Hugh Behm-Steinberg, “Taylor Swift”
I encountered this story—which is about Taylor Swift clones—when it won the Gulf Coast Barthelme Prize a couple of years ago. The judge was Steve Almond, who wrote, “I tried quite hard to resist choosing “Taylor Swift” as the winner of this year’s Barthelme Award. Why? Because all the stories I received were worthy and many were more technically ambitious when it came to language and form, by which I guess I mean experimental. . . . But what the hell. In the end, I just wanted to read this thing again and again.” Which is exactly right. Whatever you think of the actual Taylor Swift, this story is just plain fun.
Jamaica Kincaid, “Girl”
It’s one of the most widely-anthologized short stories for a reason: rhythmic and lyric, a triumph of voice and immediacy. I think of it as a ribbon that unwinds and unwinds, revealing a relationship, a way of life, and of course, a girl.
Joy Williams, “Aubade”
Just about any of the pieces in Ninety-nine Stories of God would do here, honestly, but I love the firm wink of “Aubade,” only the third story in the book.
Amy Hempel, “Housewife”
This is the shortest story on this list—a few words shorter than Lydia Davis’s, even—but packs a lot of drama into that single sentence. It’s one of those that I read long ago but has stuck in my mind permanently—particularly the beat of that French film, French film.
Bonus: László Krasznahorkai, “I Don’t Need Anything from Here”
I just read this for the first time yesterday, and loved it: a glut of words to luxuriate in, and then leave behind. Jonathan Lethem’s “Elevator Pitches,” the first in The New Yorker‘s summer flash series, is also great, and very different.