50 great short stories, chosen by Hilary Mantel, George Saunders and more

Bite-sized: 50 great short stories, chosen by Hilary Mantel, George Saunders and more

Quick and easily shared, is the short story the form for our times? Leading authors pick their favourites

Saturday 2 February 2019

“The Tribute” by Jane Gardam (1980)

John McGahern and Annie Proulx are among my favourite authors, but to dispel gloom I choose this story from Jane Gardam’s 1980 collection The Sidmouth Letters. Reading this gleeful story in my expatriate days, I recognised the cast of “diplomatic wives”, trailing inebriate husbands through the ruins of empire. Mostly dialogue, it is a deft, witty tale in which a small kindness – though not by a diplomatic wife – pays off 40 years later. I must have read it a dozen times, to see how its note is sustained and the surprise is sprung; every time it makes me smile with delight. Hilary Mantel

“The Stone Boy” by Gina Berriault (1957)

This great and underrated masterpiece is a meditation on good and evil and especially about the way that people’s expectations and assumptions about us may wear us down and eventually force us into compliance with their view. But it is a much deeper and more biblical story than that and, like any great work of art, resists reduction. Berriault, who died in 1999, is known as a San Francisco writer. A wonderful sampling of her stories is available in Women in Their Beds: New & Selected StoriesGeorge Saunders

“The Love of a Good Woman” by Alice Munro (1998)

Among the handful of short stories closest to my heart, I’ve chosen “The Love of a Good Woman” by Canadian writer Munro, from her 1998 collection of that name. It’s about a murder – probably it’s a murder, because nothing is certain – and a love match that depends on keeping that murder secret. Like so many of Munro’s stories, this one has the scope of a novel yet never feels hurried or crowded. The sociology of a small town in rural Ontario is caught on the wing in the loose weave of her narration; the story takes in whole lifetimes, and yet its pace is also exquisitely slow, carrying us deep inside particular moments. A woman moves among the willows beside a river at night, making up her mind. Tessa Hadley

Alice Munro.
Alice Munro carries us deep inside particular moments. Photograph: Alice Munro./Alamy

“The Siren” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1961)

Born in Palermo in 1896, Lampedusa was a learned prince who died before his work was published. In addition to his celebrated novel The Leopard, he left behind some short stories, including “The Siren”, a mysterious masterpiece that jolts and haunts me every time I read it. It contains two narrative planes, two central protagonists, two settings, two tonal registers and two points of view. There are even two titles; though published as “La Sirena”, it was originally called “Lighea”, the name of the siren, portrayed as a 16-year-old girl. Lampedusa’s description renders this fatefully seductive creature specific, vulnerable and real. Jhumpa Lahiri

The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, edited by Jhumpa Lahiri, will be published on 7 March.

“A Simple Heart” by Gustave Flaubert (1877)

Flaubert wrote this story for his old friend and “fellow troubadour” George Sand. It’s the story of Félicité, an old servant-woman, and the diminishing loves in her life, the final one being a (live – at first) parrot. It has a sombre novelistic density, and is touching and tender, comic and grotesque. Control of tone is central to its effect. It also exemplifies the Flaubertian principle that irony and sympathy are not incompatible. Sand died before she was able to read it. “So it is with all our dreams,” noted Flaubert. Julian Barnes

“Friends” by Grace Paley (1985)

This story tracks three friends as they visit a fourth who is dying. The women then go home on the train. It ends with a brief conversation between the narrator, Faith, and her 18-year-old son. The piece has warm intimacy as well as cold spaces within it. It captures the all-encompassing intrusion of the world and its conditioning of our day-to-day emotions, our children’s colonisation of our hearts and our powerlessness ultimately to protect them. Its understated tone is perfectly pitched: the narrative moves gently, then soars, into either sadness, or joyful contentment – again and again. I am in this story, and so is the world. Ahdaf Soueif

Anton Chekhov

“My Life” by Anton Chekhov (1896)

This is Chekhov’s longest short story and one of the very few he wrote in the first-person singular. It’s the autobiography of a young man in provincial Russia struggling to live up to his lofty ideals and being brought down by life’s random contingencies. I actually adapted “My Life” for a play and know it intimately. If you could only read a single Chekhov story then this is the one: all his gifts and genius – the wry, dark comedy of his voice, his unique angle on the human condition, his refusal to judge – are contained in it. William Boyd

“In the Night” by Jamaica Kincaid (1978)

Part poetic incantation, part eccentric kaleidoscopic vision, this is a story which contorts each time you read it. Born in Antigua, Kincaid invents aesthetics which are wholly unique, transfiguring human form and surroundings, in particular, the Caribbean landscapes. Here, she conveys the multiple textures of smaller islands, creating a literary geography which remains experimental, new and indefinable. Irenosen Okojie

“Music at Annahullion” by Eugene McCabe (2004)

McCabe’s story is set on the border between Monaghan and Fermanagh sometime in the 1950s or 60s. Two brothers and a sister are uneasily sharing a smallholding. The landscape itself and the states of sour feeling are described with sharpness and precision. When the sister announces that she would like a piano that is advertised for sale locally, one of the brothers buys it for her. But it won’t fit into the house and is left to rot outside. The failure to get the piano into the house has an extraordinary power and pathos. Its purchase has stood for all hope, and now there is no hope. The hard-won sense of despair and darkness in the final pages of this small masterpiece is memorable and chilling. Colm Tóibín

Jo Ann Beard
Densely textured reportage … Jo Ann Beard

“Werner” by Jo Ann Beard (2007)

Only afterwards did I discover that this was in fact a piece of densely textured reportage, but it taught me so much about how to write a short story that I will always see it as one. A young man, Werner Hoeflich, trapped by a fire, escapes by leaping from the window of his New York apartment, across the intervening gap and in through the window of the adjacent building. It has the richness of a novel, the raw and dirty grip of life and was, for me, a revelation. Fine language and a deftly conjured mood are all well and good, but fiction – of whatever length – should thrill. Mark Haddon

“The Window Theatre” by Ilse Aichinger (1953)