A lot of people are talking about a short story in The New Yorker right now. A short story. If you care at all about writing and literature and the seemingly inexorable Western slide into voluntary aliteracy, this seems like a good thing. But so maybe “Cat Person” isn’t for you. Some people want to read it as a commentary about men in general, which I think is misguided, because it’s a story about a girl’s experience with a particular sad sack of a man, and if he seems too familiar then perhaps that’s cause for reflection—either about yourself or your friends or the men you and/or your friends date—but it’s certainly no reason to run to the barricades lest the man-haters neuter our sons.
And look, I can relate if you found yourself skimming “Cat Person” despite your best intentions. The quasi-confessional, interior-life-of-a-young-woman-navigating-her-sexual-landscape fic popular in some literary circles doesn’t really draw me in either, which I don’t think is a character flaw, any more than your mother not digging Hemingway indicates a weakness in her constitution. She excreted you through her vagina, after all. The fact that you like muscular prose doesn’t make you tougher than her, fella.
Disliking “Cat Person” becomes a problem, on the other hand, if it’s the only short fiction you’ve read in a few years, or is of apiece with other fiction you’ve read, say because you’re only reading what your depressive niece the aspiring MFA passes along, or because you’ve been at the mercy of a particular inept lit professor. So maybe you conclude from this limited experience that short fiction is boring, is too chick-centered, is a neo-Leninist conspiracy to undermine American values, or whatever, and that’s a real shame, because in this age of declining attention spans short fiction ought to be ascendant, and the fact that it’s not is an indictment of schools and English departments and literary magazines and pretty much every one of us who lets our children have more hours in front of a screen than a book.
Well, we’re not going to fix any of those problems here. But we can certainly give lie to the notion that all modern short fiction is dull and depressing and politically left of Pol Pot and populated primarily by characters who, if you can’t find them in the hallway of your local college English department, are almost certainly huddling over lattes at the nearest indie coffee shop with good wifi. I promise that if you like good stories, there is short fiction out there for you, and reading it every once in while is a damn better use of half an hour than Facebook or Twitter or Instagram.
So to that end, below are ten short stories with interesting characters you’d probably never meet on a college campus, and which you can read absolutely for free on the Internet, right now. Some are older, some are recent. I would have included several from the past five years which are just fabulous, but they were published in literary journals that provide absolutely zero free content, and their authors haven’t subsequently released them into the wild even though they almost certainly have the right to do so, and this is just one example of how we shoot ourselves in our literary feet, when high-quality modern fiction gets published to a readership of 500 people and then forever disappears. But that’s a problem for another day, though you could maybe do a little about it by including a few literary magazine subscriptions in your upcoming gift purchases.
Anyway, here you go, in no particular order, except that the first and last are my absolute favorites. Feel free to reply with other stories you like.
- Novostroika, by Maria Reva
- Small Words in a Large World, by Christine Ma-Kellams
- Water Liars, by Barry Hannah
- In the End, by Angela Corbett
- Parker’s Back, by Flannery O’Connor
- A Small, Good Thing, by Raymond Carver
- How to Kill Gra’ Coleman and Live to Tell about It, by Kim Coleman Foote
- Moravia, by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
- Flayed, by Jesmyn Ward
- Bullet in the Brain, by Tobias Wolff
Someone rightly pointed out that if I care so much about good literature and writers and all that, I ought to include some recent stories I think are swell but which you have to pay a little for. So here’s a list of stories published the past few years that I’ve held on to because I like them so much:
- Lauren Green’s “When We Hear Yellow,” and “The Manual For Waitresses Everywhere” by Clare Ostrander, both in Glimmer Train 97 ($15)
- “Owl,” by Emily Ruskovich, in One Story ($2.50) (She also has a novel that I’m planning to get hold of.)
- “Marlinspike,” by Tom Paine, One Story ($2.50)
- “The Messenger Who Did Not Become a Hero,” by Douglas Watson, originally in One Story, but now a part of his short story collection ($10.51)
- “Saturdays He Drove the Ford Pickup,” by David Brendan Hopes, in Ruminate 27 ($5)