Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Top Ten Stories of All Time

A couple of days ago, I came across this post on Flavorwire  listing, what they call, the top 10 short stories of all time. Now that is just the kind of over ambitious claim that is designed to raise hackles all over the place. Obviously, no one can condense centuries’ worth of short stories into one handy little countdown and no two people can possibly agree over the stories that ought to make it to such a list. Of the top of my head, I could think of at least fifty stories that deserve to be on a top ten list. But here’s the thing; I love lists. So I had to check this out and having done that, I had to read all of the stories on the list that I hadn’t read yet. That made for a busy two days but it was largely worth it. Unfortunately, there was one story on the list that I could not find online or in my library so I offer my opinion on the (allegedly) top nine stories of all time. The stories are listed in random order on Flavorwire, there is no best or worst. I’m listing them here in the order in which I read them which is pretty close to the original list.

1. “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor” by JD Salinger
I’ve read this story as part of Nine Stories by JD Salinger and blogged about it here. It is one of Salinger’s better known stories. It’s about an unnamed sergeant who meets a gentle young girl called Esme just before he goes off to war. The myth of Esme sustains him through the squalor of war and its aftermath.
I didn’t find this story online, although admittedly, I didn’t look very hard since I had already read it. Do read it though, it’s a classic.

2. "Silver Water" by Amy Bloom
A woman talks about Rose, her beautiful and talented sister and Rose’s slow and painful descent into madness. The story also looks at Rose’s family, who are grappling to deal with their new reality. It’s tough to talk of such things and not be morbid or grim. Amy Bloom manages to make it funny and poignant at the same time. Read it online here.

3. “The Dead” by James Joyce
Garbriel and his wife are at their aunts’ annual bash. It’s not a good night for Gabriel and life of the party he is not. This is also the night when his wife chooses to tell him about her past relationship.
This isn’t my favourite story from the Dubliners (I’ve posted about my favourites here). Firstly, it really pushes the boundaries of the form in terms of length. Also, I found it hard to feel anything much for any of the characters. You can find the story here.

4. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The title tells you, very literally and explicitly, what the story is about.  Marquez’s fallen angel is very different from Tolstoy’s (What men live by?). The old man is anything but ‘angelic’ and is temporarily turned into a freak show. I urge you to read this here. It’s a master class in magic realism.

5. “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham
Staying with the angels theme, White Angel is about two brothers growing up in Cleveland in the sixties and their experiences with drugs, sex, growing up and death.
I was a bit disappointed in this one. When I started to read it, I expected it to be a very impactful story, but somewhere along the way it started to feel very mediocre. I’ve read stories like this before and really didn’t find anything special here. Still, if you’d like to try it for yourself, find it here.

6. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
A southern family on a road trip run into an escaped convict, The Misfit with disastrous results. I don’t want to give away anymore of this iconic story although it is more shocking than suspenseful. Give yourself a treat and listen to this free audio of Flannery O’Connor reading out the story herself.

7. “Emergency” by Denis Johnson
This is a strange little story that somehow manages to be captivating. It’s about two men who work at a hospital and their crazy drug-induced reality. It takes a bit of focus to keep up with the alternating realities. One doesn’t mind it though because the story is entertaining even while it’s confusing.
I heard this story as a podcast, narrated beautifully by Tobias Wolff. 

8. “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver
There is something vaguely similar about ‘Cathedral’ and ‘Emergency’. The drugs, the two men and recurring theme of blindness. But Carver keeps things taut and Cathedral is much more skilfully woven. The whole story plays out over one evening, in one house, with just three characters. 
This story is a reminder to me that I need to read more of Carver. You can find it online here.

9. “Dance in America” by Lorrie Moore
A disillusioned and tired dancer is visiting with an old friend Cal. Cal’s son Eugene is very ill and the family is straining to deal with the situation. Eugene himself is a thoughtful and intelligent kid. And he likes to dance.
This is one of those stories where nothing much happens, certainly nothing is resolved. Yet it is very satisfying. You can hear a podcast of it narrated by Louise Erdrich.

10. Brownies” by ZZ Packer
This was the only story on the list that I didn’t read since I could neither find it online nor in my local library. Anybody read this story? Thoughts?

Phew! That was exhausting but fun. I still think top ten lists of stories are a bit ridiculous but I really enjoyed reading some stories that were new to me and revisiting some that I’d read and loved before.


  1. I think a lot of times when you see top ten lists of short stories such as the one on Flavorwire you will see a certain drift toward popular short stories-they always seem to include current stories-one could see a certain pandering quality in these lists as they leave out very famous short stories like "The Overcoat", the stories of Kafka, Chekhov, or Katherine Mansfield. I would put "The Dead" on a list of top ten stories and maybe the O'Connor story-I would try to find a better Carver story to include-I have read the Gabriel Marquez story but I would not include it-it is a good story-I am not at all saying the others are not great stories-how could I as I have not read six of the stories-thanks so much for providing links-I admit I am sad when some posts on a short story says it is really good and then I find I cannot read it (there are no libraries where I live)
    thanks for all your work in this post and I will read in time these stories and come back to this post then-

  2. Mel U you are very right. I cannot imagine a list that doesn't include any of the Russian masters or the French greats. Saki,Guy de Maupassant and Chekov would definitely be on my list.

  3. But here’s the thing; I love lists.
    Agreed! Not because the list necessarily is definitive in terms of top ten but because I get to find out about good new stories. Thanks for sharing these. The only two I was familiar with was O'Connor's and Joyce's and liked them both (for me Joyce's story builds towards something powerful). I also vaguely remember reading Garcia Marquez's story, but I don't remember much about it except that they kept him in squalor in a cage. I'll look into the other ones.

  4. For Esme I think is a book I remember reading years ago and completely forgot about. I liked it but could never think if the name . . . it sounds like maybe you've reminded me! Thanks.

  5. Interesting collection of stories with many of my favorite authors. Dubliners is one of my most favorite short story collections ever.

  6. HKatz I hope you enjoy the new-to-you stories

    Trish Glad to have helped :)

    WordsBeyondBorders thank you for stopping by

  7. That's a fine list, Che. Since I haven't read any I think I'll start with "The Dead" by James Joyce and "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

  8. Prashant That's a good place to start. A Very Old Man... is a particular favorite of mine.

  9. I'm so glad I discovered your blog (and another short story fan) via the literary blog hop. I've read three of the "top ten," and there are several I'm embarrassed to say I have never even heard of...

    I've had a year-long short story reading project this year and enjoyed it so much I'm going to recycle it for another run this year. The stories I read can be found on the "deal me in selections" page on my blog.


  10. bibliophilica I hadn't heard of many of the short stories on the list myself. Off to check out your blog.

  11. This is such a good blog post I had to add a few favorites:
    "Here I Stand Ironing" Tillie Olsen
    "Everyday Use" Alice Walker
    "The Wrong Man" Nella Larsen
    "The Lottery" Shirley Jackson
    "Trifles" Susan Glaspell
    And I love the other short stories everyone mentioned.

  12. Judaye I'm so glad you shared your favorites with us. I have to check these out right away. Sadly I haven't read any of the stories except The Lottery.