Modern life is a busy affair and sometimes, a short story offers the perfect form. Escape with these groundbreaking works, both classic and modern.
Modern life is a busy affair and sometimes, a short story offers the perfect form. Escape with these groundbreaking works, both classic and modern.
The short story, says Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Steven Millhauser, has powers the novel only dreams of. “The novel is the Wal-Mart, the Incredible Hulk, the jumbo jet of literature,” he wrote in his essay, The Ambition of the Short Story. “[And yet] the short story apologises for nothing. It exults in its shortness. It wants to be shorter still. It wants to be a single word. If it could find that word, if it could utter that syllable, the entire universe would blaze up out of it with a roar. That is the outrageous ambition of the short story, that is its deepest faith, that is the greatness of its smallness.”
Many of history's finest novelists have tried their hand at the short story, and some are even best-known for their prowess in this form. Think of John Cheever, Katherine Mansfield and Tessa Hadley, all of whom appear on this list. Elsewhere, short stories offer unfamiliar readers an opportunity to dip their toe into a writer's style, or else see a different side of them altogether: James Joyce, Carson McCullers and Ian McEwan, arguably best-known for their novels, can all be accessed in a different way through their short fiction.
Readers continue to show a huge appetite for the short story and it's no wonder when modern writers such as Lauren Groff, Daisy Johnson and Ottessa Moshfegh have turned out some of the most critically-acclaimed collections of recent years. There have even been viral short story sensations: 2017's Cat Person, a tale of romance gone wrong, captured the cultural zeitgeist and sparked conversations around the world immediately after its publication in the New Yorker.
So, without further ado, here are 50 of literature's greatest short stories to entertain, distract, reassure and inspire – just what a short story should do.
Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin (1965)
Set in the American deep south during the height of the Civil Rights movement, Baldwin's famous short story examines racial tension from both sides of the coin without denying either their humanity. As a man recalls a chilling childhood memory, Baldwin probes beneath the skin for an unflinching look at the origins of violence and discrimination.
Godspeed and Perpetua by A. Igoni Barrett (2013)
The best short story in Barrett's collection of tales set against a backdrop of Nigeria's political history, Godspeed and Perpetua charts the highs and lows of an arranged marriage and offers an astute look at family power dynamics. Barrett's real stength is in his characterisation: figures like Perpetua, stuck in a disappointing marriage with a wealthy, older man, leap off the page.
I Bought a Little City by Donald Barthelme (1974)
The narrator of this story has bought a little city – Galveston, Texas, to be precise. At first he says he'll only change things gradually but, as events spiral out of control, he soon comes to resemble something more like a despot. As funny as it outrageous this story, first published in the New Yorker, is a cautionary tale about control and ambition with plenty left to tell us about today.
The Night Driver by Italo Calvino (1967)
Set before our age of constant connectivity, this is a story of intense – and tense – longing in which someone races to make up with a lover they've fallen out with over a landline (remember those?). The beauty of Calvino's story comes from the doubt: will the two lovers reunite and have a happy ending? It's a lot more fun to find out when there's no mobile phones involved.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver (1981)
Two couples drink and meditate on the meaning of ‘real’ love, sharing their own anecdotes and experiences. Raymond Carver's beautifully spare writing is an exercise in minimalism, and he gets to the heart of the matter like no one else can. This story – and the others in the collection – cemeneted the Carver's position as one of the all-time greatest short story writers.
Désirée’s Baby by Kate Chopin (1893)
It's the deep south, before the American Civil War, and slave ownership is still the norm. This story is about a moment of crisis, when a baby of dubious parenthood is born, and the consequences that follow. Chopin's take on race relations caused a sensation on first publication and it's no surprise Désirée’s Baby remains her most famous story.
The Swimmer by John Cheever (1964)
The most famous short story by America's greatest ever short story writer? It's definitelty a contender. Cheever's free-wheeling, gin-soaked journey through the back gardens of suburbia is as surreal, enteraining and poignant as it ever was.
The Landlady by Roald Dahl (1959)
As close as any short story to being ‘perfect’, Dahl's most iconic adult work is a macarbe murder mystery condensed to a few dozen pages. It'll send a wicked chill down your neck and you'll never book an AirBnb in quite the same way again.
The Outing by Lydia Davis (2010)
The Booker International Prize-winning American author is, among other things, a master of the (very short) short story. In this piece of micro fiction – just a few lines long – she manages to convey an entire day and, arguably, a whole relationship.
Private Tuition by Mr Bose by Anita Desai (1978)
Domestic harmony and anarchy clash in the story of one evening in the life of Mr Bose, a poetry teacher forced into giving Sanksrit lessons to unwilling and mischievious students in order to supplement his income.
Don't Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier (1973)
A couple, on holiday to try and overcome the pain of their daughter's death, get caught up in a sinister series of events. As you might expect, Don't Look Now is filled with the kind of slow-burning tension of which Daphne Du Maurier was the master.
A View from the Observatory by Helen Dunmore (2018)
Two women look down on the Clifton Suspension Bridge from Bristol's camera obscura and witness something ominous, though quite what, it is left to the reader to decide. A story full of menace, it shows Dunmore, one of Britain's best modern short story writers, at her peak.
Glittering City by Cyprian Ekwensi (1966)
Nigerian author Ekwensi could spin one hell of a yarn and few are more memorable than tale of Fussy Joe, a musician who has a taste for beautiful young women and causing trouble – but for whom karma is never far away. Small but perfectly formed, Glittering City will also take you on a memorable ride through 1960s Lagos.
In Plain Sight by Mavis Gallant (1993)
Described as “one of the great stories ever written about a writer”, Mavis Gallant's masterpiece takes you into the life of a French novelist called Henri Grippes, who many feel is past his best. Often short stories are big on plot but this is a deepy human, close up look at a character.
The Nose by Nikolai Gogol (1836)
A lot of notable satirical writing emerged from life under totalitarianism in Russia and eastern Europe but this story, about a St Petersburg official whose nose decides it wants to lead a life independent of the face it was once attached to, is among the best of the best.
The Midnight Zone by Lauren Groff (2016)
All sorts of creatues stalk the pages of Florida, Lauren Groff's short story collection from 2016. Spider, snakes and crocodiles lurk in the heady heat of her adopted state. But it is the black panther in the The Midnight Zone that is most vivid. It's story about motherhood, survival and imagination that is as tense as it is beautiful: Groff's considerable powers at full tilt.
Funny Little Snakes by Tessa Hadley (2017)
Tessa Hadley is one of the best modern masters of the short story form. This one, about a young woman struggling to bond with her new, oddly-behaved step-daughter, is a vivid look at family, childhood and how coming of age never really stops.
Alan Bean Plus Four by Tom Hanks (2017)
Four pals decide to build a rocket and fly it to the moon and back. This offbeat story demonstrates a writing style close to what we imagine Hanks himself is like: warm, witty and a little bit quirky.
Big Two-Hearted River by Ernest Hemingway (1925)
Despite being rather low on action – a war veteran walks into the countryside, looks at some nice fish, puts up his tent and sleeps – Big Two-Hearted River is in some ways the purest expression of Hemingway's famous and much-imitated writing style. Nick Adams, his recurring protagonist, is trying to heal himself using the twin powers of solitude and nature. The patient reader can join him.
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (1948)
In the wake of its first publication in the New Yorker, The Lottery caused a flurrry of letters from readers – more, in fact, than any work of fiction had previously generated. An unsettling read, this is quintessential Shirley Jackson.
The Superstition of Albatross by Daisy Johnson (2017)
Superstition, dark magic and real life intertwine as Polly, reluctantly pregnant, attempts to comes to terms with her partner's disappearance at sea. Although firmly rooted in modern-day Britain, there's more than a hint of fairytale here.
The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson (2018)
An advertising man nearing retirement tells us about absent friends and acquaintances in the title story of Denis Johnson's final collection, which was finished before and published just after his death. As with much of his writing, this story can be bleak at times, but it's also darkly funny and always compassionate.
Araby by James Joyce (1914)
A boy realises his feelings for a neighbour's sister in this story from James Joyce's Dubliners. It's classic coming of age stuff, where the excitement of new love clashes with the frustrations and responsibilities of adulthood.
What, of this Goldfish, Would You Wish? by Etgar Keret (2012)
Keret's work is generally on the shorter side of the short story but they are brimming with invention and often feature delightfully bizarre situations – like this one, which features an impatient, Russian-speaking, wish-granting goldfish.
The Daughters of the Late Colonel by Katherine Mansfield (1921)
Follow Josephine and Constantia, or Jug and Con to each other, as they go about making arrangements in the wake of their father's death. There's intense sadness here but also caustic humour and all the other emotions that come with the daily reality of grief.
The Irish Wedding by Elizabeth McCracken (2021)
A young American woman travels, with her English boyfriend, to an Anglo-Dutch wedding in Ireland and meets his entire family in one fell swoop. As painfully funny as it is relatable, this is a stand out story from McCracken's latest collection.
A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud. by Carson McCullers (1951)
A paperboy on his round is beckoned over to a cafe by an old man drinking alone at a table, and soon the man is telling the boy about a woman he has loved and lost. As with much of Carson McCullers' work, this story is infused with love and loneliness.
Butterflies by Ian McEwan (1975)
Earlier in his writing career, Ian McEwan was known for tackling extremely dark themes. Nowhere is this more evident than this genuinely chilling short story about a suspected child sex offender that will cling to you like a terrible nightmare.
Bettering Myself by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)
In Bettering Myself a teacher drinks a lot, just about copes with her job at a Catholic school and tries to forget her ex-husband. Like much of Moshfegn's work, it's a raw and darkly sardonic story about a character who is flawed and unlikeable on some level, but certainly not beyond redemption.
The Elephant by Sławomir Mrożek (1957)
Written as a satirical dig at the communist government that controlled Poland at the time, this surreal short story will have you laughing at the extreme consequences of a small provincial zoo's novel attempt to cut costs.
Runaway by Alice Munro (2004)
There are two runaways in this story – one is Carla, who is trying to escape her marriage to surly, obsessive Clark. The other is Flora, a goat who has gone missing. Alice Munro's exquisite writing always manages to convey just how complex an ordinary life can be, and she's on some of her best ever form here.
The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami (1993)
Another elephant-related short story for this list – who would've thought? In this quietly lyrical tale, an elderly zookeeper and an equally aged elephant vanish, seemingly into thin air. The last person to catch sight of them is our narrator, who wonders whether it was an optical illusion or magic.
Symbols and Signs by Vladimir Nabokov (1948)
Written long before Vladimir Nabokov hit the big time with Lolita and Pale Fire, Signs and Symbols is haunting in its story of an elderly couple visiting their son at a sanitorium. All the hallmarks of his incredible gift for language are firmly in place.
A Horse and Two Goats by R.K. Narayan (1960)
Humans have been misunderstanding each other for as long as we've existed, and here R.K. Narayan's vivid portrayal of an encounter between a Tamil-speaking villager and an English-speaking New Yorker is an amusing yet quietly poignant story that explores the clash between Eastern and Western culture.
Over the River and Through the Wood by John O'Hara (1934)
John O'Hara was an underrated writer and he knew it, since he spent a lot of his time complaining about being overlooked in favour of contemporaries such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. But don't let that hold you back from his stories, and this one in particular, which are bingeworthy chronicles of American life in his era.
if a book is locked there's probably a good reason for that, don't you think by Helen Oyeyemi (2016)
If you found a co-worker's locked diary, would you crack it open and start reading or would you ignore it, leaving it exactly as found? Thus lies the conundrum at the heart of this story, which reads almost like a cautionary tale or dark fairytale on modern day office gossip culture.
Trilobites by Breece D'J Pancake (1977)
First published in The Atlantic in 1977, ‘Trilobites’ is a visceral snapshot of Appalachian life. For a debut, it's a truly astonishing piece of writing and a raw yet compassionate portrayal of the people involved.
A Telephone Call by Dorothy Parker (1928)
A woman sits at home, agonising over a late phone call from a man – and wonders whether she should call him instead. It might have been written in 1928. but this short story still feels like one of the most relatable things ever written about dating.
Vampire by Intan Paramaditha (2019)
Fans of Angela Carter and Roald Dahl's dark tales will love Indonesian writer Intan Paramaditha's stories, which take their inspiration from horror fiction, myths and legends and rework them with a feminist twist. Vampire, one of the shorter stories in this debut collection, is a brilliant retelling of Red Riding Hood.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman (1892)
This one's more of a novella than a short story but it'd be foolish to leave out this seminal piece of writing. It shows just how far we've come in our thinking on women's mental health and, perhaps, how far we still need to go.
The Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe (1843)
One of the most famous short stories of all time, Poe's matter-of-fact and economical writing style works to full effect in this tale of a man's haunted conscience. As the unnamed narrator tries to convince us of his sanity, his paranoia only worsens. Hugely influential and, even today, enjoyable
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (2013)
In Karen Russell's dazzling and darkly funny story, two vampires – one traditional and one of a more progressive variety – make their home in a lemon grove with the hope that the luscious, ripe fruit will quench their thirst for blood.
A Perfect Day for Bananafish by J.D. Salinger (1948)
J.D. Salinger produced so little fiction, relatively speaking, that every word of it deserves to be read and read again. But if you were looking for a short hit of all that makes him a genius, A Perfect Day for Bananafish would be it. Shocking and equisitively observed, his peerless ear for dialogue – particularly between adults and children – is also on full display.
The Beholder by Ali Smith (2013)
One of Britain's most daring and consistently surprising authors, Ali Smith's work is hard to categorise. We'll just say that this story – which comes from a collection dedicated to libraries and the power of reading – is nothing if not inventive.
Moonlit Landscape with Bridge by Zadie Smith (2014)
A high ranking politician of an unnamed country attempts to escape his homeland after it is ravaged by a storm. This is one of Smith's greatest short stories: a subtle meditation on memory and power with a tense conclusion.
Remember This by Graham Swift (2014)
A newly married couple share a simple, happy day together. In terms of action, there's not much else we can reveal here except to say ‘Remember This’ is heartbreaking in the way only a brilliant short story can be - and a short story by Graham Swift is better at than any other.
Minutes of Glory by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (2019)
Beatrice doesn't know who she is, or who she wants to be. Working a dead-end job in a bar, she dreams of being rich, having expensive clothes and being famous. But of course, things don't always turn out the way we want them to. One of Ngũgĩ's best-loved stories, 'Minutes of Glory' finds the author at his funniest and more heartbreaking.
A Conversation About Bread by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (2018)
This is a story about someone writing a story. Edwin is writing about a boy he grew up with. but Brian doesn't care for Edwin's work. A Conversation About Bread feels almost like a comedy of errors but it's a whip-smart take on when represenation veers into fetishisation.
And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side by James Tiptree Jr. (1972)
Writers of dystopian fiction – particularly feminist dystopian ficiton – owe a lot to the relatively unknown James Tiptree Jr., the pen-name of Alice Sheldon. This story, which takes its title from a Keats poem, is set in the distant future, where humanity has made contact with alien visitors from across the solar system.
Elspeth's Boyfriend by Irvine Welsh (2009)
When Irvine Welsh decided to revisit Begbie, the terrifying hard man of Trainspotting fame, on Christmas Day, it brought together all the best elements of his writing: dark humour, tense action and a brutal dissection of troubled masculinity. You'll never look at Brussels sprouts in the same way again.
The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde (1888)
A story for children, yes, but it's no surprise English literature's greatest proponent of the bon mot infused his fairytales with plenty of sumptous allegories for adult foibles such as vanity, gread and pride. This is perhaps his best.
Bee Honey by Banana Yoshimoto (2000)
Translated into English for the first time, Bee Honey is a quiet, contemplative look at the meaning of motherhood and the duty it entails, whatever culture you're brought up in.
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