Until the end of January, and in salute of our current "Modern Myths" issue, we're asking you to send in a short story, on the topic of "online surveillance". Blast yours over to firstname.lastname@example.org, and the best will be printed in the magazine. To inspire the bidding writers among you, or to just give you some great ideas of what to do with the book tokens from your stocking, check out poet and writer Crispin Best's guide to the short story, in 26 steps.
A is for Aesop
Short-form storytelling has been around a long old time, whether it be The Canterbury Tales or A Thousand and One Nights, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a collection of stories older than those of Aesop (620–564 BC) that are still read and shared as regularly. Aesop set a standard of moral meaning and righteous comeuppance in short fiction that survived for over two millennia, arguably until Chekhov showed up. Myths and fables like these still draw attention, as seen in the Modern Myths Issue, which featured new short works from Tao Lin, Gabby Bess, Joe Stretch, Ben Brooks and Alissa Nutting.
B is for Barthelme
Despite being one of the most breathtakingly unpredictable authors of the 20th Century, one thing about Donald Barthelme’s fiction was predictable: it was almost exclusively made up of shorter works, dozens of which are available to read online. Barthelme’s ambition and influence is still felt in any number of contemporary writers, whether it’s the encyclopaedic whimsy of Adam Levin or the agile digressions of Jimmy Chen.
C is for Chiem
Richard Chiem has published widely online for years, but only released his debut story collection, You Private Person, this year. His work has received praise from writers like Blake Butler, who said Chiem’s “words have brains that have bodies that wake you up”, and Dennis Cooper, who was moved to “nominate his work for immortality.” Various excerpts from the collection are online, including “How to Survive a Car Accident” and “Serendipity”.
D is for Dubliners
2014 marks the 100th anniversary of Joyce’s debut Dubliners, which was written while he was in his early 20s. The collection shows that Joyce had more or less already done as much as he could with the conventional short story, and closes with one of his - and last century’s - finest short works, “The Dead”. In a modern setting, this sort of intrepid restlessness is recognisable in the work of the above-mentioned Butler, in whose work a person can get lost for days and days and days.
E is for Essay
Works which in previous times might have been camouflaged and published as fiction are increasingly appearing in their own right in the form of crafted, personal essays. Recent significant examples of this could be Mira Gonzalez’s “A Depressed Person’s Failed Review of Blue is the Warmest Color”, Guillaume Morisette’s “How I Failed at Life in Quebec City”, and Megan Boyle’s “How to Be Alone”.
F is for Fleetwood Mac
Stephen O’Toole’s gloomily luminous short work “Tusk” is named for Fleetwood Mac album, and features a main character named The Stevie Nicks Pervert. O’Toole is one of a crop of young British writers doing compelling things with the short story, alongside people such as Lucy K Shaw and Socrates Adams, whose story “Wide and Deep” was featured in Best British Short Stories 2012.
G is for Glaser
Rachel B Glaser’s debut collection “Pee on Water” was a contender for both best and worst book title in the history of literature, but her writing is moving, brainy and hard as hell. She was recently awarded the Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award and some of her finest work online includes “The Kid” and “Dream House”. She also has an unnatural gift for painting NBA players.
H is for Hobart
In existence for over a decade, Hobart is one of a small number of online venues that has consistently showcased quality short fiction. It has published work from authors like Shane Jones, Kuzhali Manickavel and Lindsay Hunter. Other sites with a similar hit-rate for fiction would include DIAGRAM, Pop Serial, Metazen, Action, Yes and Pank. There also still hasn’t been a comparable site to Bear Parade, which - even five years later - is still home what feels like some of the freshest fiction on the net, such as Daniel Spinks’ long story “Small Pale Humans” and Ophelia Hunt’s collection “My Eventual Bloodless Coup”.
I is for Iceberg
Hemingway’s famous Iceberg theory - which he also referred to as his “theory of omission” - was described by him as the “theory that you could omit anything ... and the omitted part would strengthen the story”. Elizabeth Ellen’s work is a great modern example of this lean, no-nonsense approach. In a similar vein to Hemingway, Virginia Woolf once wondered - alluding to the short story’s uncanny effect - “isn’t it odd how much more one sees in a photograph than in real life?”
J is for July
In No One Belongs Here More Than You, Miranda July provided one of the most enjoyable and tender debut collections in recent memory, in the process channeling some of short fiction’s finest voices, from Richard Brautigan to Lorrie Moore. More recently, others who found wider fame in movies are fancying their chances at replicating July’s success: the last few years have seen prominent pieces of short fiction from James Franco, Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg, to name a few.
K is for Kmart Realism
The term “Kmart Realism” was initially used to disparagingly lump together the work of writers like Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver and Frederick (brother of Donald) Barthelme, however it was later embraced to some extent by the writers. Tao Lin has written extensively and impressively on the topic, as well as providing a highly detailed and completely confusing map of his history of the short story. Miranda July is famously a big fan of Lin and his pensive, energetic short story collection Bed.
L is for Length
The famous six-word story attributed to Hemingway ("For sale: baby shoes, never worn") is probably not by him at all, but is well known enough anyway to have spawned various imitators. Still, while the bottom limit for stories is regularly plumbed, the top limit isn’t paid so much attention; stories can often run to dozens of pages: “Good Old Neon” by David Foster Wallace, for example, is over 40 pages, and even Kafka’s hundred-odd page Metamorphosis is sometimes referred to as a short story. Poe suggested that anything that had a “unity of effect” could qualify as a short story. Fair enough, Poe.
M is for McClanahan
Scott McClanahan had already published four volumes of short fiction before, this year, releasing both a novel and a kind of episodic memoir, both of which featured on Dazed’s list of Best Indie Lit of 2013. His stories are great on the page but even better to hear, which is handy because there are numerous readings online, including the time McLanahan implausibly appeared on federal government TV network C-SPAN.
N is for New Yorker
It is obviously one of the most established venues for short fiction in the world, but did you know that Dorothy Parker, writing in the New Yorker, basically ripped off Nabokov’s Lolita, before it was even published? The magazine also has a consistently intriguing podcast, where authors read and discuss their favourite short works from the magazine. If it all goes pop for them, they can at least rest comfortably knowing that they’ll probably be survived by their almost-namesake, the experimental lit venue The Newer York.
O is for Opening lines
In “The Age of Wire and String”, Ben Marcus gave us some of the most unsettlingly appealing openings in recent short fiction. One example would be the story “Air Trance 16”, which starts: “If the motion of wind were to be slowed, as weather is slowed briefly when an animal is born, we would notice a man building and destroying his own house”. What does it mean? “The Weather Killer” begins “They were hot there, and cold there, and some had been born there, and most had died.” Marcus - whose experimental 2002 novel “Notable American Women” even felt somehow like a series of shorter pieces - was also the editor of excellent Anchor Book of New American Short Stories.
P is for Pink
Q is for Queneau
Raymond Queneau was one of the founding members of Oulipo, France’s “workshop of potential literature”, whose philosophy revolved around "the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy." This often meant that their output revolved around writing with constraints. One of Queneau’s most famous works, the awe-inspiring Experiments in Style - in which he tells the same short story in 99 different ways - has actually been replicated (on a smaller scale) a few times by none other than Sam Pink.
R is for Russia
Russia produced the man often referred to as the finest short story writer of all time, or at the very least the one who revolutionised the short story: Anton Chekhov. Emerging from his shadow, however, were OBERIU, a new collective of writers (or, in their critics’ words, “literary hooligans”) to some extent led by the peerless Daniil Kharms. The influence of OBERIU can still be seen in contemporary writers like Mark Leidner, whose works like “Snow” and “Negative Capability” have a bluntness and internal sort of para-logic which both draws you in and keeps you off balance.
S is for Saunders
In what must be one of the most monolithic direct lineages in short fiction, George Saunders has written about his great admiration for Donald Barthelme, who likewise wrote of a sense of inferiority compared to Samuel Beckett, who also openly felt the same way about Joyce. (Joyce, for what it’s worth, somewhat dubiously claimed not to have read Chekhov before writing Dubliners, which would have completed things). Saunders’ work is all over the internet, including “Puppy” and the title story from his most recent collection, Tenth of December. His control and wonder is visible in the work of a writer like Mike Young, whose debut collection Look! Look! Feathers was published a few years ago.
T is for Titles
The Atrocity Exhibition, J. G. Ballard’s 1969 collection of short stories (though he cutely described them as “condensed novels”), featured excellent titles like “Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy”, “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” and “The Great American Nude”. other choice titles for choice stories include “Knife Girl”, "Sex is Real and it Affects The Future" and "It's just nice and I want it".
U is for Uqbar
The opening story of Labyrinths, Borges’ 1962 collection, is an account of - among other things - the literature of an imaginary country, Uqbar. According to the story, authors in Uqbar “do not seek for the truth… but rather for the astounding”, which is emblematic of what is achieved by Borges, as well as by the best short stories, including this excellent-and-insanely-titled piece by Michael Inscoe.
V is for Vonnegut
In his book Bagombo Snuff Box, Vonnegut list his eight rules rules for writing stories, including the unforgettable and invaluable: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” While we’re here we might as well mention some of Vonnegut’s excellent early sci-fi stories like “Harrison Bergeron” and “2BR02B”.
W is for WWW
The internet has offered both distractions and opportunities for short fiction writers and writers have responded to them in a number of ways, whether it be through using computer languages to alter the experience of reading, as Chad Redden and Kevin Bott have in their recent work “Young Adult City” or simpler more playful things, like Choose Your Own Adventures by novelists Joe Dunthorne and Chris Killen.
X is for xTx
The mysterious and horrifyingly prolific xTx published the exquisitely grim book Nobody Trusts a Black Magician in 2009, which has thankfully subsequently - due to disagreements between author and editor - become freely available. xTx shares her anonymity and productivity with Frank Hinton, who has published absolutely everywhere including the stories “How to be Me, an Instructional Video narrated by Frank Hinton” and "A Medium-Sized Mammal Native to North America".
Y is for You
One of the more difficult formal-gymnastic moves to pull off effectively is the second-person narrator. A number of writers swear off it completely (anyway, it’s nothing new; Nathaniel Hawthorne and Leo Tolstoy both used it in their time) but when it’s done well, it’s terrific. Lydia Davis masterfully bleeds in and out of different narrative-persons in the titular story from her debut collection, Break It Down. Chelsea Martin address much of her story “Knee” - which appeared in Illuminati Girl Gang last year - to an unnamed “you”. Second-person was also used to incredible effect by Marguerite Duras in her long story “Malady of Death” - good luck finding it, though.
Z is for Zooey
In spite of the mixed reception he caused at the time of publication, Zachary Martin "Zooey" Glass is still one of J D Salinger’s most enduring creations. Salinger’s most enduring creation made an appearance in one of the three stories which briefly appeared on the internet in November 2013: a letter from Holden himself showing up in "The Ocean full of Bowling Balls". The stories have now mostly been excised from the net, though they have actually been available to read at Princeton’s library for many years, making it somehow more impressive that they hadn’t appeared earlier. Nonetheless, the vast-reaching excitement at news of the leaked stories was extraordinary - and more than enough evidence of the perennial lure of short stories.
Follow Crispin Best on Twitter here @crispinbest