The short story is making a comeback – here's some you should devour this summer
It’s rare for a short story published in the back of the New Yorker to break traffic records, dominate online conversation, and spark at least one parody Twitter account. But when Cat Person, by Kristen Roupenian, hit the internet at the end of last year, it touched a nerve with readers everywhere, by describing a short-lived relationship between a young woman and an older man. In a few thousand words, it skewered a type of romantic entitlement and disappointment that’s familiar to literally every straight woman I know. It also made one thing abundantly clear: short stories are having a moment. Roupenian signed a seven-figure deal for her collection, You Know You Want This, off the back of it, but while we wait, here’s five more new and upcoming collections of short stories you’ll want to dive into.
YOU THINK IT, I’LL SAY IT, CURTIS SITTENFIELD
Curtis Sittenfeld has written five novels, all of which have whip-smart women at their centre. The same is true for many of the stories in her first collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It. It’s true that many of her tales centre on privileged, white, middle-aged women, who are invariably smart and detached observers of the world around them. But in stories like A Regular Couple, where a wealthy lawyer and her husband encounter the woman’s high school nemesis, and The Prairie Wife, in which a woman fixates on the subject of her first same-sex encounter, Sittenfeld’s protagonists wrestle with questions of substance. How should you treat someone who previously bullied you? When does competition turn toxic?
In Gender Studies, which was first published in The New Yorker in 2016, Nell, a professor of gender and women’s studies on a business trip, has a sexual encounter with her Trump-supporting driver. As their power dynamics shift, Nell realises that he’s actually scared of her: “Her life has probably given her far more practice at presumption than his has given him... His looking scared makes her feel like a scary woman, and the feeling is both repugnant and pleasurable.” Gender Studies dissects the same odd moments around and during sex that Cat Person did, with women testing their power across sexual boundaries; what Sittenfeld and Roupenian posit, and what is so revolutionary in their stories, is that women can find enjoyment (or at least have agency) in those tests.
BACK TALK, DANIELLE LAZARIN
Back Talk is full of stories that make you feel uncomfortable, but that also push you to look at the ways in which the world controls and guards girls. Danielle Lazarin’s characters are young, unformed, and pushing the limits of their own power, and the stories are mostly set in New York, in a kind of hot, sleepy summer daze that exerts a magnetic inertia over the characters. In Gone, two school friends begin a list of every girl who dies in New York, starting with a pregnant 14-year-old who falls out of a window. As they head to the park one hot night, Lazarin describes how the swing seats “bore the memory of the day’s sun, swollen and forgiving in their warmth, metal that would have stung our thighs had we let it meet our skin earlier.” There is danger here, but love and kindness among the girls too.
FLORIDA, LAUREN GROFF
In Florida, nature stalks the edges of Lauren Groff’s short stories, constantly threatening to unmask the pretence that humans and animals can peacefully coexist in a hostile place. But it’s not just the things on four legs or creepy-crawlies; where Florida comes alive is in showing you how Groff’s humans are just as wild and unknowable as the world outside their carefully maintained borders.
In the standout story The Midnight Zone, a woman is left alone with her two children, and injures herself severely. Quickly, they devolve into almost-feral behaviour, as she strives to stay awake and not let concussion take over. She projects a vision of herself out into the world beyond the cabin, smelling “the worms tracing their paths under the pine needles and the mold breathing out new spores, shaken alive by the rain.”
MOTHERS, CHRIS POWER
Chris Power has written about short stories for The Guardian since 2007, tackling such giants of the form as Jean Rhys, Guy de Maupassant, and David Foster Wallace along the way. His first collection displays a luminosity and agility, showing he’s clearly picked up a trick or two from his subjects.
In Mothers, the main characters are frequently travelling or displaced, trying to make sense of a new set of circumstances, or carrying unease with them from the places and people they have left behind. Three stories about the same character, Eva, punctuate the book; we meet her as a child in Sweden; as a young, desperately unhappy woman travelling in Spain, and, at the book’s close, coping with motherhood herself, as narrated by her husband Joe. Unease propels these narratives, and Power’s characters are alive to a sort of queasy physicality: the ground moves beneath a drunk character “like stepping into a rowing boat”; two people have sex on the island where Odysseus was kept by Calypso, and the woman later imagines “the scene from the afternoon as if she had been someone else standing at the cave’s mouth, watching them fuck: she half-crouching, he behind her with brow creased, the same furious look on his face”.
THE DOMINANT ANIMAL, KATHRYN SCANLAN
Kathryn Scanlan’s first collection will come out next year, but it’s worth putting on your list now to keep an eye on. Her stories are often just a page or two long, and she writes with a bold originality, almost casually pushing her characters into wild places. The imagery is unforgettable and, fittingly for the collection’s title, animalistic.
Revenge is on the minds of Scanlan’s women, who are pursued, bought, sold, mistreated, and underestimated; that is, until the decisive moment approaches, and they act, as in the closing line of The Poker: “All of this is just to say that I have seen mine enemy upon the earth – and I smote him.”