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November 2022 short story leaderboard, final standings

A little over a month ago, I realised I had not read many short stories recently. As November was about to start, I thought: you know what, I’ll read mostly short stories this month. So I did. And, in total, I read – or, in a few cases, listened to – 72 short stories in the month of November. Sounds like a lot. It’s actually not many more than two a day, on average.

One rule I had was that I would not read more than one story by any one writer, and, in general, I tried to ensure a lot of diversity in the writers I was reading. The aim there was for this to be an experience of continuously jumping from one geographical location to another, and from one historical period to another, and being presented with, across all those settings, all manner of situations and life trajectories, as described by writers with a great array of different values and sensibilities and styles. There was, that said, a lot of revisiting writers who I've loved reading in the past; there were also a lot of first impressions of writers about whom I've long heard great things, and there was a fair amount of going out on a limb and giving writers I've never even heard of a chance to impress me. It was a new sort of reading experience for me, and, overall, I loved it! In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ll do this at least yearly from now on, so if you happen to have any short stories to recommend, please do mention them in the comments section.

To add a little spice, I also ranked all these short stories I read. I was not, to be clear, ranking them from best to worst. Taken seriously, that would have been a very ambitious task… No, I was simply ranking them according to how much they resonated with me in the moment I read them. Put crudely then, from favourite to least favourite. Also important to clarify: it’s not as if I only really liked the ones at the top of the rankings, and I kind of liked the ones in the middle, and the ones at the bottom I didn’t like at all. Certainly not. I wanted outstanding short stories for this, and, for the most part, it was outstanding short stories I got. I collected personal recommendations from friends and family, and impersonal ones from literary critics and anthology editors and all sorts of writers and other kinds of thinkers I admire. I’d say there are stone-cold masterpieces of one kind or another, and stories I loved to bits, right down past the middle of the leaderboard, and there’s not a single one there that I would say is not a good short story.

One final comment before I present my findings: another rule I had was that these would all be short stories that I had not read before. As I studied English Literature at university, and have been a serious reader for something like 15 years now, a lot of classics were ineligible for involvement in this little exercise. I didn’t see that as any kind of problem – we’re 8 billion on this planet now, nearly everyone’s a storyteller, and basically I believe the quantity of great short stories out there is far from exhaustible by any one reader, even if, almost without exception, a lot more could be done to spread the word about them. I’ve written up this little exercise partly for my own fun, partly in case anyone I mentioned it to is curious, but mostly with a view to spreading the word about some great short stories. For that reason, the ones I could find online I include links to. Also for that reason, I take a moment, at the end, to list my all-time favourite short stories. If I’m doing shout outs for short stories, I’m of course doing shout outs for those ones. Now, without further ado – jeez, sorry, quite a lot of ado there’s been – here is, in its final form, my November 2022 short story leaderboard:

  1. Thank You (2013) by Alejandro Zambra, translation by Megan McDowell

  2. The Postmaster (1891) by Rabindranath Tagore, translation by Utsa Bose

  3. The Ballroom of Romance (1972) by William Trevor

  4. Car Crash While Hitchhiking (1989) by Denis Johnson

  5. The Door in the Wall (1906) by H. G. Wells

  6. The Second Hut (1951) by Doris Lessing

  7. A Man Like Him (2008) by Yiyun Li

  8. Track (2017) by Nicole Flattery

  9. The Daemon Lover (1949) by Shirley Jackson

  10. Light Is Like Water (1978) by Gabriel García Márquez, translation by Edith Grossman

  11. The Lesson (1972) by Toni Cade Bambara

  12. Everything Is Green (1988) by David Foster Wallace

  13. How to be an Other Woman (1985) by Lorrie Moore

  14. Levitation (1976) by Cynthia Ozick

  15. What, of This Goldfish, Would You Wish? (2012) by Etgar Keret, translation by Nathan Englander

  16. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please (1966) by Raymond Carver

  17. The Black Madonna (1958) by Muriel Spark

  18. The Intoxicated Years (2015) by Mariana Enríquez, translation by Megan McDowell

  19. Goodbye My Brother (1951) by John Cheever

  20. My Son the Fanatic (1994) by Hanif Kureishi

  21. Fjord of Killary (2010) by Kevin Barry

  22. The Guest (1957) by Albert Camus, translation by Justin O'Brien

  23. The Nose (1836) by Nikolai Gogol, translation by Claud Field

  24. Rentafoil (1866) by Émile Zola, translation by Douglas Parmée

  25. Love (1952) by Clarice Lispector, translation by Katrina Dodson

  26. A Perfect Day for Bananafish (1948) by J. D. Salinger

  27. A Meeting in the Dark (1974) by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

  28. Girl (1978) by Jamaica Kincaid

  29. Epstein (1958) by Philip Roth

  30. A Simple Heart (1877) by Gustav Flaubert, translation by Robert Baldick

  31. The Green Zone Rabbit (2013) by Hassan Blasim, translation by Jonathan Wright

  32. I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter (2020) by Isabel Fall

  33. Dead Men's Path (1953) by Chinua Achebe

  34. A Pair of Jeans (1988) by Qaisra Shahraz

  35. Speech Sounds (1983) by Octavia Butler

  36. Spider the Artist (2008) by Nnedi Okorafor

  37. A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1953) by Flannery O'Connor

  38. A Horse and Two Goats (1965) by R. K. Narayan

  39. The Shining Houses (1968) by Alice Munro

  40. The School (1976) by Donald Barthelme

  41. The Falling Girl (1963) by Dino Buzzati, translation by Lawrence Venuti

  42. In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried (1983) by Amy Hempel

  43. Victory Lap (2009) by George Saunders

  44. The Labrador Fiasco (1996) by Margaret Atwood

  45. Sierra Leone (1977) by John McGahern

  46. A Rose for Ecclesiastes (1963) by Roger Zelazny

  47. The News of Her Death (2016) by Petina Gappah

  48. Half a Day (1989) by Naguib Mahfouz, translation by Denys Johnson-Davies

  49. The Emerald Light in the Air (2014) by Donald Antrim

  50. Souvenir (1952) by Kurt Vonnegut

  51. '39 (2013) by Radu Paraschivescu, translation by Jim Christian Brown

  52. Apollo (2015) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

  53. Cannibalism in the Cars (1868) by Mark Twain

  54. Tickets, Please (1918) by D. H. Lawrence

  55. Private Tuition by Mr. Bose (1970) by Anita Desai

  56. The Landlady (1959) by Roald Dahl

  57. Rats Sleep at Night (1947) by Wolfgang Borchert, translation by Robert Painter

  58. House Taken Over (1946) by Julio Cortázar, translation by Paul Blackburn

  59. The Force of Circumstance (1924) by W. Somerset Maugham

  60. A Strange and Sometimes Sadness (1980) by Kazuo Ishiguro

  61. The Father (1860) by Björnstjerne Björnson, translation by R. B. Anderson

  62. The Love Potion (1947) by Herman Charles Bosman

  63. 'Then Later, His Ghost' (2014) by Sarah Hall

  64. Pee on Water (2010) by Rachel B. Glaser

  65. A Shinagawa Monkey (2005) by Haruki Murakami, translation by Philip Gabriel

  66. There's a Man in the Habit of Hitting Me on the Head with an Umbrella (1972) by Fernando Sorrentino, translation by Clark M. Zlotchew

  67. A Vendetta (1883) by Guy de Maupassant, translation by Albert M. C. McMaster

  68. The Pomegranate (1945) by Yasunari Kawabata, translation by Edward G. Seidensticker

  69. Wireless (1902) by Rudyard Kipling

  70. Finishing Touches (2014) by Claire Louise-Bennett

  71. The Man Who Married a Hotel (1920) by P. G. Wodehouse

  72. Seeing a Beauty Queen Home (1948) by Bill Naughton

As explained elsewhere, I think that, generally speaking, works of fiction are best encountered with as little pre-established knowledge of their contents as possible. So, given that what I principally mean to do here is encourage people who haven’t read these stories – and particularly the ones nearer the top of the list – to read them, I won’t go into detail on any of them, at least not here. Still, I’d like to quickly say a word or two about a few of them. The Zambra story is top of this list because it’s not much like anything I’ve read before, it took me on a hell of a journey, and I feel there’s great moral, emotional and psychological intelligence to it. It left me… well, not really quivering, but kind of quivering with realisations and heightened appreciation, amazed again by what a bit of writing can do. It was my first encounter with Zambra. I’m eager to read more by him. I know from this story that I love the mind of this man. The Tagore story is probably the one that moved me the most, and I’m not sure I’ve ever read a story that has moved me more. It’s a simple story, all the more powerful for its simplicity. I can imagine sending it to someone imploringly: please, care more! This is also my first reading of a full work, as opposed to just an extract, by Tagore, though he’s been on my radar a long time. There was a sculpture in honour of him just outside the UCL Department of Philosophy, where I did my masters. This story actually makes me think of another nearby sculpture, in a small, secluded garden right in the centre of Regent’s Park, where I would sometimes go for my lunch breaks back then; this sculpture was of, as I remember it, a small girl standing defensively over a lamb; it had an inscription, announcing that the garden was dedicated to the protectors of the vulnerable. The story also makes me think of Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. It would be a great companion piece to The Little Prince. I say the Tagore story was probably the one that moved me most, and that I’m not sure I’ve ever read one that’s moved me more. It had, however, serious competition from the Trevor story, which struck me as an astonishing act of empathy and care, and both a painstaking recreation of the world of particular kinds of people, in a particular place at a particular time, and a very universal tale. Crazy this one isn’t top of the list. On another day, it would have been. Anyway, that’s the top three. Part of me wants to keep going like that, but I’m not sure where I’d stop, and I don’t want this piece to end up too long, and I’m in any case not sure I do any good by saying anything about these stories other than that they’re certainly worth the read. I should, I guess, say something about the Fall story. I read this story mainly because I had heard about the controversy and debate surrounding it, and was curious. Also, it’s title, which I know that some people feel has highly problematic baggage, is certainly an intriguing one – even if I’d known nothing of the controversy and debate, that title would have been a serious draw for me. (I only read about the complaints about the title, and the different, placeholder title under which the story was nominated for a Hugo Award, after I’d read the story.) My basic take on the story is that… well, it’s a brilliant thought experiment, wonderfully imaginative. Maybe there is a moral case to be made against it… That’s certainly not clear to me. Maybe there is a case to be made against it according to which it’s premised on a misrepresentation – perhaps even a genuine misunderstanding – of the nature of gender and/or sex. I’m not really in a position to judge on that, although I did have moments reading it when I had vaguely that thought. More to the point though, even if it is premised on a misrepresentation of the nature of gender and/or sex, I don’t see how that necessarily lessens its quality as a thought experiment. In fact, having read all these other stories alongside the Fall one helps me make this point. The Márquez story is certainly premised on a misrepresentation of the nature of light. Does that lessen its quality as a story? Seems a silly question. You might say the misrepresentation is purposeful in Márquez’s case, and not in Fall’s. But, assuming that’s true, why should it be decisive here? I mean, whether or not Fall misrepresents the nature of gender and/or sex in this story, and whether or not she does that for the purpose of giving the story qualities it has as a richly imagined thought experiment, it still, by my lights, has those qualities, is a richly imagined thought experiment – and one that made me think not just or especially about possible permutations of gender and/or sex, but generally about the possibility of the most fundamental-seeming and morally and emotionally resonant systems that are constitutive of our psyches and personalities being hacked and radically reprogrammed and marshalled to serve the narrow purposes of a military mission, or some other specific objective of a specific power. Scary and fascinating stuff! As I’ve mentioned the Márquez story, I’ll say a little more about that one too. Márquez is a writer who never ceases to amaze me. You’d think that, after you’ve read One Hundred Years of Solitude, it would have to be downhill all the way – you can’t get better than that, surely. But I’m not sure I’ve read anything by Márquez that’s seemed to me of a lesser quality, and Love in the Time of Cholera may even be better. The story of his that I read last month, Light is Like Water, might seem very slight. It a very short, simple story. It has none of Márquez’s usual depth of characterisation, nor the kind of elaborate plot that I’ve found in even many of his short stories. But it conveys an image – particularly in its closing lines, which seem so perfectly worded – that shocked and confused and enchanted me. I don’t see that image fading from my mind anytime soon. It’s a parable, really, but such a powerful one, because so strange and so visual. To wrap things up: Certainly the top five on this list do now also belong on the list of my all-time favourite short stories, and maybe the whole top fifteen do, in fact. I’ll be interested to see how the impressions I have of all these stories I’ve just read settle or transform with time. In any case, excluding the new entries, this is, in no particular order, the list of my all-time favourite short stories, or of most of them anyway:

- A Hunger Artist (1922), Before the Law (1915), and Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk (1924) by Franz Kafka, translations by Willa Muir and Edwin Muir

- The Happy Prince (1888) by Oscar Wilde

- The Hitchhiking Game (1963) by Milan Kundera, translation by Suzanne Rappaport

- The Chance (1979) by Peter Carey

- The Gentleman from San Francisco (1915) by Ivan Bunin, translation by D. H. Lawrence, S. S. Koteliansky and Leonard Woolf

- The Dream of a Ridiculous Man: A Fantastic Story (1877) by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

- Eveline (1914), A Painful Case (1914) and The Dead (1914) by James Joyce

- The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber (1937) by Ernest Hemingway

- The Machine Stops (1909) by E. M. Forster

- The Depressed Person (1998) and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men #20 (1997) by David Foster Wallace

- The Burning of the Abominable House (1973) by Italo Calvino, translation by Tim Parks

- Cat Person (2017) by Kristen Roupenian

- Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940) by Jorge Luis Borges, translation by Alastair Reid

- Why Don't You Dance? (1978) by Raymond Carver

- In a Bamboo Grove (1922) by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, translation by Jay Rubin

- Orientation (1994) by Daniel Orozco

- I Used to Live Here Once (1976) by Jean Rhys

- Clara (1997) by Roberto Bolaño, translation by Chris Andrews

- A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings: A Tale for Children (1955) by Gabriel García Márquez, translation by Gregory Rabassa



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