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November 2023 short story leaderboard, final standings

In November of last year, i.e. 2022, I dedicated most of my reading time and energy to short stories. I loved the experience, felt I got a lot out of it. So I did the same this year! Last time I read 72 short stories, in total. This time I managed 90. ’90!?! That’s madness!’ said a friend when I mentioned the final tally to him. It’s not madness. It’s exactly three a day, on average – and bear in mind many great short stories are just a few pages long, or less even than that.

Again, I ranked the stories – just as a fun and thought-provoking little exercise. Again, important to stress these are not even attempts at definitive judgements of quality; rather, what’s gauged here is just what happens to be appealing to me and speaking to me right now.

Same ground rules as last year – no more than one story per author; no stories I’d read before. One innovation to note though: I decided that the stories from last year that finished in the top ten had earned their authors the right to have another story read and ranked this year. Aside from that, yeah, I again collected recommendations, both personal and institutional, and did a small amount of selecting in a flailing, random manner. And again, it was an amazing bit of reading. A wondrous little sampling of the great diversity of human thought, feeling and experience.

Here are the final rankings! (With a few comments below.)

1. Guests of the Nation (1931) by Frank O'Connor

2. The Paper Menagerie (2011) by Ken Liu

3. The Dressmaker's Daughter (2004) by William Trevor

4. The Husband Stich (2014) by Carmen Maria Machado

5. The Country of the Blind (1904) by H. G. Wells

6. Sister Imelda (1981) by Edna O'Brien

7. Toba Tek Singh (1955) by Saadat Hasan Manto, translation by Khalid Hasan

8. Axolotl (1956) by Julio Cortázar, translation by Paul Blackburn

9. Color and Light (2019) by Sally Rooney

10. The Doll Queen (1964) by Carlos Fuentes, translation by Margaret S. Peden

11. Funny Little Snake (2017) by Tessa Hadley

12. Kabuliwallah (1892) by Rabindranath Tagore, translation by William Radice

13. Vanilla bright like Eminem (2004) by Michel Faber

14. Becoming the Baby Girl (2019) by Adachioma Ezeano

15. The Artist of the Beautiful (1844) by Nathaniel Hawthorne

16. Escort (1996) by Abdulrazak Gurnah

17. A Telephone Call (1930) by Dorothy Parker

18. In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (1937) by Delmore Schwartz

19. The Tattooer (1910) by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, translation by Howard Hibbet

20. A World Without Selfie Sticks (2021) by Etgar Keret, translation by Sondra Silverston

21. To the Dogs (2019) by Jianan Qian

22. The Story of My Dovecote (1925) by Isaac Babel, translation by Peter Constantine

23. Nomad and Viper (1965) by Amos Oz, translation by Nicholas de Lange

24. Bloodchild (1984) by Octavia Butler

25. The Habit of Loving (1957) by Doris Lessing

26. Exhalation (2008) by Ted Chiang

27. The Little Match Girl (1845) by Hans Christian Andersen, translation by Mary Howitt

28. Real Time (2000) by Amit Chaudhuri

29. No Sweetness Here (1962) by Ama Ata Aidoo

30. The Lagoon (1897) by Joseph Conrad

31. Skyscrapers (2022) by Alejandro Zambra, translation by Megan McDowell

32. The Son's Veto (1891) by Thomas Hardy

33. The District Doctor (1848) by Ivan Turgenev, translation by Constance Garnett

34. Gone for a Song (2020) by Elif Shafak

35. Our Lady of the Quarry (2020) by Mariana Enríquez, translation by Megan McDowell

36. The Life of the Imagination (1968) by Nadine Gordimer

37. Folding Beijing (2012) by Hao Jingfang, translation by Ken Liu

38. The Use of Force (1938) by William Carlos Williams

39. The Sex Lives of African Girls (2011) by Taiye Selasi

40. The Kiss (1887) by Anton Chekhov, translation by Constance Garnett

41. Seams (2021) by Olga Tokarczuk, translation by Jennifer Croft

42. It's Been Just a Year and a Half Now Since I Went with My Boss to That Bar (1986) by Ryū Murakami, translation by Ralph McCarthy

43. Nostalgie (2022) by Wendy Erskine

44. Fairy Tale (1990) by Robert Olen Butler

45. The Tale of the Unknown Island (1997) by José Saramago, translation by Margaret Jull Costa

46. The Rocking-Horse Winner (1926) by D. H. Lawrence

47. Drown (1996) by Junot Díaz

48. The Quicksand (1904) by Edith Wharton

49. The Way It Has To Be (1983) by Breece D'J Pancake

50. You Don't Hear the Dogs Barking? (1953) by Juan Rolfo, translation by Ilan Stavans and Harold Augenbraum

51. The Truth (1964) by Stanisław Lem, translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

52. The Challenge (1958) by Mario Vargas Llosa, translation by Ronald Christ and Gregory Kolovakas

53. Five-Twenty (1968) by Patrick White

54. Malliga Homes (2020) by Sindya Bhanoo

55. The Cloak (1957) by Karen Blixen

56. Scissors (2019) by Karina Sainz Borgo, translation by Elizabeth Bryer

57. Under the Jaguar Sun (1982) by Italo Calvino, translation by William Weaver

58. Slingshot (2018) by Souvankham Thammavongsa

59. Emergency (1991) by Denis Johnson

60. Let Mothers Doubt (2020) by Yiyun Li

61. A Wrinkle in the Realm (2021) by Ben Okri

62. Two Nurses, Smoking (2020) by David Means

63. Grief's Garden (2019) by Caroline Albertine Minor, translation by Caroline Wright

64. Manhole 69 (1957) by J. G. Ballard

65. Red Pyramid (2021) by Vladimir Sorokin, translation by Max Lawton

66. The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright (2015) by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

67. The Last Demon (1959) by Isaac Bashevis Singer, translation by Martha Glicklich and Cecil Hemley

68. La Grande Bretéche (1831) by Honoré de Balzac, translation by Clara Bell and Ellen Marriage

69. The Conjurer Made off with the Dish (1963) by Naguib Mahfouz, translation by Denys Johnson-Davis

70. Not the End Yet (2017) by Nicole Flattery

71. Charles (1948) by Shirley Jackson

72. The Stray Dog (1942) by Sadeq Hedayat, translation by Iraj Bashiri

73. The Death of Olivier Becaille (1884) by Émile Zola, translation by Edward Vizetelly

74. War Games (1979) by Peter Carey

75. Eyes of a Blue Dog (1950) by Gabriel García Márquez, translation by Gregory Rabassa

76. The Stuntman (2023) by Rachel Cusk

77. The Middle Voice (2023) by Han Kang, translation by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won

78. The Daughters of the Late Colonel (1921) by Katherine Mansfield

79. Weddings & Beheadings (2006) by Hanif Kureishi

80. Wants (1971) by Grace Paley

81. Model Country (2023) by Shida Bazyar, translation by Ruth Martin

82. 2BR02B (1962) by Kurt Vonnegut

83. The Sandman (1817) by E. T. A. Hoffman, translation by John Thomas Bealby

84. The Coincidence of the Arts (1997) by Martin Amis

85. The Last Answer (1980) by Isaac Asimov

86. The Night of the Ugly Ones (1968) by Mario Benedetti, translation by Harry Morales

87. The Quiet (2014) by Carys Davies

88. Action Will Be Taken (1954) by Heinrich Böll, translation by Leila Vennewitz

89. The Sweet Miracle (1906) by Eça de Queiroz, translation by Edgar Prestage

90. Cowardice (1971) by Abdeslam Boulaich, translation by Paul Bowles

This time I won't comment on the top three - I'll just say they're absolutely wonderful, and you should check them out if you don't know them already. Instead I'll comment on whichever stories I particularly feel like commenting on.

Machado’s The Husband Stich shocked and fascinated me, seemed like another crucial lesson on patriarchy.

That Wells wrote both The Country of the Blind and – the one I read by him last year – The Door in the Wall is incredible to me. Each feels like a monumental, timeless story, the kind that had to be written by someone at some point; each captures so perfectly something so fundamental.

The Cortázar… I’ve read a lot of stories by this point in my life, and encountered many more through other media and in conversation. Rarely does a story seem to me so unlike anything I’ve encountered before, let alone while also giving me such easy joy.

Rooney’s Color and Light had me gripped from start to finish. So well-worded and well-plotted. Felt real too. I could perhaps have been her main character here.

The Hawthorne captures a set of inclinations there is in me, an approach to life I could take, as well as where it might lead me. (I always love Hawthorne. His ideas never fail to interest me. I feel he’s underrated among the canonical 19th century writers.)

Gurnah’s Escort is a story of a kind that far more people need to read, especially people in the developed world for whom neocolonialism is just an abstract political concept. A little like Jordan Peele’s film Get Out in a way, but without the zaniness or the sci-fi twist – with, instead, an abundance of realism, clear-sightedness, objectivity.

The Parker struck me as absolutely first-rate, and like proto-David Foster Wallace – combining those qualities of being very funny, very sad and moving, very easy to identify with (at least for me) and very psychologically insightful. It’s also, in its way, a great feminist piece, and I’d encourage reading it alongside one of my favourites from last year, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon Lover.

I wonder whether Schwartz’s In Dreams Begin Responsibilities – what a title, by the way! – had more of an impact on readers back in the days before it was totally normal for us all to think of our lives cinematically. Still, great story.

Tanizaki’s The Tattooer… It’s not so much about the plot or, at least in the translation I read, about the prose – it’s about the image, the concept, the capturing of this symbiosis, these two deceptively monstrous essences.

The Keret! This story, together with last year’s, have made me very eager to read more by him. The inventiveness! The uniqueness of these combinations of ideas. So impressive! So much fun. And I even think he’s markedly expanding my sense of how to create a story. And yet… I hesitate just slightly. I suppose I fear creeping gimmickiness... Let’s see.

Chiang's Exhalation too! What a feat of imagination!

The Borgo, meanwhile... I couldn’t fault it at all. I have only positive things to say about it. Moving, important, crystal clear. In a way then, it’s strange it’s not ranked higher. Maybe it should be. Most of the ones above it are there not because they’re better at what they do but because they’re more ambitious, more strange, more revelatory. Or so they seemed to me.

The Balzac is another that perhaps should be a lot higher, as I’m sure its core story and images will stay with me. And come to mind particularly whenever I see an old, abandoned house.

Cusk’s The Stuntman initially finished quite a bit higher, even though I didn’t feel I really understood what it was aiming for. I know I was engaged while reading it, and thought it offered plenty to think about. However, looking back a few weeks after reading it, I found I could hardly remember what it’s about. Which is unusual for me. (Cusk’s a writer I’d been excited to check out, not least as I happened to meet her Italian translator and really liked the guy. Will definitely have to give her another go.)

The Sandman is, I suppose, one of the most famous short stories ever written. It must have been astonishingly original in its time, and indeed I felt a kind of archeological thrill reading of a humanoid robot in a 200-year-old story. I also appreciated its vivid nightmarish quality and I loved the climatic scene, and I think there are some very astute and devastating observations there about forms that love and especially romantic love can take. On the other hand, I thought it was really quite badly written, boring in parts, its characters and their speech and behaviour rather ridiculous... Maybe I'm just wrong.

Martin Amis’s The Coincidence of the Arts – in many ways, a very impressive story… Just I hated inhabiting its world. And no quality I detected in it seemed to me strong enough to make up for that.

Davies's The Quiet – I found people raving about this one online... I appreciate its subject matter, I like various features of the plot-line... what really bothers me about this story is that it achieves its biggest twist and therefore a lot of its emotional punch only through this very intentional vagueness, this maybe slightly clumsy blurring out of crucial information early in the story. It ended up feeling distractingly artificial.

Benedetti's The Night of the Ugly Ones - very mixed feelings on this one: so happy to find someone taking up this subject; and its heart's certainly in the right place, and the story is elemental in a way I often love, and I can even imagine its answer to the problem of extreme physical ugliness is the right one for some people; still, at least from my current perspective, it's infuriatingly simplistic in its vision. Even so, the story has done enough to make me want to read more by Benedetti.

The two at the very bottom of the rankings are far from devoid of quality but are there because they seemed to me to have strong elements of smug, essentially untrue religious propaganda to them. That was perhaps unfair on the Quieroz... who was, I know, also a brave and unsparing critic of the church. Maybe I could have interpreted his story like some of my favourites – by Wilde, for instance, or Tolstoy, or even the Trevor one I’ve ranked so highly here – which use Christian tropes. The Boulaich, on the other hand, really did seem to me like a joke/parable about how dumb or in-bad-faith Christians and – their natural successors, in its scheme – atheists are.


Car Crash While Hitchhiking (#4), while it’s definitely stayed with me, doesn’t stand shiningly out in my memory quite so much as the others at the very top of last year’s rankings. Maybe I vaguely feel, in retrospect, that there’s an element of over-aestheticising to it… Definitely it’s still a major highlight from last year though.

Yiyun Li’s A Man Like Him (#7) is the only one from the top 10 that I think probably doesn’t quite belong there. I absolutely loved the idea, the way it starts, the way it’s all set up; I loved individual lines, individual thoughts. And yet the resolution, the way it plays out… I know it didn’t, even at the time, seem to me to work perfectly, and now I don’t remember it, at least not in any detail. Still top 20 though, I would think.

The one on last year’s list that now seems to me the most terribly underappreciated is definitely Zola’s Rentafoil (#24), which I have since found myself thinking of on a pretty regular basis. I’ve re-read it, I’ve used it for a course session I planned, and I’ve spent hours marvelling at the originality and intelligence of it.

Also: Marquez’s Light Is Like Water just about made the top 10, but should, I now think, have finished even higher; and Cheever’s Goodbye My Brother (#19) has clearly made a big impression on me.


So, including stories I read in November of last year, but not any I read in this just-past November. (I’ll see how those ones sink in.)

Ordered alphabetically (by author’s name):

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

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

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

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

- The adventure of the married couple (1970) by Italo Calvino, translation by William Weaver

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

- The Chance (1979) by Peter Carey

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

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

- Track (2017) by Nicole Flattery

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

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

- The Daemon Lover (1949) by Shirley Jackson

- Eveline (1914) by James Joyce

- A Painful Case (1914) by James Joyce

- The Dead (1914) by James Joyce

- A Hunger Artist (1922) by Franz Kafka, translations by Willa Muir and Edwin Muir

- Before the Law (1915) by Franz Kafka, translations by Willa Muir and Edwin Muir

- Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk (1924) by Franz Kafka, translations by Willa Muir and Edwin Muir

- Blue Notebook, No. 10 (1937) by Daniil Kharms, translation by Robert Chandler

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

- The Second Hut (1951) by Doris Lessing

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

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

- Orientation (1994) by Daniel Orozco

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

- Cat Person (2017) by Kristen Roupenian

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

- The Ballroom of Romance (1972) by William Trevor

- The Depressed Person (1998) by David Foster Wallace

- Brief Interviews with Hideous Men #20 (1998) by David Foster Wallace

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

- The Happy Prince (1888) by Oscar Wilde

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

- Rentafoil (1866) by Émile Zola, translation by Douglas Parmée

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