Sunday, September 16, 2007

My Favorite Short Stories

from Escutcheon BlotI have always loved the short story. To me the perfection of these little novels more than makes up for the lack of time they kill. In earlier times, these were great moneymakers for novelists of all stripes. The Saturday Evening Post, the New Yorker, Playboy, Harper's Weekly, and hundreds of others all paid authors good money for stories of just a few thousand words, rather than the 100,000 that are in a typical novel. With the decline of the print media, and the rise of the Internet, I fear that the short story has reached a nadir in its existence; a nadir that will only be exceeded by what happens tomorrow(reading between the lines you might say Blot is pessimistic; you'd be right).

I fear it is a dying art form, like many today, because it simply doesn't pay. There are of course creative writings online, but they lack the polish of earlier efforts. If you want to do something really well, you really need to get paid to do it. Otherwise, you can't spend the time necessary to perfect the art.

Since we seem to be in a list-obsessed Internet culture, I thought I would put down my list for the greatest short stories ever written; in my eyes. Some are hackneyed, some are probably nearly unknown, but I love them all, like perfect little gems.

1. The Mysterious Stranger, by Mark Twain. This one disturbed me mightily when I read it first, around the age of 13, I think. I didn't realize at the time that Twain got so very dark in his old age. I still shiver a bit when I think of the speech of the stranger at the end.

2. Buck-U-Uppo, by P.G. Wodehouse. One of the Mulliner stories. I first read it a couple of years ago, and have always come back to it when in need of a little lift. Voted by the Wodehouse Society of England as one of the favorite of PG's short stories (he was one of the most mercenarily successful of short story writers...the first Mulliner story appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1925, and the last in Playboy in 1970). Perfect. Sunny, Edwardian, and inconsequential.

3. The Death of Ivan Illyitch, by Leo Tolstoy. The absolute polar opposite of the preceding. A dark, painful, but at the same time, strangely uplifting in an incense-filled, icon-kissing, running-around-and-screaming-in-Russian sort of way. Close to a novella, but I'll allow it.

4. A Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann. I have read a lot of Mann since I moved to Germany (in English...I read for pleasure and Mann's German is a lot like Henry James' English--not pleasurable), and didn't like Buddenbrooks, really liked Magic Mountain, and Joseph and his Brothers, but the story of Aschenbach dying alone, foolish, made-up and unwanted on the beach is so brutally honest, yet in a way a condescending manner, of course. A great listen to those modern opera lovers out there(all two of you) is Benjamin Britten's late-career adaptation. Here was a composer who knew all about being an old queen. His long-time partner, Peter Pears, sang the lead when he was well into his sixties.

5. The Necklace, by Guy de Maupassant. I know. Everybody's read it; those of us who took French in high school read it again in the original. It's still one of the great short stories of all time. It shares with most short stories the astringency of the shock end--maybe that's where it comes from. hmm.

6. The Masque of the Red Death, by Edgar Allan Poe. I don't know...sometimes I like to see the rich get their just desserts. Call me a little bomb-throwing anarchist if you will...but they had it coming.

7. A Diamond as Big as the Ritz, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Love the exploration into the topic of disposable friends. We've all done it at some point or other; made friends of the moment we knew we wouldn't keep just to keep from being lonely. Course, most of us don't get rid of them in quite the same way.

8. The Reticence of Lady Anne, by Saki(H.H. Munroe). All I can say is 'Ha!'. Stiff upper lip indeed.

9. Sredni Vashtar, by Saki. I could have used a ferret or weasel or whatever it is like this one when I was a kid...I had several cumbersome female relatives. Actually, come to think of it...I still do.

10. Cruise--Letters from a Young Lady of Leisure, by Evelyn Waugh. How is it that so much of the most brilliant prose comes from the vantage point of an idiot? From Shakespeare to Faulkner, the fool gets the best lines. Goodness, how sad.

11. Bella Fleace Gave a Party, by Evelyn Waugh. I know this is supposed to be funny, but it always makes me want to cry.

12. Dr. Heideggar's Experiment, by Nathanial Hawthorne. Just a great story. Another one that makes me want to cry. I think I have issues about ageing. I know I do.

13. The Gifts of the Magi, by O'Henry. This one is easy. Selfless love is a fine moderation.

14. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. The granddaddy of all short stories. This one also verges on the novella, but I'm allowing it. What a perfect story. This is the sort of Christianity, which if still practiced and preached, would have a great, positive impact on the world. Instead we have mush-mouthed recycled agnostic socialism competing with fire-breathing, ignorantly intolerant certitude. Give me a few ghosts and Tiny Tim piping up from his stool by the corner. And what more delicious feast has ever been described as the poor dinner of Bob Crachitt, which seems such a phantasmagoria to his poor, multitudinous family.

There are, I'm sure, many I have forgotten. I am quite certain that there is a Heinlein or two, as well as something by Asimov. I can't remember the titles, though, or even the particular plots, and that pretty much knocks them out of the memorable category. I open the floor to discussion.


Escutcheon Blot


Jeffrey Hill said...

Why no Hemingway? As a fellow expat, does he not resonate with you? I’ve always been fond of him, though I think he is over-rated. It particularly enjoyed “After the Storm” and, in a different way, “Cat in the Rain”.

Otherwise, good fodder here, Scutch. Of the stuff you mentioned that I’ve read, can’t take issue with any of it. I’d add a little more Hawthorne to the list – maybe “Young Goodman Brown” or “The May-Pole of Merry Mount”. I’m fighting the urge to just start listing his stories. You can’t go wrong with Hawthorne.

Or Melville. “Bartleby” gets a lot of attention, as it should. But I also love “Benito Cerano”. It keeps you on pins and needles and is a good precursor to a lot of old comedy team type scenarios. The shaving sequence is great.

Another Melville worth a mention is “I and My Chimney”. Herman was working some demons out in that one.

EscutcheonBlot said...

I hate Hemingway.

I don't wish to sound as if I am trying to curry popular favour. I just hate the guy's writing. I have swallowed 4 or 5 of his novels, and I just can't appreciate him. He's easy to read, but somehow that excessively brutal English of his leaves me wanting more. A lot more.

I've already said I much prefer Steinbeck, of all those Lost Generation writers. Where Hemingway is too cut-and-dried, Fitzgerald is way too precious.

I've got to say I like the English writers of the same period a lot better. At that time, the English were still quite good at humour. Not anymore, of course, but at that time. Hawthorne, Melville(I've not read "Benito Cerano"), Harte, Hemingway, Fitzgerald...they don't know how to laugh. Steibeck does...a little.

I have never really gotten into Melville's short fiction, although "Moby Dick" is one of my all-time favorites.

Americans are a pretty morose bunch, when they write. Why is that? Come to think of it, American films, comedies anyway, are rarely intentionally funny. Same thing with sitcoms. HMMM.

Are we simply too serious as a people?

odienator said...

Americans are a pretty morose bunch, when they write. Why is that? Come to think of it, American films, comedies anyway, are rarely intentionally funny.

I'm funny, dammit!

Good list. I like several of the stories listed. I've also always liked James Joyce's Araby, Langston Hughes' Thank You, Ma'm, and Steinbeck's Jalopies I Cursed and Loved (and I hate John Steinbeck the way you hate Hemingway). I'm also partial to The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, one of the few things by Twain I've read and enjoyed.

I won third prize in a Hemingway parody contest once. It was good. I wrote well. I won some books. Then the sun set.

Jeffrey's mention of "Young Goodman Brown" is a good choice. I once wrote a parody of it called "Young Goodman Encyclopedia Brown" where the protagonist solves the "Mystery of the Scarlet Letter." I had to read Bartleby in school, and I prefer not to like it.

Jeffrey Hill said...

Odie is flexing his parody muscles.

The stories in The Dubliners are my favorite stuff of Joyce - being not only the most accessible, but the most enjoyable.

I don't get the humorless accussation, Scutch. I find Melville is particularly hilarious - his humor is pitch perfect. I also find a lot of humor in Washington Irving. "Rip Van Winkle" in particular, but in other stuff too.

One of the great short story writers that hasn't been mentioned yet, Bret Harte, is also exceedingly funny. "The Luck of Roaring Camp" is a masterpiece, where a mining camp adopts, through circumstance, a little baby. And what about Stephen Crane's in "The Bride Comes To Yellow Sky"? Another great story in that vain, and very funny.

I have to disagree. I think American writers, particularly in the 19th century, have good senses of humor.

EscutcheonBlot said...

Tee hee.

I thought that morose comment would get a rise out of you all. An avalanche of outrage. Is two responses an avalanche?

Like I said, I don't know Melville's short short fiction at all well...did I say it? I thought it. I read all of Twain's stuff when I was a teenager, wanting to like him. I didn't. I found very little that was truly funny; most of his stuff being way too heavy handed for my taste.

Same to Washington Irving. I read the Knickerbocker whatever it is, where Rip van Winkle lives, and laughed maybe once. I just find 19th American humor not funny. 20th either, for that matter. There are of course exceptions, but they do tend to prove the rule, don't they?

This is not to say I don't like American Lit. I love M. Dick and E. of Eden and many others, but aside from Tortilla Flat, I can't think of very much at which I genuinely I do every time I read Wodehouse.

I also...dramatic pause...dislike the Three Stooges. (gasps from audience) I out of the blogger community now?

Jeffrey Hill said...

What horrible typos! I need to slow it down, I guess.

Jeffrey Hill said...

The 3 Stooges are too violent! I've never been able to appreciate them.

BTW - I liked your line: Fitzgerald is way too precious. And he became cracked crockery.

odienator said...

EB: I also...dramatic pause...dislike the Three Stooges. (gasps from audience)

Those gasps didn't come from me. I hate the Three Stooges with every fiber of my being. The only thing I ever liked about them was the music. Nyuk-nyuk-nyuk.

Humor is not only subjective but also a product of its time. Don Quixote was supposed to be funny, but to me it was not. They also tell me Swift is supposed to be funny. I just don't see it.

EscutcheonBlot said...


It's true that humour is a product of its time, but I love Jane Austen and find her hilarious. I often laugh when reading Dickens, or (rather less often) Thackery. These are more or less contemporaries of the folks on your side of the Atlantic (speaking spatially, rather than in the sense of loyalty).

I thought Quixote sad, and found Swift to be a mean ol' bastard. But Henry Fielding is quite amusing('Joseph Andrews' and 'Shamela'), and is an almost exact contemporary of Swift.

Richard B Sheridan was a scream ('The Rivals', 'School for Scandal', etc...). Even Thomas Hardy had his amusing moments, early on in 'Under the Greenwood Tree'and 'Far from the Madding Crowd' (he quickly got over it). I just don't think that American writers are particularly funny.

And I actually dislike the Three Stooges...intensly. I do like Lucy though. Love, not so much, but like.

Jeff said...

From the first time I read it in high school, "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell has been my favorite. As good as the hunt itself is the dialogue which precedes it, between the General and Rainsford, the famous hunter:

"How extraordinarily droll you are!" he said. "One does not expect nowadays to find a young man of the educated class,
even in America, with such a naive, and, if I may say so, mid-Victorian point of view. It's like finding a snuffbox in a limousine. Ah, well, doubtless you had Puritan ancestors. So many Americans appear to have had.
I'll wager you'll forget your notions when you go hunting with me. You've a genuine new thrill in store for you, Mr. Rainsford."

EscutcheonBlot said...

I just remembered an American author I find, or rather found, very funny.

Garrison Keillor, in his early days before the world piddled in his cornflakes, was a very very funny writer. Look around in used bookstores for his collection, "Happy to Be Here", published in 1981. These are wonderful, well-constructed, ironic stories, which make you wonder what the hell has happened to him over the past 10 years or so.

And for those of you for whom the typical short story, at 20 pages or so, is still too long...these little babies average around 5-10 pages each. Perfect for beddybye reading.

Charlie Parsley said...

very nice article blot. always refershing to have you around. three cheers and such.

I had Mark Twain fever for a while, that's when I started wearing overalls a lot. however I am not familiar with the story you mention, will have to find that one.

on the flight out to california I read a couple chapters of Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae 1990. She had two chapers on Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray and Importance of Being Earnest.

Paglia asserts that wilde's plays are true high comedy. the high comedy moments continue throughout the wrorks, wilde brinngs in no low comedy or physical gags for 'comic relief. it is pure satire.

I am not as much a reader as you guys however it is inspiring to have so manty suggestions for winter reading. I like to sit by a fire and read on snow days when you have to stay in.

cheers also to odie! glad to see you around.

Jeffrey Hill said...

Jeff: I never read "The Most Dangerous Game" in school and it flew under my radar (no great feat). But I did take the time to read it online last night and found it thoroughly enjoyable. Of course, I recognized several stories that were evidentally inspired by it and it was amazing how it moved like a film and was written in 1924. Thanks for the suggestion.

For some reason, that story, along with the mention of "The Necklace" made me remember two fun stories from, I think, my 8th grade reading class: "The Monkey's Paw" and "Leiningen vs. the Ants." The latter was made into a pretty sturdy, if not great, film The Naked Jungle. I'm convinced this story is still widely read in junior highs because I once posted about it and that post routinely gets hits to this day.

I must say that, though I'm not a fan of the Stooges, I'm a little embarrassed that Liverputty hasn't come up with somebody to defend them. Someday, I anticipate watching them and having their genius suddenly strike me like the business end of a hammer.

Regarding Garrison Keillor: I remember in the 80s when my parents were real big on him and insisted I read a few of his Wobegon stories. I can't recall if Happy to Be Here was among the books they had. I'll have to check on that.

Anonymous said...

It's bad luck to end with 13 comments.

Alison said...

So good to read comments from those who appreciate the art of the short story. A great site for a wonderful art-form. - thanks. Alison