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 sensitive...in 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 thing...in 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.