The Best Short Stories: PW Staff Picks

PWStaff -- June 28th, 2012

The great thing about PWxyz asking PW Staff for their reading recommendations is that they’ll always tell us and they’ll do it for free! We have tricked them. This time, we bamboozled them all for their all-time favorite short stories. And we’d like you to tell us your favorite short story in the comments. We promise–it’s not a trick.

Adam Boretz, reviews editor:

“The Depressed Person” by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace’s wending prose perfectly captures the skewed thinking of the depressed (and anxious) person with one awful, self-conscious — and wickedly funny — mental spiral after another. Readers in the midst of a crack-up of their own may, of course, find this story less entertaining and more, well…depressing.

Peter Cannon, senior reviews editor:

“Honeysuckle Cottage” by P.G. Wodehouse

In P. G. Wodehouse’s “Honeysuckle Cottage,” one of the English humorist’s funniest stories, a hardboiled mystery novelist must stay for six months in a cottage once inhabited by his late aunt, a romance novelist, in order to gain an inheritance. The haunted atmosphere of the house soon has a sentimental effect on our hero—and his prose.

Jessamine Chan, reviews editor:

“The Great Divorce” by Kelly Link

A few summers ago, while teaching an undergrad fiction workshop, I found myself fielding complaints that my assigned reading was “too dark,” and that all the stories were about people being incredibly mean to each other. “But that’s called conflict!” I said. What turned the class around was having them read “The Great Divorce.” Here, the dead can marry the living. Problems ensue when they want to get divorced. I love how Link whimsically transforms the classic miserable married people premise. My summary does not do justice to this delightful, rich, and surprising story. Just go read it. I’m sure you will find yourself, as I did, seeking out all of her books.

Michael Coffey, co-editorial director:

“The Judgement” by Franz Kafka

The short story that stays with me is Kafka’s “The Judgement” (sometimes titled “The Verdict”), which is the story of a young man who quarrels with his father about the existence of a friend and ends by committing suicide, running from the house on to a bridge, leaping the railing. It ends, “He held himself for another instant with a weakening grip, watched a bus pass between the bars, the roar it made would easily drown the sound of his fall. He cried feebly: ‘Dear parents, I have always loved you,’ and let himself go. At that moment the traffic on the bridge was literally frantic.”

Kafka said he wrote this story straight through in one night, and told Max Brod: “Do you know what the last phrase means? As I wrote it I thought of a violent ejaculation.”

Rachel Deahl, senior news editor:

“Where I’m Calling From” by Raymond Carver

Endings aren’t easy. And there are few authors who can nail an ending better than Raymond Carver. (That final line of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”—‘I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.’ Holy sh*t.) The Carver story that has one of my favorite endings of all time, though, is “Where I’m Calling From.” The main character, who’s in rehab, is debating making a call–first to his wife (who doesn’t know he’s in rehab), then to his girlfriend–when the line that gives the story its title unfurls: ‘She’ll ask me where I’m calling from, and I’ll have to tell her.’ That the words will be said in resignation, if said at all, only makes it that much more heartbreaking.

Louisa Ermelino, reviews director:

“Murderers” by Leonard Michaels

Four Jewish boys climb a tenement roof on the Lower East Side to watch a young rabbi make love in the afternoon to his “sacramentally bald” wife. Michaels in just a few pages captures danger, desire, consequence and immigrant life. “My family came from Poland, then never went anyplace until they had heart attacks. … We should have buried Uncle Moe where he shuffled away his life, in the kitchen or toilet, under the linoleum, near the coffeepot.” Mona Simpson in a Times review said Michaels’s “vernacular achieves the level of song.” I agree.

Rose Fox, reviews editor:

Favorites are so tricky, and there are a great many short stories that I passionately love. A few of the stories I go back to again and again are “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts” by Shirley Jackson, “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” by Stephen King, “Press Enter []” by John Varley, “Instructions” by Bob Leman, “All My Darling Daughters” by Connie Willis, “The Ugly Chickens” and “Flying Saucer Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Howard Waldrop, “The Little Black Bag” by C.M. Kornbluth, and “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ. You’d think horror and humor would be less effective once you know what’s coming, but these writers are so brilliant that their work never loses its power. Reading these stories is like doing shots of nitroglycerine.

Gabe Habash, news and Tip Sheet editor:

“Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern” by Richard Yates

Blessed with one of the best endings I’ve ever read, “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern” (listen to the whole thing here) concludes with such a gut-punching note of finality that it’s become a permanent part of my reading memory. The story begins: “All Miss Price had been told about the new boy was that he’d spent most of his life in some kind of orphanage.” From there, Yates launches into a story that’s so engrossing yet so basic that it feels like a campfire fable. At the center is Vincent Sabella, Yates’s greatest character. The story’s last paragraphs feel both surprising and inevitable, the Textbook Recipe for a Great Ending, and when it ends, it feels like a heavy door slamming shut.

Mike Harvkey, deputy reviews editor:

“Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff

I return again and again to this amazing short story from Tobias Wolff, who wrote so many great stories, including another favorite of mine, “Hunters in the Snow.” These two stories, together, show really well the radical formal exploration that Wolff brought to the short story form. “Bullet in the Brain” is literally bisected at the moment the gun goes off; what follows that impact is a million miles from what has come before, and what Wolff accomplishes in these few short pages is extraordinary. It’s poetic, grand, and moving. “Hunters in the Snow,” on the other hand, is disturbing and puzzling because Wolff chose to let extreme events unfold in the objective third-person voice, which doesn’t allow for interiority or explanation of motivations; it’s the same technique that Shirley Jackson used for “The Lottery” and what also makes her story such a classic.  Here’s a link to T.C. Boyle discussing and reading “Bullet in the Brain.”

Claire Kirch, Midwest correspondent:

“The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant

My favorite short story has to be “The Necklace,” in which a woman loses a diamond necklace she has borrowed from a friend; replacing it without telling the friend what has happened ruins her. Not only is the story’s conclusion completely unexpected, but it provides the reader with life lessons that are still relevant more than 100 years after it was written.

Heidi MacDonald, comics review editor:

“An Unfinished Story” by O. Henry

Henry ditches his usual twist endings for a sympathetic look at a poor shop girl in early 20th Century New York City, her thrifty life of five cent lunches, and her refusal to surrender her virtue for the price of a fancy dinner. It’s a sad, razor sharp portrait of period life that has haunted me since I first read it as a teenager.

Calvin Reid, senior news editor:

“The Screamers” by LeRoi Jones

First collected in Tales (Grove Press, 1967), “The Screamers” is hallucinatory recreation a trip to a black dance hall in Newark and captures a deliriously surreal night of moody chaos when a saxophonist, honking and walking the bar, leads a group of enraptured dancers into the street provoking a police riot. It’s a vivid recreation of black hipster culture at a certain point in history and a beautiful and transporting work of prose fiction.

Sonia Robbins, managing editor:

“The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov

Over the future course of human history, beginning in 2061, a succession of people ask ever-more-advanced computers what will happen to the universe when entropy is reached and all energy is used up. The answer is the only creation story I can believe in.

Judith Rosen, bookselling editor:

“I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen

Collected in Tell Me a Riddle, “I Stand Here Ironing” is a story I come back to year after year, ever since I saw it performed at a tiny theatre in Cambridge, Mass. The image of the still young mother and the “tormented” back and forth of her iron as she looks back at her daughter’s life, and her own, shaped by the Great Depression and WWII, continues to haunt me six decades after it was written. It was one of Olsen’s most autobiographical stories.

Jonathan Segura, digital media senior editor:

“What Becomes” by A.L. Kennedy

This is a tremendously sad story about a sad, lonely guy in a movie theater. Of course, there’s much more to it than a sad, lonely guy watching a movie. There’s the death of a child, a wife left behind, an avalanche of guilt, a complete absence of hope. Did I mention how tremendously sad it is? It is. It’s like puppies-with-cancer sad. Apparently, Kennedy’s also a stand-up comedian.

Samuel Slaton, reviews editor:

“The Dead” by James Joyce

I first read this story when I was a junior in high school. I didn’t “get it,” so I asked my older brother to enlighten me, to which he responded: “It’s about the essential unknowability of another person,” which basically ruined my life. It has inspired many of my worst poems, and also probably that Are You Afraid of the Dark? episode wherein some Michael Furey wannabe whimpers about being cold.

Craig Morgan Teicher, director of digital/poetry editor:

“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway

Nothing happens in these few pages–a pair of waiters want a drunk guy to leave so they can close their cafe, and he leaves, and they close, and one of them goes to a bar a little ways away–but everything is in this story, all one needs to know, or can know, about human loneliness, compassion, fear and hope.

10 thoughts on “The Best Short Stories: PW Staff Picks

  1. Ryan

    As a teacher of freshman composition, there is one short story that I have found brings about a reaction among all students in some way: A Temporary Matter by Jhunpa Lahiri. This may be because divorce affects so many people, but also because the ending can be read as either positive or negative which causes students to really consider the smaller elements in the story.

  2. jenn

    you must add Alice Munro, one of the best all time contemporary short story writers. Just finished a story of hers yesterday The Progress of Love, which strikes me as a perfect model for a short story. 1985. Flannery O’Connor’s haunting southern stories (the one where a woman sleeps with her dead husband’s body or vice versa) still stick with me. Katherine Mansfield is another favourite.

  3. Hannah

    “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away” by Stephen King. I first heard about this one from a librarian and since the first time I’ve read it, the last few lines have never gone out of my mind.

    And for more dark, grim fun: “The Scythe” by Ray Bradbury and Stanley Ellin’s “The Specialty of the House.”

    And I second Joyce’s “The Dead” – reading that story definitely changes you forever.

  4. Marcia

    oops. If I hadn’t been late to the party, I would have championed Flannery O’Connor. But Raymond Carver is here, so it’s all good.

  5. Chris Roberts

    Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is absolutely devastating in a refined way. William Faulkner’s makes use of the provincial as an actual character in his “Barn Burning.” There are many others, but these two put the story in short story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>