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Have You Tried Reading a Short Story?

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If you, like some of us, have been struggling to make it through some of your more ambitious reading material — like Middlemarch, In Search of Lost Time, or Journal of a Plague Year especially — it might be time to consider a short story. Sure, they might not give you the sense of accomplishment you’d feel tearing through a tome, but they are economical, transportive vehicles all on their own. And what matters most isn’t what you can accomplish during this time, but whether you can successfully spend a few minutes doing something — anything — but think about our present moment. Below, the Cut staff weigh in on what story collections have been holding our attention.

In Heathcliff Redux, National Book Award winner Lily Tuck revisits the gothic romance of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights to tell the deliciously spare story of a Kentucky wife and mother having an affair with a seemingly dangerous man. Formally inventive, the novella and following short stories are erotic, unforgiving, and pack a punch in very, very few words. —Brock Colyar, editorial assistant

This might be dorky, but I love the yearly Best American Short Stories collections from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. If I’m feeling indecisive — which is often — I can dive into a collection that’s curated by a favorite author (Meg Wolitzer! Roxane Gay!) and see what kinds of stories have recently captured their attention. Plus, it’s a good opportunity to discover writers I didn’t know. (I discovered Roxane Gay, Lauren Groff, and Curtis Sittenfield this way.) The collections are massively satisfying. —Kerensa Cadenas, senior editor

Disclaimer: I would rather read Middlemarch or In Search of Lost Time than a short-story collection. That being said, when I read Rebecca Schiff’s The Bed Moved four years ago, I remember thinking it was my ideal collection. The main narrator, an irreverent 20-something woman with a very dark sense of humor, is hilarious; the stories are simply a joy to read. In particular, I remember one in which she stumbles upon one of her dead father’s favorite porn sites, which gives her troubling insight into what got her dad off (topless women boxing). If that narrative appeals to you, I’d recommend picking it up. —Amanda Arnold, writer

There are many moments in Deborah Eisenberg’s short stories, when, in an instant of knifeblade concision, it becomes clear that all is not as it appears to be. “I had never known what I was like until I stopped smoking,” opens “Days,” the first story Eisenberg ever wrote, “by which time there was hell to pay for it.” Charlotte, the narrator of Eisenberg’s first published story, “Flotsam,” which became the opener of her 1986 collection, Transactions in a Foreign Currency, is either tall or ungainly, depending whose sightlines she happens to reside in. (As her boyfriend falls out of love with her, “my athletic tallness, which Robert had admired when we met, with the dissolving of his affection came to feel like an untended sprawl”.)

These hairpin turns of recalibration are Eisenberg’s specialty. Her occasions can be mundane or cataclysmic — a breakup and scene change in “Flotsam” or 9/11 in “Twilight of the Superheroes” — but she understands that all turbulence is turbulence, and the global and the personal burble between the two. “It’s very, very, very difficult for people, particularly people with a certain level of comfort or privilege, to take in the reality of a situation,” Eisenberg told the New York Times Magazine in 2018, when the magazine celebrated her as a “chronicler of American insanity.” She’s a slow, methodical writer; each story apparently takes her a year. I’d call them jewels, but that doesn’t seem hard enough, sharp enough. They’re gems.
—Matthew Schneier, features writer

Written for Mademoiselle when the poet was a student at Smith College in 1952, the short story was later rejected and published for the first time, in its original, “sinister” form last year. The story of a young girl on a mysterious train ride, it is a quick, suspenseful read with a very Plathian story line and surprisingly light-hearted ending. You’ll wonder for weeks what the hell it was actually about (and maybe it’s about hell?). —Brock Colyar, editorial assistant

Upon rereading Balzac’s 1832 short story “A Passion in the Desert,” it strikes me as relevant to a couple phenomena that have come to dominate our days: self-isolation and the Netflix docuseries Tiger King. A young French soldier on a military expedition in Egypt falls into the hands of an opposing army but manages to escape. He finds himself quite alone in the desert, a prospect at once terrifying and depressing, his mind full of nothing but his former life. But then — twist — his quiet desperation is interrupted by the presence of a wild panther, Mignonne, who quickly becomes the soldier’s everything: friend, enemy, and beloved. It’s a classic tale of being utterly alone in this world and at the same time obsessed with a large cat who may or may not kill you at any time. “She was lightening fast in passion,” says the narrator, “a block of granite slipping forward, and she froze at the name ‘Mignonne.’” —Hannah Gold, writer

If you want a masterclass in short stories, read Carmen Maria Machado’s electric collection Her Body and Other Parties. Machado delivers a genre-bending exploration of gender, sexuality, love, sex, and even Law and Order. It’s hard to not read it with your mouth agape over her prose and her total mastery of the form. She makes a modern gothic fairy-tale deeply unsettling and incredibly human. —Kerensa Cadenas, senior editor

I know some people look down their noses at “best of” albums and greatest hits collections, but those people need to hop off their high horses. Here are 26 of the greatest English-language sci-fi stories ever written. I couldn’t pick one favorite, they’re all excellent. “Coming Attraction” hits differently now — it’s set in a dystopic future in which all American women wear face masks, all the time. —Rachel Bashein, managing editor

In an effort to put a dividing line between “staring at the news on my phone time” and “fitfully nodding off to sleep time,” I’ve begun reading a single story from this anthology every night before going to bed. The ’80s really were a golden era for the short story, a time when notorious editor Gordon Lish helped make writers like Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel into the disaffected, minimalist titans we know them as today. All those classics of the genre are here, plus sexier, more subversive and harder to find work by writers like Rebecca Brown, Robert Glück, and David Wojnarowicz. Open it up and you’re not sure what you’ll find — the best story ever written about grief or a diaristic novella called “Weird Fucks”? —Jordan Larson, essays editor

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Have You Tried Reading a Short Story?