‘One Story’ Names the Top 10 Short Stories of All Time

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As a fitting finale to National Short Story Month, we asked the talented crew over at One Story to name their ten favorite epigrammatic tales. Tanya Rey, the managing editor, explained via e-mail that their choices are in no particular order, so anti-Salingerists are advised to not get all huffy just because JD leads the list. Tanya writes, “Certain authors (e.g., Cheever, Moore, Johnson, Barthleme) were nominated more than once, for different stories, so we tried to choose the most ‘classic’ of those stories. This was not exactly a scientific or objective process.” However, we stand behind the choices because they’re some of our favorites as well. What do you think, dear readers?

“For Esmé – with Love and Squalor” by JD Salinger

“For Esmé – with Love and Squalor” was originally published in 1950 in the New Yorker to great acclaim; it was later included in the collection Nine Stories. In “For Esmé…”, an American soldier is looking back on his encounter with a clever 13-year-old singer named Esmé who entreats him to write about something vile. (Lemony Snicket fans might remember Count Olaf’s fashion conscious, diabolical girlfriend, Esmé Squalor.)

“Silver Water” by Amy Bloom

In “Silver Water,” a woman explains her older sister’s mental decline, which begins in adolescence. Rose is an incredibly talented singer whose “voice was like mountain water in a silver pitcher,” but this failed her during stints in psychiatric institutions. The characters are so well drawn you’ll never notice how heartbreaking the story is — in fact, you’ll probably think it’s funny, and you’ll be right in thinking that. If interested, read the full story here, or find it in Bloom’s story collection, titled, Come to Me.

“The Dead” by James Joyce

The short of it: An extended family gets together in early January, presumably for the Feast of the Epiphany, and after dancing, the wife confesses to her insecure husband about a prior relationship which ended in tragedy. “The Dead” rounds out the end of Joyce’s collection, Dubliners, and is by far the longest story in the group, though it’s written so masterfully that you will have no trouble finishing it.

“Brownies” by ZZ Packer

The girl scouts in “Brownies” are going to “kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909,” which is filled with white girls who smell like Chihuahuas and carry Sleeping Beauty sleeping bags. The story is available in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.

“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Since we are dealing with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the title is literal. A couple named Pelayo and Elisenda discover an older, winged gentleman in their courtyard one day but are unable to communicate with him because he doesn’t speak their language. They soon begin profiting off their angel, trapping him in a chicken coop and then charging a fee to the townspeople so they can observe this curious creature. If you’d like to read more, this story is featured in the collection Leaf Storm.

“White Angel” by Michael Cunningham

We swear we don’t have a thing for angels. This story debuted in the New Yorker in 1988, and stars two brothers, Frisco and Carlton, as they navigate adolescence in Cleveland in the Sixties. This story can also be found in Cunningham’s novel, A Home at the End of the World.

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor

We wrote about this story in our disturbing novels post last week. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a southern family gets in a car accident and encounters a godless trio led by an escaped convict known as “the Misfit.” It gets worse from there. You can find this story in the collection by the same name here.

“Emergency” by Denis Johnson

Photo courtesy of the Lannan Foundation

What can we say? The staff at One Story have a thing for The New Yorker. “Emergency” first ran in the venerable publication in 1991, and was later included in Jesus’ Son. In the story, an unnamed narrator works the night shift at a hospital with Georgie, who is an orderly there. After taking some pills, they both see some crazy things happen, but we ultimately shouldn’t trust our unreliable narrator.

“Cathedral” by Raymond Carver

In “Cathedral,” the narrator explains, with a certain amount of jealousy, that his wife has invited an old friend to visit. The visitor is blind, and the narrator observes his actions throughout the dinner. In what is now classic Carver style, the descriptions are terse, minimal, and real. This is the last story in a collection by the same name here.

“Dance in America” by Lorrie Moore

In this story, our fair narrator spreads the gospel of dance in schools and colleges in Nebraska during the dead of winter. She meets up with her old friend, Cal, who owns a former frat house with his fiercely Francophile wife, Simone. “Dance in America” first appeared in 1993 in The New Yorker.

Some runners-up:

“The School” by Donald Barthelme “Goodbye, My Brother” by John Cheever “Why Don’t You Dance?” by Raymond Carver “Sea Oak” by George Saunders “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff