“Creation” — Don DeLillo (1979)
“When I started thinking about myself as a writer, the work I did was almost exclusively devoted to the short story,” DeLillo told NPR. “I think many writers in those years started with a story — the American short story [is] such a classic form.” However, after publishing his first few stories in literary journals at the beginning of his career, DeLillo switched to novels and stayed there. Like his longer fiction, “Creation” evokes a distinct sense of wide space and a rather Kafkaesque struggle with authority, all in beautiful, simply stated prose.
“Considering the Bittersweet End of Susan Falls” — Adam Levin (2005)
Much like The Instructions , Levin’s mindblowingly-long first novel, published just last year to great acclaim, “Considering the Bittersweet End of Susan Falls” immediately identifies itself as part of a grand undertaking (the first section begins with the heading “Chapter 130,020”), and doesn’t disappoint. We’re holding our breath for Levin’s first book of short stories, Hot Pink , due out in March.
“Sacred Heart” — Jennifer Egan (1993)
Jennifer Egan rocked everyone’s world this year, winning the Pulitzer prize for her wonderful fourth novel A Visit From the Goon Squad . Though her first book was indeed a collection of short stories, Emerald City , originally published in the UK in 1993, she is definitely known for her novels. This story, which begins “In ninth grade I was a great admirer of Jesus Christ,” details the narrator’s obsession with her Catholic school’s other rebel, and manages to be utterly harrowing and desperately sweet all at once.
“Baster” — Jeffrey Eugenides (1996)
In this story, originally published in The New Yorker, 40-year-old Tomasina decides to inseminate herself via a turkey baster and the sperm of a married friend. Little does she know that her ex-beau and best friend Wally plans to switch the married sperm with his own at the insemination party Tomasina throws for herself. Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but it’s just as funny and touching as all of Eugenides’ much-lauded novels. Note: if the story sounds familiar, you may have seen The Switch, a middling 2010 film adaptation with Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman.
“Three Questions” — Leo Tolstoy (1885)
You wouldn’t necessarily expect the author of larger-than-life novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina to be able to corral his sprawling prose into something as tight as a short story, but corral he does. This succinct, satisfying parable was published as part of a little-known collection called What Men Live By and Other Tales . It may not be as dazzling as some of the others on this list, but hey, like eating your vegetables, it’s good for you.
“The Girl with Bangs” — Zadie Smith (2001)
This short story by the inimitable Zadie Smith is about a love affair between two young girls, but as far as we’re concerned, it could be about rocks and we would be held at rapt attention. “Charlotte was the kind of woman who has only two bras, both of them gray. But after a while, if you paid attention, you came to realize that she had a look about her like she just got out of a bed, no matter what time of day you collided with her (she had a stalk of a walk, never looked where she was going, so you had no choice) and this tendency, if you put under the heading ‘QUALITIES THAT GIRLS SOMETIMES HAVE,’ was a kind of poor relation of ‘BEDROOM EYES’ or ‘LOOKS LIKE SHE’S THINKING ABOUT SEX ALL THE TIME’ – and it worked. She always seemed to be stumbling away from someone else, toward you. A limping figure smiling widely, arms outstretched, dressed in rags, a smouldering city as backdrop. I had watched too many films, possibly.” Perfection.
“Flying Home” — Ralph Ellison (1944)
Ellison is of course remembered most for his novel Invisible Man . However, he did write some short fiction, after his death, his literary executor assembled a collection of his short stories, both published and unpublished, the gem of the bunch being “Flying Home,” in which a progressive black pilot literally crashes into the past — that is, rural Alabama — and is rescued by an old-fashioned sharecropper he won’t soon forget.
“The Comedian” — Colson Whitehead (2009)
Though we can safely say he’s now most famous for writing a highbrow novel about zombies, this hilarious story about a comedian who rises to fame on his truthful ‘confidences,’ which as far as he’s concerned, can be divided into two categories: People Are Disappointing and Everything is Terrible. However, it is neither Disappointing nor Terrible.
“The Region of Unlikeness” — Rivka Galchen (2008)
On her website, Rivka Galchen lists two works of fiction to her name: her acclaimed novel, Atmospheric Disturbances , and one short story (though we know she has written more, and we have even read more), “The Region of Unlikeness.” Like her novel, this story is hyper-intelligent, steeped in science, and a triumph of tragicomedy.
“Leaf by Niggle” — J.R.R. Tolkien (1938)
Obviously best known for his epic works of high fantasy, Tolkien also penned at least one short story, an allegorical tale of his own creative process and dealings with the world and his idea of a higher power. Originally published in the 1964 book Tree and Leaf alongside a revised version of his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” it’s fascinating to see Tolkien’s pen at work at something not elf-related.