Short stories get the better of me. When I read novels, I can hit pause when the story becomes too much, too uncomfortable or hits a little too close to home. Novels are brilliant, in their own way, but I prefer the gut-wrenching punch of a good short story, straight to the stomach.
I often get frustrated when trying to remember a good line from a novel; a line that, at the time, I felt perfectly described what I was feeling, or got the intricacy of what it means to be human just right. So many of my favourite lines from my favourite novels have been lost in their hundreds of pages, their resonance felt for only a moment before the narrative inevitably moves on. Novels, especially the good ones, might stay with me for a few days after I have finished them, leaving me in a strange sense of limbo between fiction and reality. After a time though, they have more of a dream-like quality – you can never quite remember them, they become hazy and just out of reach. I have just a partial, almost drunk memory of all the wonderful books I read while at university (and it wasn’t to do with drinking, I promise).
Short stories, on the other hand, do stick. My favourite short story collections are etched into my memory and I can still revisit the feeling they provoked, even years later. Virginia Woolf’s The Mark on the Wall still perfectly captures how my mind wanders; Roxane Gay’s Ayiti still feels painful, dark and visceral; Kristen Roupenian’s viral internet sensation Cat Person still makes me shudder. Short stories stare you in the face until eye contact is no longer bearable. They are the novel’s intrusive, difficult cousin, hell-bent on making you feel uncomfortable.
My introduction to short stories has been mainly accidental. The cover usually draws me in at first, followed by the author. Bonus points if she’s a woman. I don’t know what it is about short fiction as a genre that makes it so occupied by brilliant female writers, but once I’d stumbled upon them, I found myself lost in the works of Angela Carter, Jean Rhys, Anaїs Nin, Roxane Gay, Margaret Atwood and Sylvia Plath, to name but a handful. Perhaps it’s because my English Literature degree was littered with male novelists and poets that I felt drawn to a more female-dominated form. It was no surprise to me when I found out that last year’s BBC short fiction awards (which are judged blind) had picked an all-female shortlist for the fifth time.
Whatever the reason for my infatuation, it has stayed with me and I find myself more often than not picking up a collection of short stories instead of defaulting to a long novel. Perhaps their immediacy appeals to my (millennial) need for instant gratification, but I think it is more than that. Short fiction truly gets to the core of what it means to be human, and, in the case of my favourites, what it means to be a woman.
Below are my picks of the best gut-punching short story collections to get your teeth into. I didn’t intend to pick exclusively female writers, but I guess it’s a happy accident considering that it is Women’s History Month.
Stories: Collected Stories by Susan Sontag
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
Ayiti by Roxane Gay
Selected Short Stories by Virginia Woolf
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I hope you enjoy them and let me know your favourite short story collections in the comments – I am always on the look out for my next read.