Powerful Short Fiction that Inspires

If you listen to recent reports short stories are apparently making a 'come back.' Collections are being nominated for more literary awards and winning them in instances as well. Most recently George Saunders collection Tenth of December was on multiple BEST lists last year. I don't think short fiction is making a resurgence per se, rather it's being acknowledged again as a powerful form of writing that is accessible, and, short. Short stories are what are often heavily studied in graduate programs and most often what is encouraged for critique in workshops because you can presumably review the whole thing in a session whereas a longer work would need a longer parsing for feedback and analysis. I'm entering year 7 of working on my linked short story collection and have been reading more short stories to get inspired by form but also by technique and the way the writer attacks characters and a subject. I see what works for me and what doesn't and the conciseness that can feel complete in a short story is something that does need to be studied and is helpful in all forms of writing.

So, here's a list of short fiction that bowled me over and that has definitely helped me to see the possibilities in the truncated form.

  • "Brokeback Mountain" by Annie Proulx - If you compare the story to the movie (or vice versa) you'll feel like you've gotten a full glimpse of the life of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist. Proulx's story is a bit long at 30 or more pages (typeset) but it spans a whole romance/lifetime. In as much as a paragraph Proulx manages to capture the physical details, emotions, the entirety of a meeting with Ennis and Jack so that you as reader feel as though you've watched a drawn out scene. To me, this story is one of the pinnacle showcases of a beginning, middle, and end. It encapsulates both men's struggles. Proulx succinctly describes people and actions with details like "indian burn" to a moment of strife and that's all you need. Silence is a powerful component as is brutality and "Brokeback Mountain" explains so much without being overdrawn. In the acknowledgments of her collection Wyoming Stories, Proulx notes that short fiction is hard for her, yet looking at this story in particular it seems as though she's a master of the form barely breaking a sweat.
  • "Cry, Cry, Cry" by Sherman Alexie - This story is hilarious with heart. The narrator reflects on his drug addicted cousin, watching the steady decline of a family member, and how he may have betrayed him. Alexie is great with brevity as well, providing snapshots as unique as "Shit, we got fake Bloods fake-fighting fake Crips. But they aren't brave or crazy enough to shoot at one another with real guns. No, they mostly yell out car windows. Fuckers are drive-by cursing." Mixed with the wit and wavering of a man not knowing what to do because he's expected to stand by his family out of obligation even when he knows it's bad for him and his soul. There's a connection to the voice and to the cousin from the first line and the pacing is perfect speedy yet languorous in the way you move through this world.
  • "Hurt People" by Cote Smith (One Story Magazine) - This was one of the stories that stuck out to me when I subscribed to One Story and I still have it to this day. Surprisingly this was Cote's first publication. To me this was a perfect story, a dark story, and a well-told story of two young boys left to their own devices. The title itself elicits not-so-good thoughts and from the first lines of seeing the dank living circumstances of these boys and what type of person their mother is has you clinging to the hope that they'll be okay. Smith makes you care for these characters from the start which is immediately effective and masterful for an emerging writer. I'd urge you to look up this story and read it because it's a testament of how you can find your voice.
  • "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien - Whether you're an English major or not you've more than likely read this story or the entire collection by award-winning writer Tim O'Brien. The reason for this is because of the tie-in. The description of each character by what they take with them in a time of battle, what represents them and what doesn't. What keeps each character going and how it can weigh each man down in various ways of what they may lose, have lost, or are scared of losing. The clipped illustrations are the most powerful part of the anthology by O'Brien, being in the muck and crap of these men and knowing that some won't make it. It's a story that has so many brilliant pieces you can't just choose one. To me, "The Things They Carried" is like a crash course in short story writing. Each line necessary, each one providing so much weight and promise. It's freaking brilliant.
  • "Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor - O'Connor is considered one of the best writers of short stories. And it's understandable why. Her stories tend to be bleak, but real. Her characters are always alive and what I love most is her first lines, especially in this story of noting how a character had two methods of operation "forward and reverse." The briefest of descriptions that gives a reader everything they need to know about a person straight off the bat. I'd encourage you to read all of O'Connor's fiction because her stories rarely go where you expect them to, and while characters may surprise you it's never out of context of the world she's built.
  • "The Pura Principle" by Junot Diaz - It's things like "The Four Horsefaces of the Apocalypse" that stick with you in a story like this one. Looking at the last months of his older brother's life the narrator notes a relationship of his brother and a woman who is downright toxic while also doing a balancing act of the brothers relationship and the mother/son relationship as people disappoint, just downright hurt one another, and deal with forgiveness knowing that time is short. Diaz's voice is distinct and confident and clear in all his prose and to me he just gets better and better.
  • "You Never Knew How the Waters Ran So Cruel So Deep" by Roxane Gay - I noted that Gay's debut was one of my fave reads of last year. And one of the stories I pinpoint is this one, that is a list. With 3 columns titled Date, Item(s), and Price, Gay reflects on the lengths a man will go to find freedom and take his wife there and how much he loses. It starts off hopeful and as the reader sees the price and items the list keeper tracks it becomes more and more realistic of how hard this voyage for freedom will be and whether the relationships that seemed tight initial will hold by the time you reach the last row.
  • "Great Rock and Roll Pauses" by Jennifer Egan - Another visual story that breaks the mold of story telling is short and really relies on a brevity of text and the graphics of a PowerPoint presentation to fully convey the relationships in a family that is troubled but not in trouble. The PPT is created by the teenage daughter who is witnessing it all and providing a journalistic play-by-play of her autistic brother, overworked father, and doting mother as they navigate how to get through a cruel world and the narrator sees how much weighs on her parents, her father specifically as a medical professional.
  • "Speaking in Tongues" by ZZ Packer - "Brownies" is the Packer story often found on BEST lists but I think this one is a standout from her debut Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. It's one of the longer stories in the collection and to me the most roundabout. In it a teen girl named Tia in search of her mother believing the grass is greener on the other side. Of course some stuff ensues and she gets entrusted with prostitutes and older men and her own sexuality (and ignorance of it) before realizing that she was better off in a world dictated for her than the one she thought she could navigate. This is a story with a journey that the character goes on that is rough at times and realistic and would also have some tsk at Tia's actions yet understand them all the same. This piece feels utterly complete.

Those are just some of my suggestions. I have a few more story collections to read on my shelf (many in my to read queue) and many lit mags to delve into so that I can find and learn from more to come.