31 March 2007

A Little List

Lists always grab my attention. They are potential stories, full of possibilities between their items. I love to move the pieces around in my imagination and see what sorts of sounds and shapes they produce. Restrictions on lists particularly appeal to me -- what constraints do they have to meet? How creatively do they meet them? Personal lists are fun, too, in what they reveal about the list-maker. (Many fine writers -- Thomas Disch and Gilbert Sorrentino come immediately to mind -- have used lists to great effect in their work, efficiently and amusingly revealing much about characters and situations, attitudes and moments.)

By clicking through various webpages without reading very carefully, I somehow ended up at this collection of lists of what short stories writers would include in an introductory level course on "the short story". From the lists, I started evaluating not only which writers I would like to take a class with, but which writers' lists made me curious to read their own fiction. Some of the lists are staid, predictable, and unimaginative, and fairly or unfairly I imagined the list-makers' own stories as likely to be similar, while other lists (e.g. those of Lynn Coady, Peter Darbyshire, Tony Burgess, Tim Conley, and a few others) are marvelous.

And then I got to thinking that it would be fun to make a list of some sort, because I haven't for a while. Something a little odd, perhaps. After a nanosecond or so of thought, I came up with this idea: A list of 5 stories that I wish I had read sooner than I did -- stories that might have helped me become a better writer or thinker or person or something, stories that I wish I could put in a time machine and send back to myself before I first encountered them. I decided to add another criterion: Each story must be available online. So here we go...
  • "The School" by Donald Barthelme. A story I read out loud every year to my students, which probably is a sign of some sort of dementia, but it reads aloud so well, and it's a perfect blend of humor and horror, absurdity and profundity. I first read it in college, I think, or maybe a little later. I would have loved encountering it in high school -- it might have sparked a more complex passion for fiction than I had then.

  • "Ward No. 6" by Anton Chekhov. I dithered between including this or including "Gusev", which is, I think, a better story, but I settled on "Ward No. 6" because I would like to send this story back to get myself to read Chekhov's fiction sooner. I developed a love for his plays my freshman year of college, but it took much longer for me to learn to appreciate his short stories. Partly, I think this happened because I started with the wrong stories -- I started with "The Kiss" and a few others that are lovely but not stories I really feel passionate about even now. "Ward No. 6" has, for Chekhov, a relatively strong plot, and it's a brilliantly rich and thorough tale, wonderously and intricately constructed.

  • "The Golem" by Avram Davidson. I first read this story three years ago. I'd read other Davidson stories and enjoyed them, but it wasn't until I read "The Golem" that I sought out every Davidson book I could find. It was, for whatever reason, exactly the right story to make me not only appreciate his work, but adore it.

  • "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" by Kelly Link. I don't know what the first Kelly Link story I read was, but it was probably this one, though it might have been "Louise's Ghost". Whichever one it was, it wasn't nearly soon enough. Link is a writer I wish I'd paid attention to when she first began publishing, because just about at that time -- the mid to late 1990s -- was when I was not finding much contemporary fiction that excited me. I finally picked up a copy of Stranger Things Happen, her first collection, after numerous people told me I would love it. I realized then that for years I had had a copy of the issue of Century magazine with her story "Water Off a Black Dog's Back" in it, but had never bothered to read it. Stupid me!

  • "A Country Doctor" by Franz Kafka. Though I discovered Kafka when fairly young, I focused mainly on things like "The Metamorphosis" and the novels. I somehow missed "A Country Doctor" and first read it, I think, five or six years ago after reading something William Gass wrote about it, though I don't remember where or quite what he said. In any case, the story was a revelation, different in feeling from a lot of Kafka's other work, and so beautifully constructed. I think it's the sort of story I would have puzzled over for hours and hours when I was a teenager, and I would have enjoyed that experience immensely.
This exercise was harder than I expected it would be, because so few of the stories I would have wanted on such a list were available online. Normally, I would find choosing 5 stories to be nearly impossible -- choosing 50 would be hard enough -- but the limitation of having online texts made it much simpler, though not as representative of certain techniques and ideas as I would like. Nonetheless, an interesting list, at least for me.


  1. "A Country Doctor" and all the stories in that particular mini-collection are my favorites of Kafka's work. I read them before
    "The Metamorphosis" and "The Judgment" somehow, around age 19. I did puzzle over it for a long time, in a really joyful way.

  2. Hey, I am totally with you on "The School" by Barthelme. In fact I just taught it last Friday to my high school sophomores (along with Barthelme's story "Game.") They loved it.

  3. I did read "Ein Landartz" ("A Country Doctor") in my mid-teens, but what really won my heart was "In der Strafkolonie" ("In the Penal Colony"). Wonderful, wonderful story.


  4. Thanks for that link. One of my colleagues is teaching a short story course next year, and she'll probably use The Story and Its Writer, a fine collection. Points of View, which we had back in my high school days, has been updated, and is also a fine collection.

    The problem is that we need a kind of iTunes for the short story, a place where you could download fiction for a small fee. Otherwise, when we try to create the (idiosyncratically) perfect set of stories for a class, we invariably end up photocopying copywritten material, picking one story from this book, one from another, and so on. Certainly, some stories are available online, but not the bulk of the ones we would want.

  5. "A Country Doctor" - I was really inspired by this short story of Kafka. He was trying to enlighten the reader about the true meaning of our life; that life is not being successful in our chosen field, but it is how we become a man of virtue.