In his Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Pierce defined a novel as “a short story padded.” This is an all too apt description. The inability to prune a story to its essential story is an unfortunate quality shared by many modern writers and the primary reason that bookshelves are filled with bloated novels. William Faulkner once wondered if writers didn’t become novelists after having failed at the short story, “the most demanding form after poetry.” Perhaps this is the reason there are even fewer great short stories than there are great novels.
Since I don’t presume to know what works would fill the category of “greatest short fiction” (that’s a task better suited for Alan Jacobs), the following list of short stories is not intended to be representative of the best or most profound works in a particular category. These are merely my favorite twenty-five stories (at least the ones I could remember) and not necessarily the ones I would argue are the best. (Yes, I know. This is a bit of a cop-out and deviation from the series format. But since this is a holiday weekend I’m feeling less contentiously opinionated than usual.)
Except for the first entry—which I would argue is one of the greatest of all times—the list is in no particular order. Links to the stories are provided whenever the stories are available online.
1. Flannery O’ Connor, Parker’s Back (The last story O’Connor wrote should be, in my estimation, the first on any list of great short stories.)
2. Leo Tolstoy, Three Questions
3. Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It
4. Frank Stockton, The Lady or the Tiger?
5. W.W. Jacobs, The Monkey’s Paw
7. Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster
8. George Saunders, Pastoralia
9. Jonathan Lethem, Hardened Criminals (A strange tale that describes a prison in which walls are made entirely out of convicts.)
10. Flannery O’Connor, Good Country People (A Cinderella story—Southern Gothic style)
11. Ring Lardner, Haircut
12. Shusaku Endo, The Final Martyrs (A moving tale of cowardly regret by one of Japan’s best Christian writers.)
13. Ernest Hemingway, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place
14. Thom Jones, The Pugilist at Rest
15. Franz Kafka, A Hunger Artist
16. Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
17. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Birth-mark
18. James Thurber, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
19. Shirley Jackson, The Lottery (A brilliant piece of fiction from a most underrated genre—horror.)
20. Jack London, To Build A Fire
21. Richard Connell, The Most Dangerous Game
22. John Cheever, The Swimmer (On first reading this story I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. But it’s subtlety is its power. Years later I still can’t forget the haunting ending.)
23. Flannery O’ Connor, A Good A Man Is Hard To Find
24. George Saunders, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
25. Jonathan Lethem, The Happy Man (The soul of the main character in this strange story makes occasional visits to hell. His body, though, remains behind in a zombie-like state to be cared for by his exhaustively patient family. A peculiar, moving tale of speculative fiction by one of the best writers in America.)
Honorable Mention—The shortest short story Ernest Hemingway ever wrote is one of his best—and only six words long: “For Sale: Baby shoes, never Worn.”
Which stories make your list?