And The Winner Is…Pt 3

I know you have just been waiting and waiting and waiting for this list of favorite short stories I’ve promised you for quite sometime now. Thanks again to all of you who put a vote in for your favorite. A few days ago, I posted the first place winner (“Pet Milk,” by Stuart Dybek) and the 17 others that tied for second, third and fourth place.

Many of you took the time to comment on why you made the choices you did, and I thank you for that. Patrick Salem, MFA candidate in Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago said this about “Sonny’s Blues,”The Ledge,” and “Hills Like White Elephants:”

Each time I read Baldwin’s I discover something new on the page, something compelling. Hall’s piece is just so menacing that I still feel a chill just thinking about it. And Hemingway’s subtle ending and vague conversation has me changing my mind about the third to last paragraph again and again.”

Right on, Patrick.

Lex Sonne, a recent graduate of the MFA Program at Columbia College Chicago is a fan of Larry Brown’s “Big Bad Love:”

“Humor and poignancy mixed perfectly. The protagonist’s voice reminds me of a friend of mine that lives in Louisville—makes it a little more special for me.”

Thanks, Lex.

Who knows why we make the choices that we do? I imagine something speaks to us at a certain moment in time when we stumble across a particular story, or it might be that we find ourselves turning back to a story again and again. It seems as though many of you (like me) are intrigued with stories that lean toward the dark. “Full of menace,” one person wrote about his choices. “Gorgeous and brutal,” wrote someone else. Kathie Bergquist, Chicago writer and teacher added this to her choices: “I guess I am a sucker for moments of quiet epiphany and memento mori.” Todd Mercer of Michigan Writers wanted to make sure we add the mythic Hemingway six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Other commentary is mixed in here and there with the selections. By the way, if you find some nonfiction titles in here, too, blame it on writer and reader Dakota Sexton who tells us that a good story is just a good story, fiction or non.

One more thing that I think is pretty cool. Two people who sent me titles of their favorite short stories are also among the authors who made it into the list: Gerard Woodward and John McNally.

Okay, so finally, finally, finally a very non-exhaustive list of favorite short stories as selected by a number of my friends and readers (those who were willing to weigh in, that is!) on a particular day at a particular time.

“Compassion,” Dorothy Allison

“Rape Fantasies,” Margaret Atwood

“My First Goose, Isaac Babel

“The Catholic Church in Novgorod,” Isaac Babel [below] (“the Constantine Translations, of course,” Daniel Prazer, ERP Books editor and writer wanted us to know.)

“My Man Bovanne,” Toni Cade Bambara

“Hermit’s Story,” Rick Bass

“The Legend of Pig Eye,” Rick Bass

“Quiet Please,” Aimee Bender

“Big Bad Love,” Larry Brown

“Distance of the Moon,” Italo Calvino

“So Much Water, So Close to Home,” Raymond Carver

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” Raymond Carver

“I Demand To Know Where You’re Taking Me,” Dan Chaon

“Misery,” Anton Chekov

“The Open Boat,” Stephen Crane

“The Ursula Cookie,” Sloane Crosley

“Open Winter,” H.L. Davis

“The Sun, The Moon and The Star,” Juno Diaz

“Notes For A Story Of A Man Who Will Not Die Alone,” Dave Eggers

“After I Was Thrown In The River And Before I Drowned,” Dave Eggers

“Shamengwa,” Louise Erdrich

“A Rose For Emily,” William Faulkner               

“Barn Burning,” William Faulkner

“Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera,” Ben Fountain

“Chivalry,” Neil Gaiman

“The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“Jury of Her Peers,” Susan Glaspell

“The Nose,” Nicolai Gogol

“A Clean Well Lighted Place,” Ernest Hemingway

“The Big Two-Hearted River,” Ernest Hemingway

“Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep,” Amy Hempel

“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” Amy Hempel

“Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” Denis Johnson

“The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson

“Charles,” Shirley Jackson

“Who’s Irish?,” Gish Jen

“Araby,” James Joyce

“The Metamorphosis,” Franz Kafka

“What, Of This Goldfish Would You Wish?,” Etgar Keret

“The Hitchhiking Game,” Milan Kundera

“A Temporary Matter,” Jhumpa Lahiri

“The Third and Final Continent,” Jhumpa Lahiri

“The Rocking Horse Winner,” D.H. Lawrence (“Always, always, always,” says Katie Corboy)

“Travels with the Snow Queen,” Kelly Link

“The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“All Sorts of Impossible Things,” John McGahern (Michael Downs, author of House of Good Hope, says that this story describes this idea of choosing one favorite)

“The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“Royal Beatings,” Alice Munro

“The Thunderstorm,” by Vladimir Nabokov. Ryan Sinon, adjunct faculty member of Columbia College Chicago says: “Nabokov grabbed me by the shoulders and turned me toward what would eventually become my thesis material. It showed me how to have fun; it showed me how to write with one foot on the ground and one foot in the sky.”

“Video,” Mira Nair

“Everything that Rises Must Converge,” Flannery O’Connor

“The Life you save may be your own,” Flannery O’Connor

“Revelation,” Flannery O’Connor

“The Bullfighter Checks her Makeup,” Susan Orlean

“The Isabel Fish,” Julie Orringer

“Brownies,” ZZ Packer

“Trilobites,” Breece D’J Pancake. “The vast depth of that story makes it a sort of adventure to explore all the things being done on the page,” says MFA candidate Derek Johnson.

“Punch Drunk,” Chuck Palahniuk

“Like a Winding Sheet,” Ann Petry

“The Tell-Tale Heart,” Edgar Allen Poe

“The End of Firpo in the World,” George Saunders

“Tralala,” Hubert Selby

“The Queen Is Dead,” Hubert Selby

“Johnny Bear,” John Steinbeck

“The Fly Paper,” Elizabeth Taylor

“The Kreutzer Sonata,” Leo Tolstoy

“Of this Time, Of That Place,” Lionel Trilling (one of my favorites, by the way! PMc)

“The Dabba Dabba Tree,” Yasutaka Tsutsui

“A&P,” John Updike                                                                                                     

“The Lovely Troubled Daughters of Our Old Crowd,” John Updike

“Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut

“No Place For You, My Love,” Eudora Welty

“Why I Live At The PO,” Eudora Welty

“The Portrait of Mr W. H.,” Oscar Wilde

So that’s the rest of the list of titles. There were a few other suggestions from readers, including “Any of Cortazar’s stories,” and “Anything short by Murakami.”

Perhaps one of the sweetest things, though, was sent by an old boyfriend of mine from a few decades ago: “My favorite short story was written 30 years ago, with no name, no title, no author, no ending.” I think he was talking about us.

But maybe he wasn’t, and I am just full of myself. Hmmm.

This week, “Why the Short Story, A Conversation Among Writers” continues with posts from Gina Frangello, Vanessa Gebbie, and me. Y’all come back now, hear?←

Why The Short Story? “Goosebumps,” says Dennis McFadden

Photo Credit: Heidi Brown

Dennis McFadden lives and writes in an old farmhouse called Mountjoy on Bliss Road, just up Peaceable Street from Harmony Corners in upstate New York.  “Diamond Alley,” from his collection of linked stories, Hart’s Grove (Colgate University Press, June, 2010), was recently selected for inclusion in Houghton Mifflin’s The Best American Mystery Stories 2011.  His fiction has appeared in dozens of publications, including The Missouri Review, New England Review, The Massachusetts Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Crazyhorse, CutBank and The South Carolina Review.

Dennis and I met years ago at Stonecoast Writers’ Conference in Maine (we were housed on the Bowdoin Campus where we walked the same paths that Lawrence Sargent Hall did.) We were both trying to fine the balance between our “real” lives and our writing lives. Dennis was better at that than I, and his truly fine debut collection shows just what hard work and tenacity can get you. His insightful answer to “Why the short story?” is below, as is his follow-up question, “How the short story?”

Dennis: I was flattered when my friend Patty asked me to join this conversation about writerly things with some of her writerly pals, flattered and perhaps (that is, “per” “haps”) a bit flummoxed. My credentials can’t compete. Unlike Patty and Gina and Vanessa, I’m neither a teacher, nor an editor, nor a full-time writer. I’ve had one book published. I’m a state worker, a project manager for the New York State Department of Health who tries to write an hour or two in the morning before work. My apprehension was validated when Patty kicked off the conversation with “Why the short story?” and all I could come up with was, well, why not the short story? Because it’s short, that’s why. Then, when I saw the eloquent and elaborate offerings of my co-conversationalists, I knew I was in trouble.

But one of my mother’s favorite stories came to mind, and I was granted a modicum of hope. Good old mom. According to her, I was no more than two or three when I looked out the bus window at a busy Washington, D.C. sidewalk and said, “Look at all the pedestrians.” Was that not eloquent? And, anytime you use a word with more syllables than your years, elaborate?

Still, there weren’t many books around my place when I was a kid. Nobody’d gone to college. Dad told a few bad jokes when he was drunk, but no bedtime stories. I remember getting my hands on some Hardy Boys books, and enjoying them, and when I was 15, I picked up a paperback called Boy With a Gun. It was, coincidentally, about a 15-year-old boy. It takes place during the Hungarian uprising, and the kid’s father and brother are killed, and he ends up fighting in the revolution, and he and this 15-year-old chick are crazy about each other, but the end left me hanging. The kid was still fighting. The war wasn’t over. He and the chick still weren’t together. What happened? What the hell happened? I had to know. So I wrote to the author, James Dean Sanderson, and asked him, and he actually wrote back! I tore open the envelope, about to have all my questions answered, all the mysteries revealed. But he didn’t tell me a damn thing. He was flattered, he said, that the book had affected me that way. He suggested I write an ending. I should write the damn ending! I should talk to my English teacher—I might even be able to earn credit for it.

The bastard.

Maybe that planted a seed, I don’t know, but I never entertained writing, not seriously, until my senior year, when my English teacher spotted my “talent,” and singled me out for high and frequent praise. His name was MacBeth. That’s right. MacBeth.

How could I then not go on to college and major in English? I became known as a writer, a couple of stories published in the old “lit mag.” I was on my way. Then a funny thing happened. I took off 10 or 12 years after college to drink and party. And when I finally did get back to writing, it was to the novel, not the short story. My third book was pretty good, good enough to get me an honest-to-God New York City literary agent. But alas. All she succeeded in doing was getting me a higher class of rejection slips, and she dumped me after a year. In my state of despair, Irish activism caught me on the rebound, and I spent the next fifteen years getting England out of Ireland (no hard feelings, Philip, Vanessa). All I wrote during that period was propaganda, but I wrote it well and I wrote it plenty. And you know what? It wasn’t bad practice. Some of those satirical pieces are very much like short stories.

They had to be short. The old attention span blues that Gina referenced.

So maybe we’re on to something here. Short satire evolved into short stories as Irish activism fell by the wayside when peace broke out (thanks in large part to me, I like to think).

So why didn’t I go back to writing novels? Oh…just thinking out loud here…maybe because I hadn’t had one published? Just a thought. Maybe because I was getting older now, the green banana syndrome, hesitant to begin any two year projects? Maybe because I loved the high of finishing a story and craved it more often? I became addicted, jonesing for finishes.

It’s not that I really prefer one to the other, the novel and the short story. I read both, write both. I can become equally immersed—reading or writing—in both. The aforementioned Boy With a Gun, Plunkett’s Strumpet City, Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, Nichols’s The Sterile Cuckoo—these are novels that have stayed with me all my life. On the other hand, I (like my new found friend, Vanessa) will never forget “The Ledge” by Lawrence Sargent Hall, nor Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Farmer’s Children,” George Saunders’s “The Falls,” and any number of other stories, particularly those with an Alice Munro byline.

In the end, it probably comes down to goosebumps.

A few years ago I was sitting around a table at Stonecoast listening to Patty read a George Saunders story called “The End of FIRPO in the World.” Toward the end, I felt a wave of goosebumps breaking out on my arms, on my neck and back. Not for the first time, nor the last. Same thing happened toward the end of “The Ledge,” and many other stories I’ve heard or read—including, I’ll shamelessly admit, my own story, “Painting Pigs.” Same thing almost every time I write what is, at the time at least, the last sentence of a new story.

On the other hand, much as I enjoy novels, I don’t recall a single goosebump ever caused by one (though, admittedly, a single goosebump might be difficult to detect).

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I put it to you.

The goosebumps have it. For me at any rate, that’s why the short story.

Now I’m curious as to how the short story. (We can defer what the short story, who, where and when the short story for later.)

How the short story? We’re talking conception here. Do you decide to write a story, or does a story decide to be written? One moment there’s nothing there, blotto, oblivion, nothingness, and the next there’s a seed that leads, a week, a month or years later to a fully formed, complex and meaningful story. Do you will it into existence, or is it a matter of spontaneous combustion?

How does it happen? A theme? An event? A character? Something else altogether? Is there any discernable method or pattern, or is inspiration random and chaotic? Thinking through my collection, one story originated from a buried childhood memory of snow floating down through the glow of a streetlight and covering a park bench. The scene itself never made it into the story. Another was inspired when I imagined how a gaudy Christmas light display might piss off the guy’s neighbor, another was sparked by a news article about a deathbed confession, and yet another by an actual experience (finding a kid lost in the woods) of my nephew.

What do you use and how do you use it? And, just as importantly, are you really using it, or is it using you?

And the Winner Is…pt 1

The votes are still being tallied for Favorite Short Story, and this being Chicago, many of the voters are following our city motto: “Vote Early and Often.”

So far, though, more than 60 separate short story titles have been named favorites by more than 50 readers. And this is just a small sampling of the reading public – my friends and Facebook followers. Take that, book publishers. Not only are short stories being read, they are being adored, re-read, recommended, and shared. If you print it, we will read.

Many people have taken the time to comment on their choices, and I offer a small sampling of these responses to you now:

‘I have a three-way tie for my favorite short story so in no particular order, “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, “The Ledge” by Lawrence Sargent Hall, and “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway. Each time I read Baldwin’s I discover something new on the page, something compelling. Hall’s piece is just so menacing that I still feel a chill just thinking about it. And Hemingway’s subtle ending and vague conversation has me changing my mind about the third to last paragraph again and again.’  – Patrick J Salem, editor of Chicago Pulp Stories

‘My favorite short story, without a close rival for me, is, “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”, by Oscar Wilde. A theory described by his character, Erskine, of the mystery of Shakespeare’s dedication of his book of sonnets in 1609, to a, Mr. W.H.
The story is part fable, part criticism, part legacy and treatise, and the chararcters are warmly absorbing. Plus Wilde’s theory is in part; conceptually conceivable. Written with eloquence as I find all of Wilde’s stories; this ends in a subtle, somber fashion, unlike many of his other short stories which present, in physical form; flowers, gems, money, and gold and various magical manifestions, despite the sorrow, death and suicide often at the center of the story. Truly a good read, and I would suggest this for a cozy, quiet afternoon.’ – Dale Stroker, Florida

‘Shirley Jackson. “The Lottery.” Scared the crap out of me when I was 13. Still does.’ – Jo Cates, Dean of the Library, Columbia College Chicago

‘Too many to name! I agree about “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and would add the obscure John Steinbeck story, “Johnny Bear.” Aimee Bender’s “Quiet Please” for a more recent work.’ – Carrie Etter, poet, UK

And the following was pulled from a much longer comment posted by Philip Hartigan to Gina Frangello’s answer to “Why the Short Story?” You can read the rest of this on the comments section of that page.

‘Tolstoy’s ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ (which may be considered a novella, but never mind). Why? Because it’s like a miniature version of ‘Anna Karenina’, showing how love can be so dangerous that it can lead to the utmost extreme of human experience (suicide for Anna, wife-icide in ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’).

John McNally’s ‘The Vomitorium’. There’s something about certain writers who are in complete command of their art: when you start reading them, it’s like the difference between turning the ignition in a mini, and starting the engine in a Rolls-Royce (I’ve done both, by the way). John McNally’s prose purrs like an RR engine. And it’s so moving, too — the final gesture of this story is funny, kind of silly, and yet extremely moving.

And most recently, I read ‘Rape’, by Gerard Woodward, from his collection ‘Caravan Thieves’. Patty put me onto his work, as he was her colleague when she spent a semester at Bath Spa University. The eponymous word refers to a field rather than an act — though the act that occurs in the story is strange, surreal, and surprising.

In case this sounds like a series of short reviews, let me say that I picked these stories after asking myself: which short stories come to mind right now? That these three came to the fore is not just a testament to the emotional depth and artistry of the authors, but the unique ability of the short story form to present condensed (yet in the case of Tolstoy, not exactly short) meditations on the world.’

I’ll be closing the polls this weekend and updating you with the final results and more comments passed along by readers, writers, and friends.

In the meantime, long live the short story!

Oh, and by the way (shameless self-promotion here) I’ll be reading tomorrow night with Criminal Class Press. Full details on the upcoming events page.

Why The Short Story?

Like so many writers, I loved to read when I was a child. I remember SRA books—do you remember those? You’d have to be of a certain age, and maybe of a certain region of the world. Anyway, SRA was a reading comprehension program for grade schoolers where you could read at your own pace, answer questions on a little quiz, and move onto the next book, the next level, and so on. They were stories, really, not books. Small pamphlets of one short story each. There were at least two educational premises going at once here with this program: 1.) independent learning; and 2.) speed reading for comprehension. Now I have to say that while I loved these little stories (I wish I could remember some of them, but we are talking decades ago and probably not the highest caliber of literature) I was not very good at advancing up through the ranks of readership. (Colors, there were colors. The pamphlets bore a certain band of color on their edges as did their question cards. A new rank, a new color. Like karate belts. Like national safety travel advisories at the airport. Only the colors on the SRA stories were not boring old white, black, brown, orange and red, but lovely, as I recall, fuchsia and teal and turquoise—is this true or just the fondness of the memory?—colors that little kids in the 60s would be attracted to, would strive for.) Still, it would take me a long time to move from fuchsia to teal, not because I wasn’t a good or avid reader, but because I was a slow reader. A careful reader. A savor-er. (Here I will insert that even today, in my fifth decade, I eat my ice cream with a tiny spoon, a kid’s-sized utensil. I want to enjoy every little bite.) I make no apologies for being a slow reader. Just last night while I was reading about the work of an orderly and a doctor (Enos) in the title story of Melanie Rae Thon’s collection First, Body, I found myself reading over and over again these sentences: “These exchanges became the sacrament, transubstantiated in the bodies of startled men and weary children. Sometimes the innocent died and the faithless lived. Sometimes the blind began to see. Enos said, ‘We save bodies, not souls.’” I read them with my lips moving, something they tried to teach us—as we plowed through our SRA stories—would slow our reading down. As though reading faster was reading better.

I was also a student of the phonics. We’ve all seen these commercials in which the little kids are reading something very difficult from an encyclopedia, with words like transubstantiated and sacrament, and while they pronounce everything very well, it is clear that they have absolutely no understanding of what they are saying. Perhaps because my teachers gave us things to read that made sense to us, stories we could relate to and understand, learning how to read a word out loud by using sounds was instrumental in my educational process. I can still remember reading the word “perhaps” for the first time. “Per,” I sounded out, and then “haps.” It might have been one of the first two-syllable words that I could read on the page; I was very young, and I was so excited by the feat. It became my favorite word for a while. One that I had heard and used often before this, but it found a way just about everything I said. My standard answer to most questions.

“Want to come over and play after school?”


“Can I have a bite of your sandwich?”


“Did you finish your homework?”


“Will you have your parents sign your report card?”


Mostly, though, what brought me to reading—and later, writing—was STORY. I loved stories. I loved reading them, telling them, hearing them, writing them. My father, Wilbur McNair (1919-1974,) was great at telling stories. Tall tales. Tales of bullfighting and solo flying and conferring with presidents and kings. (He did none of these things. I knew that, and yet, I was enchanted by his tales. What little girl wouldn’t be?) Sometimes I’d tell him stories, too, often drawn from the ones I’d read myself, taking on the leading role, the part of the main character.

In my early adulthood, though, reading became less important to me. Why was that? Too many late nights at the clubs, too many hangovers, too many friends who didn’t read at all, maybe. Dancing. Now that was important. Flirtation. But then, in the early 1980s, I found this little book: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I know you know it. Raymond Carver. And regardless what you think about Carver or that literary generation’s minimalism or Gordon Lish or any of these things, I am not afraid to admit that these stories opened up a world to me. They were manageable (some no longer than those tiny stories in my SRA books long ago) and moving. They were brutal and they were fearless. I didn’t know that stories could do that. I didn’t know you could tell these things, say them out loud. And since they were so short, they helped me build my reading muscles up again. Like running a mile on your way to a marathon. I’d enrolled in my first writing class at Columbia College Chicago and was assigned Black Boy by Richard Wright, and this, too, drew me back into the magical world of the printed page.

But the short story, yes the short story. “Palm Wine,” by Reginald McKnight. “The Story of an Hour,” by Kate Chopin, “Araby,” by James Joyce. “The Lesson,” by Toni Cade Bambara. “Rape,” by Gerard Woodward. “Morgan,” by John Schultz. “Girl,” by Jamaica Kincaid. “The Vomitorium,” by John McNally. “Pet Milk,” by Stuart Dybek. “A Temporary Matter,” by Jhumpa Lahiri. “A&P,” by John Updike. “Diamond Alley,” by Dennis McFadden. “Letters from Kilburn,” by Vanessa Gebbie. “How To Marry a Wasp,” by Gina Frangello. I have far too many favorites to name them all. Is there anything better than reading these? Why do publishers, agents, editors say we can’t sell short story collections? How wonderful they are, moments of life and imagination gathered together in a few pages. They can be like the three-minute pop song that gets it just right in three verses and a chorus. They can be bigger than that, a series of narrative lines that curve and braid and lead the reader to connections she considers for the first time. They have the capacity for grace and for resonance. They can be consumed on-line at the bank (does anyone stand in line at the bank anymore?) or on the subway ride to work or after you’ve turned off the television but before you turn off the light. Nowadays they can live on your cell phone (that’s your mobile, my British friends, check out and in the pages of clothing catalogues and are spoken over the radio.

I love the short story. I love writing them. I love reading them. And I know that I am not alone.

Over the next few weeks, I will be engaged in a virtual conversation with four award-winning short story writers, Gina Frangello (Slut Lullabies,) Vanessa Gebbie (Storm Warning,) Dennis McFadden (Hart’s Grove) about various writerly, readerly and other things. We will pose questions to one another, and as I gather the answers, I will post them on my blog. Feel free to join in the conversation yourself, if you would like. Comments are always welcome.

My first question, then, is inspired by my ramblings above: Why the short story?