Short Stories

Short stories: great literature

Female authors have won a clutch of short story awards this year. It's a form women excel at, says Sarah Crown. Below, she profiles six of the best

The Guardian, Friday 11 December 2009

Novelist Kate Clanchy, who has just won the 2009 BBC National Short Story award. Photograph: Sarah Lee

Given that 2009 looks set to live in literary memory as the year that brought us Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, Jordan: Pushed to the Limit and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it is important to take comfort where it can be found – in the sudden and splendid blossoming of the short story. What's more, in 2009, it is women who have been picking up the laurels.

In May, Alice Munro, modern-day virtuoso of the short form, was awarded the £60,000 Man Booker International prize in recognition of a body of work that the judges described as "practically perfect". Last week, Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah ran away with the Guardian's own fiction prize, the First Book award, for her collection, An Elegy for Easterly. And this year's BBC National Short Story award made headlines for the fact that its five-strong shortlist was made up entirely of women – on Monday evening it was won by Kate Clanchy. Naturally, as is always the case when it comes to women excelling in a field, everyone is on the hunt for a reason.

Might it be that the form itself is particularly suited to "female" subjects; to women's perceived preoccupation with the domestic, with relationships' subtle ebbs and flows? Certainly, the short story's taut boundaries can act as a check, condensing the sprawl of family life into gleaming droplets faceted with the sort of insights that might easily dissolve over the course of a novel. The problem, obviously, lies in the suggestion that these subjects are specific to women. Male short story writers are equally alive to the form's usefulness for grappling with these sort of small-scale situations. Just think of William Trevor – or Chekhov, for that matter.

The second suggestion that generally surfaces is that women turn to short stories because they are easier to slip into the spaces in days that may be overstuffed with paid work and a pram (or two) in the hall. Munro herself seemed to support this view when she said: "In 20 years, I've never had a day when I didn't have to think about someone else's needs. And this means the writing has to be fitted around it." But are short stories simpler to write, just because they're shorter? James Lasdun, himself a former winner of the National Short Story award, doesn't think so. "I'm not sure [short fiction] is necessarily better suited to a life full of interruptions than writing novels might be," he says. "Personally I find it the most demanding and time-consuming of all literary forms."

Perhaps, then, the real question isn't why women are winning prizes for their short stories, but why they are less likely to win them for novels. One possibility is that when women tackle the domestic sphere on the grander scale, their efforts tend to be packaged as "women's fiction" (for marketing purposes) and dismissed accordingly. Short stories, on the other hand, are famously uncommercial; that, coupled with the perceived exactingness of the form and its heavyweight literary lineage, means that short stories by women are taken seriously – and awarded accordingly.

Whatever the reason, their current success has the welcome effect of reminding us that great writing doesn't have to be set on the grand scale. And for anyone wanting to read some world-class short story writing, here are six essential authors to start with.

Katherine Mansfield

Born into a well-to-do New Zealand family in 1888, Mansfield was sent to school in London and at 20 moved to Europe permanently. An early and ardent admirer of Chekhov, she was part of a circle of modernist writers that included Virginia Woolf and TS Eliot. Her short stories, which dwell on the relationships between middle-class men and women and the endless ways in which they crumble, show both of these influences.

At her best – and she is rarely less than her best – there is something rapturous about her work: through her acute eye and cool, appraising descriptions, she has the power to distil the apparently inconsequential into frozen moments laden with significance. She died of tuberculosis in 1923, aged 34.

Three to read: Bliss and Miss Brill (both from Bliss, and Other Stories), The Woman at the Store (from Something Childish and Other Stories).

Grace Paley

The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, Paley grew up in the Bronx in New York in the 1920s – a double-inheritance that would inform both the substance of her fiction and her committed political activism. After the success of her first collection, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), a hymn to the shift and glitter of Jewish New York life, her publisher tried to nudge her into novel-writing; she worked at a draft for several years but finally threw it over in favour of the short form.

Through the semi-autobiographical character of Faith Darwin, Paley painted an unforgettable portrait of a thoroughly modern woman: a writer who exists in the centre of a tangle of relationships with lovers, children, parents and female friends. She created, said Philip Roth, "a language of new and rich emotional subtleties, with a kind of backhanded grace and irony all its own".

Three to read: Goodbye and Good Luck (from The Little Disturbances of Man), A Conversation With My Father and Wants (both from Enormous Changes at the Last Minute).

Alice Munro

Set in the fields, farms and modest towns of her native Canada and thrumming with the rhythms and rotations of daily life, Munro's stories tend to focus, as the title of her second collection has it, on the lives of girls and women, digging down to uncover the passions and excesses that rumble beneath the surface of everyday life. While the stories themselves frequently unspool over pages, pressing up against the limits of the form, her prose is distinguished by its plain- spokenness and descriptive economy. A famously unassuming woman, her reputation has grown incrementally over the four decades since her first collection was published; fellow author, Cynthia Ozick, called her "our Chekhov", and her Man Booker International victory was widely viewed as a long-overdue coronation.

Three to read: A Wilderness Station (from Open Secrets), The Bear Came Over The Mountain (from Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage), Passion (from Runaway).

Helen Simpson

Simpson's work exhibits a profound fascination with the modern domestic sphere: how we organise it; how we arrange ourselves within it. Childbirth is considered from every angle (an over-due mother is described as "a bulbous bottle, unreliably stoppered"); the grind and elation of motherhood is anatomised; marital compromises, compensations and indignities are dissected in razor-sharp prose that veers between unbearable poignancy and side-splitting wit, often in the same sentence. The British writer has won several awards for her short fiction; her next collection, In-Flight Entertainment, is due out next year.

Three to read: Dear George and Heavy Weather (both from Dear George), Cafe Society (from Hey Yeah Right Get A Life).

Mavis Gallant

Born in Montreal in 1922, by the midpoint of the century, Gallant had cast off her marriage and her journalistic career to move to France and pursue fiction. "I felt that the only thing I was on earth to do was to write," she said, in a recent Guardian profile. A fiercely private, self-reliant woman, the epigraph to her collection Home Truths is a quotation from Pasternak, "Only personal independence matters".

Gallant has written two novels, but it is for her short stories that she is loved. Structurally dexterous but morally flexible, they focus on the truth of situations and emotions over devices of character and plot, and articulate the expat experience with piercing insight.

Three to read: Madeline's Birthday (from The Cost of Living), The End of the World (from The End of the World, And Other Stories), A State of Affairs (from Across the Bridge and Other Stories).

Lorrie Moore

Currently in the spotlight for her mordantly witty novel A Gate At The Stairs, Lorrie Moore (by day a creative writing teacher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) is as famous – justly – for her short story collections, Self Help, Like Life and Birds of America. Her tales pick delicately at the fissures that criss-cross relationships, detailing them in close-up, sometimes claustrophobic detail, but her arch observations and knack of revealing the comedy in the most tense and tragic situations leavens the mix, without ever undermining the warmth with which she draws characters.

Three to read: People Like That Are the Only People Here and Community Life (both from Birds of America), Two Boys (from Like Life).

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