25 Favorite Short Stories

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, 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 25 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.)

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?

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  • http://markbyron.typepad.com/main/ Mark Byron

    Harrison Bergeron and The Ransom of Red Chief come quickly to mind as two that should have made the cut.

  • http://www.twitter.com/johncfarrier John Farrier

    “The Whore of Mensa” by Woody Allen and “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison.

  • http://www.twitter.com/johncfarrier John Farrier

    Oh, and “<a href='http://www.guiltandpleasure.com/index.php?site=rebootgp&page=gp_article&id=14'Man Not Superman” by Jonathan Goldstein and “They’re Made out of Meat” by Terry Bisson.

  • Douglas Johnson

    The Big Hunger by John Fante

    A day in the life of a 7-year-old curmudgeon. Hilarious! (And a brilliant one-paragraph description of the Law.)

  • http://southerngospelyankee.wordpress.com yankeegospelgirl

    Bah. Too much horror. And too much Flannery O’Connor. ;-) There are plenty of great stories I’m quite surprised not to have seen on your list, but I guess our tastes are just rather different. I mean, “The Birth-mark?” Come ON.

    O’Henry is my man as far as short stories go. He’s unbeatable. I could fill a whole top 25 list just with O’ Henry. A few of my favorites are “A Municipal Report” ( a super-satisfying ending that you have to think for a moment before being able to appreciate its awesomeness), “The Last Leaf,” “After 20 Years,” “The Gift of the Magi,” and “Ransom of Red Chief.”

    I’ve also read a couple by Joseph Conrad that deserve to be right up there. “The Lagoon” is amazing. “Heart of Darkness” is somewhat longer and even more amazing.

    I haven’t read the Hemingway story you mentioned, but I really like his story “Hills Like White Elephants.” That would definitely be on my list.

    “Sonny’s Blues” is another classic, very grim, but I loved it.

    J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a really moving short story called “Leaf By Niggle” that not many folks have heard of, but I would have to say it’s one of my all-time favorites.

    And finally, I’m going to add (believe it or not) an O’Connor story. With all the O’Connor on your list I cannot BELIEVE you didn’t include “The River.” It’s far and away her best story. It might even be in my top ten.

  • http://khazhad.blogspot.com Bob McMaster

    Nothing by Ray Bradbury? The Pedestrian is excellent. I also would suggest The Feeling of Power by Isaac Asimov. I’ll also second Leaf by Niggle.