top ten by Fabian Wolff

Francine Prose’s short story canon for aspiring writers

reading time 5 minutes

Francine Prose is the rare kind of writer, who can write great novels as well as great criticism. She has published an imposing number of books, fiction and non-fiction, short and long, since adapted as musicals and movies, and spreads her reviews and essays among a what’s what of preeminent American publications. She is also a popular professor of literature at Bard College, where she has taught, among many other classes, a very memorable one on the modern short story. Today, for Fold, she recommends her 10 favorite short story authors, in no particular order, for the benefit of aspiring writers.

1. Anton Chekhov

Chekhov wrote from every point of view: men, women, old, young, rich, poor. And he was able to get under the skin of all these different sorts of people, thus proving that you don’t have to write about who you are all the time. He had this incredible compassion and humanity for whoever he was writing about. He remains the best at creating sympathy for unsympathetic characters. Read The Duel or The Witch, which both feature protagonists you might not approve of, and by the end your heart is just breaking for them. There weren’t so many rules for short stories back then. Those have been established more recently. Apparently, every short story needs an intro, climax, denouement, and especially, as an editor once old me, an epiphany. I don’t believe in that. Chekhov just took a character and, though something always happens to that character, they’re not wiser for it necessarily. But the reader is wiser.

2. Katherine Mansfield

Her stories are very mysterious to me. For example, I’ve read and taught The Daughters of the Late Colonel hundreds of times and I still can’t figure out how she does what she does. Except perhaps by her incredibly precise and original use of language. She’ll use an adjective that will make you understand exactly what kind of pudding she’s talking about, without having to describe the pudding. She uses words so beautifully, so adeptly. She also writes children so well, who are notoriously hard to write about. She gets into their heads and makes them entirely convincing, and makes you remember what it was like to be a child. There’s a scene in Prelude, another one of my favorites, where a bunch of kids watch a duck get beheaded. At first they’re very excited, because they don’t quite know what the outcome of this act is going to be. Then some of them are horrified and some of them less horrified, but by the end of the scene you’re convinced that you know exactly what it’s like to see this scene from a child’s point of view.

3. Isaac Babel

Babel was a master of compression. He could write stories that were a page and a half long and you feel like you’ve kind of been kicked in the head by the time you’ve reached the end of them. He wrote very beautifully about violence, about warfare, about sex. Talk about toxic masculinity! He was right there observing it among the Cossacks in the Russia-Polish war. At the same time, he could be incredibly lyrical. If you want to see what can be done in two and a half pages, Crossing into Poland is one of the most extraordinary stories ever written. It’s a perfect example of how much you can accomplish in such a brief space.

4. Mavis Gallant

She is just a consummate stylist. Her range is huge, like Chekhov’s, as are her sympathies. There’s a light voice on the surface that you can very easily slip beneath, and it’s so deep, and where she’s going is so profound. She’s writing about post-war Europe and France and Montreal, and she’s writing about class, politics, history, and putting it all into highly compressed, beautifully written short stories. Her sentences are models of what a sentence should be like. I think she was a genius.

5. John Cheever

His stories are so cool and detached on the surface that you have to stop yourself to realize that he’s capturing the whole lives of his protagonists. Goodbye, My Brother is I think one of the greatest modern short stories. He’s talking about fallen New England aristocrats but he kicks it up to this biblical level, Kane and Abel, something primal. The narrator projects all his negative emotions and judgements onto another character, his brother. In a less brave writer’s work, the brother would show up and be the innocent victim of all this, but actually when the brother finally shows up and opens his mouth, he’s worse than everyone’s been saying. Cheever makes one brilliant choice after another in this story. He gives the reader tons of information without seeming like he’s giving any at all — he buries the expository parts and makes them agents of character rather than pure exposition. By the end of the first page, you pretty much know what you need to know about the character and the family he comes from and then it just gets richer and richer and richer.

6. James Baldwin

James Baldwin’s story Sonny’s Blues is another masterpiece of compression. It is one of the best stories ever written about what it means to be an artist — what it means to be an artist, in particular, in a family that doesn’t quite understand what that means, which I think is the situation for many artists. It’s a story about brothers — the straight brother’s feelings of disapproval, envy, confusion. All those emotions he has towards his brother are almost resolved toward the end, but they’re resolved by being witness to a mystery, which is art. When he watches Sonny playing, he kind-of gets it: what Sonny’s life is about, and why he might be a junkie, and why he went to jail. But he can’t completely get it because that’s not who he is. It’s an epiphany that is the opposite of an epiphany.

7. Deborah Eisenberg

Deborah Eisenberg is one of the most wonderful sentence writers. Everything I’ve said about the other writers could just as well be about her. Beautiful writing, compressed, deep, a range attuned to the political as well as the emotional. Her stories are as layered as novels.

8. Roberto Bolaño

The stories in Last Evenings on Earth are just great. They’re almost all about the Chilean, Latin American diaspora, even if all of them don’t state as much. They’re perfect stories for the moment too, because they’re all about being refugees of one kind or another. Then he adds fathers and sons, friendships, stories about being a writer, becoming a writer. He just writes so beautifully. And then he had the good fortune, only after death, of finding extraordinary translators. It’s great to acquaint students with it because it’s always shocking to me how little they know about what happened in Central and South America in the 70s and 80s. They read Bolaño and they instantly get it.

9. Alice Munro

She writes about women in a way that no one did for a very long time. She tells the truth about women’s lives — class, love, ambition, sex, marriage, kids, all of it. Speaking of compression, there is something in every Alice Munro story that seems to to go from Precambrian history all the way to 20th century Canada.

10. Denis Johnson

He was poet before he was a fiction writer, and his work is a great example of how lyrical you can be in writing without going off the rails in some way. Religion wasn’t a joke to him. He took it very seriously. Back in the day, that was a very common thing, but now its very uncommon. When you read Jesus’ Son, it’s as exotic as Bolaño, because the experience of reading something by someone who’s actually a believer is unusual in a literary space. He was so good at writing about altered or damaged state of consciousness. He was a revelation.

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