10 Outstanding Short Stories to Read in 2018

Author Han Kang
Author Han Kang (Roberto Ricciuti / Contributor / Getty Images)

For years, the #longreads hashtag on Twitter has been filled with great story recommendations from people around the world. Pravesh Bhardwaj is a longtime contributor — throughout the year he posts his favorite short stories, and then in January we’re lucky enough to get a list of his favorites to enjoy in the year ahead. 

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For many years now I’ve been posting short stories on Twitter. It’s a nightly thing: Before sitting down to write (I work on spec screenplays), I look around for a story, read it, then share it. I end up reading almost every day, irrespective of whether I am able to write something or not. (This year I am working on a screenplay that’s a noirish police procedural in the Hindi language set in satellite city Noida, near New Delhi, the capital of India.)

Starting with Yiyun Li’s “On the Street Where You Live” from The New Yorker, to P. D. James’s “The Murder of Santa Claus” from Lithub, I read 305 stories in 2017. Here are ten that I enjoyed the most, in random order:

‘Dimension’ (Alice Munro, The New Yorker, 2006)

Alice Munro is one of my favourites, and I loved this one about a grieving woman who goes to an institution to meet her husband.

Doree had to take three buses—one to Kincardine, where she waited for one to London, where she waited again, for the city bus out to the facility. She started the trip on a Sunday at nine in the morning. Because of the waiting times between buses, it took her until about two in the afternoon to travel the hundred-odd miles. All that sitting, either on buses or in the depots, was not a thing she should have minded. Her daily work was not of the sitting-down kind.

She was a chambermaid at the Comfort Inn. She scrubbed bathrooms and stripped and made beds and vacuumed rugs and wiped mirrors. She liked the work—it occupied her thoughts to a certain extent and tired her out so that she could sleep at night. She was seldom faced with a really bad mess, though some of the women she worked with could tell stories to make your hair curl. These women were older than her, and they all thought that she should try to work her way up. They told her that she should get trained for a job behind the desk, while she was still young and decent-looking. But she was content to do what she did. She didn’t want to have to talk to people.

‘The Fruit of My Woman’ (Han Kang, Granta, 1997)

Han Kang wrote this story way back in 1997 and this story evolved into her novel The Vegetarian, Kang’s sensational introduction to the English-speaking world. (Translated from Korean by Deborah Smith.)

I struggled to recall the last occasion that I’d seen my wife naked, and it had been bright enough to see her properly. Not that year, for sure; I wasn’t even certain that it had happened the year before.

How could I have failed to notice such deep bruises on the body of the only person I lived with? I tried to count the fine wrinkles radiating out from the corners of my wife’s eyes. Then I told her to take off all her clothes. A red flush appeared along the line of her cheekbones, which her weight loss had left indecently sharp. She tried to remonstrate with me.

‘What if someone sees?’

‘Crooner’ (Kazuo Ishiguro)

I was over the moon when Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2017. I love his books, especially The Remains of the Day and The Unconsoled, and this short story appeared in his short-story collection Nocturnes.

Tony Gardner had been my mother’s favourite. Back home, back in the communist days, it had been really hard to get records like that, but my mother had pretty much his whole collection. Once when I was a boy, I scratched one of those precious records. The apartment was so cramped, and a boy my age, you just had to move around sometimes, especially during those cold months when you couldn’t go outside. So I was playing this game jumping from our little sofa to the armchair, and one time I misjudged it and hit the record player. The needle went across the record with a zip—this was long before CDs—and my mother came in from the kitchen and began shouting at me. I felt so bad, not just because she was shouting at me, but because I knew it was one of Tony Gardner’s records, and I knew how much it meant to her. And I knew that this one too would now have those popping noises going through it while he crooned those American songs. Years later, when I was working in Warsaw and I got to know about black-market records, I gave my mother replacements of all her worn-out Tony Gardner albums, including that one I scratched. It took me over three years, but I kept getting them, one by one, and each time I went back to see her I’d bring her another.

‘The Proxy Marriage’ (Maile Meloy, The New Yorker, 2012)

A story about a young man and a young woman who take part in proxy marriages for soldiers posted abroad. I wonder why it has not been filmed.

William had no girlfriends in high school, and his mother once sat him down at the table in her spotless kitchen and asked if he was gay. She said it would be fine with her. She loved him unconditionally, and they would figure out a way to tell his father. But William wasn’t gay. He was just absurdly, painfully in love with Bridey Taylor, who leaned on the piano and sang while he played, and he had no way of telling her. He was too shy to pursue other girls, even when the payoff seemed either likely or worth the agony. But he didn’t tell his mother that. It was too humiliating. He just stammered an unconvincing denial.

‘Axis of Happiness’ (Min Jin Lee, Narrative Magazine, 2003)

Pachinko is one the best-received books of 2017 and I need to buy it as soon as possible.

The morning Henry Evans stopped by my office to tell me to go to Chicago, I was in the middle of my chapter-a-day habit: still in the Book of Hosea, much to my dismay, still in the Old Testament after years of dogged reading. This habit required skimming the day’s chapter of the Bible (usually the length of one onion-skin page), then reading the extensive commentaries in the footnotes, then finally reading the chapter again—all of this took on average forty-five minutes. I did this at work because it was where I lived—fourteen hours a day, often six days a week. I couldn’t help knowing some of the Bible because I was a P.K. (preacher’s kid), but I’d started reading this fat copy of the NIV Study Bible with its elephant-gray leather cover because my mother left it for me along with her modest wedding jewelry when she died three years ago.

‘The Deer-Vehicle Collision Survivors Support Group’ (Porochista Khakpour, Guernica, 2010)

Lovely title and a lovely short story. It just worked its way up and overwhelmed me. If you intend to read just one story from this list, then I suggest please make it this one.

We have nothing. Out here, we have only ourselves.

This is all new to us. Once upon a time, we were in the big city, and the population of our neighborhood—a small district in a large borough in one of the nation’s largest cities—the population of just our neighborhood was ten times bigger than the population of our entire city today. If you can call it a city. Everything here is called Village Something: the Village Laundromat, the Village Stationery, the Village Tavern, the Village Pizza, the Village Freez (an ice cream stand), the Village Idiot (a bar). It doesn’t pretend to be what it’s not.

It is not a lot. We left everything behind. I had nothing to do with it. I had nothing. It was Azita; Azita had it all.

‘In Country’ (Rabih Alameddine, Zoetrope)

Do you follow Rabih Alameddine on Twitter? You must… everybody must.

I descended the stairs to the living room and master bedroom. I had a strong urge to touch everything, my hands sweeping over marble, mahogany, satin, and velvet. In the bedroom, I rubbed the wallpaper, my hand grazing the soft fabric in wide sweeps. I sat on the bed, caressed the pillow, lay my head down. I usually loved smelling the scents of my parents on their bed, but something here was peculiar. I smelled foreign cologne. I stood back up, looked around, and saw one of my father’s watches. It was his room all right.

I ran up the winding stairs, grabbed a washcloth from the bathroom, dropped my jeans, jumped onto my bed, and humped the soft fabric of the bedcover. Soft, rich, lush, it did not take long. I barely managed to cover my penis with the washcloth.

‘Fair Warning’ (Robin Olen Butler, Zoetrope)

Francis Ford Coppola recommended this story in the By the Book Column of The New York Times as one of his favourite short stories from Zoetrope site.

Perhaps my fate was sealed when I sold my three-year-old sister. My father had taken me to a couple of cattle auctions, not minding that I was a girl–this was before Missy was born, of course–and I’d loved the fast talk and the intensity of the whole thing. So the day after my seventh birthday party, where Missy did a song for everyone while I sat alone, my chin on my hand, and meditated behind my still uncut birthday cake, it seemed to me that here was a charming and beautiful little asset that I had no further use for and could be liquidated to good effect. So I gathered a passel of children from our gated community in Houston, kids with serious money, and I had Missy do a bit of her song once more, and I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, no greater or more complete perfection of animal beauty ever stood on two legs than the little girl who stands before you. She has prizewinning breeding and good teeth. She will neither hook, kick, strike, nor bite you. She is the pride and joy and greatest treasure of the Dickerson family and she is now available to you. Who will start the bidding for this future blue-ribbon winner? Who’ll offer fifty cents? Fifty cents. Who’ll give me fifty?” I saw nothing but blank stares before me. I’d gotten all these kids together but I still hadn’t quite gotten them into the spirit of the thing. So I looked one of these kids in the eye and I said, “You, Tony Speck. Aren’t your parents rich enough to give you an allowance of fifty cents?” He made a hard, scrunched-up face and he said, “A dollar.” And I was off. I finally sold her for six dollars and twenty-five cents to a quiet girl up the street whose daddy was in oil. She was an only child, a thing I made her feel sorry about when the bidding slowed down at five bucks.

‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’ (Taiye Selasi, Granta, 2011)

A searing story dealing with abuse, about a young girl who lives with her uncle’s family – her mother’s brother in Accra, Ghana, after her mother abandoned her.

You can barely manage movement in the big one-piece buba you borrowed from Comfort, your cousin, under duress. The off-the-shoulder neckline keeps slipping to your elbow, exposing your (troublingly) flat chest. Absent breasts, the hem drags and gets caught underfoot, a malfunction exacerbated by your footwear, also Comfort’s: gold leather stilettos two sizes too small with a thick crust of sequins and straps of no use. You’ve been tripping and falling around the garden all evening, with night-damp earth sucking at the heels of the shoes, the excess folds of the buba sort of draped around your body, making you look like a black Statue of Liberty.

‘Smokers’ (Tobias Wolff, The Atlantic, 1976)

This entertaining short story is the first published story by Wolff, about the friendship of three young men from different classes in first year college.

Eugene was a scholarship boy. One of his teachers had told him that he was too smart to be going to a regular high school and gave him a list of prep schools. Eugene applied to all of them—”just for the hell of it”—and all of them accepted him. He finally decided on Choate because only Choate had offered him a travel allowance. His father was dead and his mother, a nurse, had three other kids to support, so Eugene didn’t think it would be fair to ask her for anything. As the train came into Wallingford he asked me if I would be his roommate.

p.s. I must add that I also liked Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” and I’m absolutely fascinated by the fact that it went viral on the internet. It was surprising to see a short story all over the place.

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Read Pravesh’s story picks from 2017, 2016, and 2015.