Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more


  1. The Voice Imitator by Thomas Bernhard (translated from German into English).  There is a 1998 edition printed by the University of Chicago Press, ISBN 978-0226044026.  These are the shortest short stories (actually flash fiction) I know.  104 pages: 104 stories.
  2. The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway.  ISBN 978-0099908401.  If a test of great writing is to be able to point to any sentence in the text at random and see that not one word in that sentence is superfluous or ill-chosen, then this is writing at its greatest.  99 pages.  Read it in one day, preferably while sitting by the sea.
  3. Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers.  ISBN 978-0450031298.  This is the first of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories.  Read them all, in order, starting with this one, especially if you have a passion for well-constructed sentences.
  4. Emergency Kit: poems for strange times edited by Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney.  ISBN 0-571-223000-1, published by Faber and Faber.  This is a collection of contemporary poetry (in the sense that includes Sylvia Plath as contemporary).  The emphasis is on the poems themselves rather than the poets, and it includes translated poems and works in English by poets from outside the UK and USA.  My favourite happens to be ‘The Ballad of the Shrieking Man’ by James Fenton.
  5. For Beauty Douglas by Adrian Mitchell, with pictures by Ralph Steadman.  ISBN 0-85031-400-3.  This is a collection of what some people might consider to be political poems, but they are so deeply rooted in regard for humanity that they transcend political issues and are, in my opinion, about the human condition.  My favourite is ‘In Other Words, Hold My Head’, which is about what you can get away with in the mainstream media, the conclusion being, “not much worth talking about”.
  6. Boring Postcards, published by Phaidon.  ISBN 0-7148-4390-3.  I read an article in the Independent about this book when it first came out.  The publisher had issued a request for people to send in their boring postcards.  About 15 years later I saw it on sale in the gift shop at Bretton Sculpture Park, and bought it.  The contents can be easily imagined if I tell you that one of the images has on it the hand-written words “our caravan” next to an arrow pointing to one particular caravan.  What it amounts to is a catalogue of some of the great social misconceptions of the 1970s.  The idea that there would be unimpeded economic progress with declining class conflict.  Buildings with “clean, modern lines” were a good thing.  You could build a vibrant and inviting new town solely around a shopping centre.  Public libraries would increase in number, remain free at the point of use and be used by an increasing number of people.  Transport would be affordable to all and free of congestion.  Nuclear power would be completely safe and unmistakably of economic benefit.  Several times while browsing through this book, I have laughed out loud.
  7. Raymond Carver: Collected Stories, published by The Library of America, 2009.  ISBN 978-1-59853-046-9.  As far as I know, this contains every short story Raymond Carver ever wrote, and is a compilation under one cover of several other collections: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Cathedral, Beginners, and others.  The four stories that were recommended to me by Michael Stewart as material for learning how to construct a contemporary short story are: Neighbors; Why Don’t You Dance?; A Small, Good Thing, and Cathedral.  I have since started reading my way through some of the others.  I find the inconsistent or imperfect ones sometimes as instructive as the best ones, because you can still learn from what is wrong with them. 
  8. The Collected Stories of Richard Yates.  ISBN 9780099518549.  Excellent handling of characterisation, setting, dialogue and structure.  These stories are nearly all easier to follow and usually have more empathetic protagonists than those of Raymond Carver, from the generation which succeeded Richard Yates.  Despite being set in the 1950s, they deal with themes which are still relevant today.
  9. Morvern Callar by Alan Warner.  ISBN 9780099586111.  An outstanding example of an idiosyncratic narrative voice. 

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