The ten greatest short story writers of the twenty-first century? What, we scoff, only ten? After all, the century’s fourteen already – that’s enough time to compile a list twice as long as this one! However, we’re going to restrict ourselves to ten because we’re also interested in your input: which story writers have blown your mind since the big Y2K? Leave your comments below! And in the meantime, please, please, please check out these authors if you’re not already familiar with their works – they’re so good it hurts!
Barry is our Number One: this Irish writer has two collections, There are Little Kingdoms (2007) and Dark Lies the Island (2012), both of which are outstanding: hilarious, poignant, bizarre, frightening and, above all, inventive. Barry’s prose, his local idiolect, his use of imagery and his peerless dialogue – he’s a superstar. If you want a sampler, try to find his story ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’ – if you ever read a better tale of middle-aged male friendship than this, we’ll buy you a pint.
Hall, a pretty prolific novelist, has only to date release one story collection, The Beautiful Indifference (2011), but, man, will it blow you away… She’s just about the best writer about the Cumbrian landscape in the North of England that we’ve ever encountered, and her stories are enormously empathic: they pack a huge punch, whether she’s writing about decaying relationships, imminent death or a teenage girl’s love affair with a dog- and horse-breeding clan. One of our favourite stories, ‘Butcher’s Perfume’, was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story prize in 2010 and in 2013 she snagged the top prize with another gem, “Mrs Fox”.
Sauders’ first collection, CivilWarLand In Bad Decline, came out in 1996, but the rest of his work has emerged this century, so we’ll forgive him his early immersion. Pastoralia (2000), In Persuasion Nation (2006) and Tenth of December (2013) have cemented his reputation as the guy that does weirdly compelling sort-of-sci-fi, satirical work that’s still tender and funny and eminently readable. In fact, contrary to the prevalent notion that the short story is on its last legs, Tenth of December was shortlisted for the 2014 Folio Prize and selected as one of the ten best books of 2013 by the editors of the New York Times Book Review, and it managed to get to the number two spot on the New York Times hardback bestseller list. How’s that for alive and kicking? Our favourite story? Try ‘Brad Carrigan, American’. You’ll never look at a TV show, or star, in quite the same way again.
What a name, right? Tower’s only book to date is called Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (2009) and it’s lassoed him a reputation as one of the foremost up-and-comers in short story land. The book’s funny and harsh and diverse; it’s great o contemporary America and it’s also a pretty good example of how a writer can take a series of influences (Hemingway, for one, is in evidence here) and twist them into something unique. Check out ‘On The Show’ as a sampler – it’s set in a fairground and who doesn’t like that?
Again, Egan’s first collection, Emerald City, came out in 1993, but it’s her second, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010, Pulitzer Prize-winner) that brought her all the accolades. More accurately a short story cycle rather than a collection, this et of interlinked narratives follows a group of people loosely connected to the music industry in the USA from the mid twentieth-century until the near future; it’s all about time and memory and how we can understand how our lives have shaped us. It’s witty and imaginative and brutal and very clever. The second story, ;The Gold Cure’, is one of our faves, but check out ‘Great Rock and Roll Pauses’ if you want to see a short story told entirely in PowerPoint. Oh, yes.
Link’s got stories in anthologies all over the place, but check out Stranger Things Happen (2o01), Magic for Beginners (2006) and Pretty Monsters (2008) to get the full effect. She’s generally classified as fantasy or slipstream writer, but her work is truly cross-genre – in fact, she’s one of those writers that makes the whole idea of the genre seem nothing more than a ridiculously juvenile marketing scheme. Her stories are crazy and magical and devastating and witty – they’re contemporary and timeless and mix urban realism with a demented fairytale horror aesthetic. Your life ain’t worth living if you haven’t read Kelly Link. The title story of Magic for Beginners is superb, but so’s the sort-of-zombie story, ‘The Hortlak’ which she’s made available here as a sampler.
With two collections – A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2005) and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (2010) – under her belt, the first of which won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the second of which was shortlisted for the same prize, not to mention being the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (aka, the Genius Grant), it’s safe to say that Yiyun Li should be on all our radars. A Chinese author living in the US, she writes brilliantly about modern China in a really understated, elegant way: we recommend ‘Kindness’ the opening story of the second collection – it’s long, but it’s excellent.
Philip Ó Ceallaigh
Ó Ceallaigh is an Irish-born writer who’s based in Bucharest and is the author of two collections: Notes From A Turkish Whorehouse (2006) and The Pleasant Light of Day (2009). You could probably argue that he writes more about men than women, and his stories are rarely set in his native Ireland. He’s an editor of short stories as well as a writer, and as an advocate of the form, he once told a journalist for the Irish magazine Hot Press that ‘if you’ve got something to say and you can say it for less, that’s the way to go.’ We’re with him on that… Have a look at ‘Walking Away’, one of Anne Enright’s selections for the Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (2012).
Keegan’s first collection, Antarctica, came out in 1999, just skimming the cusp of the millennium, but it was her second, Walk The Blue Fields (2007) that made everyone sit up and pay attention. Keegan’s won just about every prize that Irish literature has to offer, and some of them twice; she writes about rural Irish life with a degree of delicacy and empathy that make that age-old ground seem newly fertile. Try ‘The Forrester’s Daughter’ for a start, and we guarantee you’ll be back for more.
Last, but not least, the UK’s Adam Marek, author of two collections (Instruction Manual For Swallowing (2007) and The Stone Thrower (2012)) is definitely a writer on the up. He does sci-fi, ghost stories, realistic parent-and-child tales and more – quirky, yes, fantastical, yes, but throwaway, never. Marek’s stories linger. His story ‘Fewer Things’ was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Prize in 2010, and that’s a good start if you like your fiction more straightforward – check out ‘Tamagotchi’ if you want something more offbeat.
That’s our ten, but we know there’s more out there who deserve some love. If you’ve got any recommendations, which make even the most hardened short story hater fall head over heels in love, please let us know down below.
Joel Willans is the Editor of Ink Tank and Co-Founder of Ink Tank Media. Author of the short story collection, SPELLBOUND: Stories of Women’s Magic over Men, his prize-winning fiction has been broadcast on BBC radio and published in dozens of magazines and anthologies worldwide. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.