10 Must-Read Short Stories chosen by leading American writers

In a celebration of the short-story form, leading American authors have selected their favourite short stories and written personal essays about why they love them. The personal essays, commissioned by Jackson R. Bryer, a Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Maryland, will be released in the book, Why I Like This Story, published by Camden House, an imprint of Boydell & Brewer that specializes in literary criticism.

In this selection of extracts from the book, we at Proofed are giving you the opportunity to discover new gems and revisit well-thumbed classics.

1. “Use of Force” by William Carlos Williams, chosen by Julia Alvarez

Plot: A physician makes a call to a house where a young girl is feared to have diphtheria.

“I always use this story on the first day of my beginning fiction-writing classes. I want to demystify the craft, to dispel the writer’s block my students experience when they sit down to write LITERATURE…Williams tells the story in such a compact, straightforward manner that we are largely unaware of the craft at work. We, his readers, are seduced into thinking that there’s nothing much to this simple tale.” — Julia Alvarez

Where you can read it: “Use of Force” was originally published in the November-December 1933 issue of Blast. It was collected in Life Along the Passaic River (1938). It is currently most readily available in The Collected Stories of William Carlos Williams (New Directions).

Ernest Hemingway at his home in Cuba, circa 1953, standing in front of a 1929 portrait of himself by Waldo Pierce. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

2. “In Another Country” by Ernest Hemingway, chosen by Andre Dubus

Plot: The narrator of this story, set in Milan during World War I, is an ambulance corps member with an injured knee. He visits a hospital daily for rehabilitation.

“In my thirtieth summer, in 1966, I read many stories by John O’Hara, and read Hemingway’s stories again, and his “In Another Country” challenged me more than I could know then. That summer was my last at the University of Iowa; I had a Master of Fine Arts Degree and, beginning in the fall, a job as a teacher, in Massachusetts. My wife and four children and I would move there in August. Until then, we lived in Iowa City and I taught two freshman rhetoric classes four mornings a week, then came home to eat lunch and write. I wrote in my den at the front of the house, a small room with large windows, and I looked out across the lawn at an intersection of streets shaded by tall trees. I was trying to learn to write stories, and was reading O’Hara and Hemingway as a carpenter might look at an excellent house someone else has built. “In Another Country” became that summer one of my favourite stories written by anyone, and it still is.” — Andre Dubus

Where you can read it: “In Another Country” was originally published in the April 1927 issue of Scribner’s Magazine. It was collected in Men Without Women (1927). It is currently most readily available in The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition (Scribner)

Ursula Le Guin signing a book, 2013.
Image credit: K. Kendall, Wikimedia Commons

3. “Sur” by Ursula Le Guin, chosen by Molly Giles

Plot: A group of women from South America tell their friends and families they are going to a convent for six months; instead they embark on an expedition to the South Pole.

“I never go anywhere without bringing something to read, and I was waiting in line at the DMV the first time I read “Sur.” The story made me so happy that I laughed out loud. People turned and stared. It was as if they had never heard a laugh in the DMV before. I laughed again, tore the story out of the magazine I’d stuck in my purse that morning, and assigned it to my graduate writing class that night.” — Molly Giles

Where you can read it: “Sur” was originally published in the February 1, 1982, issue of The New Yorker. It was collected in The Compass Rose: Short Stories (1982). It is currently most readily available in The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin (Saga Press).

4. “The Pedersen Kid” by William H. Gass, chosen by Annie Proulx

Plot: A dysfunctional family of farmers take in a neighbour’s child after he is discovered almost frozen to death during a blizzard.

“In the hours it took me to read William Gass’s long story “The Pedersen Kid” I understood for the first time that fiction possessed curious powers, though in what they consisted and how they were manifested I barely sensed and could not explain. At first this story gave me the sensation of examining a fine cabinet, looking for the subtle joinery of the story’s parts, the inlay of punctuation, searching out secret panels. Although I had experienced the reader’s tranced condition many times before, this was the first occasion I became aware of it and myself in it, experiencing season and place as strongly as though I, too, lived inside the story with these terrible people.” — Annie Proulx

Where you can read it: “The Pedersen Kid” was originally published in volume 1, issue 1, of MSS in 1961. It was collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories (1968). It is currently most readily available in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories (NYRB Classics).

Joan Silbur
Image credit: Wes Washington, WikiCommons

5. “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, chosen by Joan Silber

Plot: The narrator worries about his younger brother, Sonny, an aspiring jazz musician who has been arrested for selling heroin.

“I had the sense to be stunned by it and am still. By now I’ve written about its use of time and discussed with classes its shrewdness in point of view, and for all the times I’ve read it again, I’ve never gotten through a reading dry-eyed. It’s the least dismissible story I can call to mind.” —Joan Silber

Where you can read it: “Sonny’s Blues” was first published in the Summer 1957 issue of The Partisan Review. It was collected in Going to Meet the Man (1965). It is currently most readily available in Going to Meet the Man (Vintage). Also, read a personal essay on this short story written by Sonia Kane, Editorial Director, University of Rochester Press. 

6. “Consolation” by Richard Bausch, chosen by Ann Beattie

Plot: A widow takes a trip with her sister to visit her dead husband’s parents so they can meet their grandson.

“Consolation” is the sequel to Richard Bausch’s exhilaratingly depressing story, “The Fireman’s Wife,” though it stands on its own and reverberates with enough shock waves that you need not have read part one in order to be stunned by part two.” — Ann Beattie

Where you can read it: “Consolation” was originally published in the March 19, 1990, issue of The New Yorker. It was collected in The Fireman’s Wife and Other Stories (1990). It is currently most readily available in The Stories of Richard Bausch (HarperCollins).

7. “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor, chosen by A. R. Gurney

Plot: A Bible salesman makes a visit to a genteel farm-owner and her disillusioned daughter. 

“The first thing to say about this story is that it’s funny— funny as a crutch, to use a cliché the author might either appreciate or wince at. It happens to be the first work of hers I ever read, and I remember coming to it not expecting to laugh. I was a big reader of Time magazine in those days, and I think they told me that Flannery O’Connor was Southern, Gothic, deep, and Roman Catholic. Furthermore, I knew that she had a mysteriously degenerative disease called lupus, and had recently died of it at a relatively early age. So naturally, I was expecting to read something shadowy, profound, and grim. “Good Country People” certainly is all those things, but it is also very funny.” — A. R. Gurney

Where you can read it: “Good Country People” was originally published in the June 1955 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. It was collected in A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955). It is currently most readily available in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Other Stories (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich).

Interview with Saul Bellow at the University of Chicago, 1992
Image credit: Goran Mikic, WikiCommons

8. “A Silver Dish” by Saul Bellow, chosen by Alice McDermott

Plot: A sixty-year-old businessman struggles with the decline and death of his larger-than-life father.

“I love this story because it begins as every story, every poem, every play, every novel ever written might well begin: “What do you do about death?” That’s Bellow for you: six words in, and we are confronted not only with the existential, the essential question, but with the straightforward, no-nonsense voice of the man who asks it: Woody Selbst, of Selbst Tile Company (“offices, lobbies,  lavatories”), “a modern person, sixty years of age, and a man who’s been around.” — Alice McDermott

Where you can read it: “A Silver Dish” was first published in the September 25, 1978, issue of The New Yorker. It was collected in Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (1984). It is currently most readily available in Bellow’s Collected Stories (Penguin).

9. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber, chosen by Mary Lee Settle

Plot: A daydreamer fantasizes wild heroic scenarios while carrying out his mundane weekly errands.

“Just seven pages long. It encompasses his life, my life, and maybe your life. Mitty’s wife is drawn so deftly and with so few strokes that Thurber gives us permission to sympathize with her. Let’s face it—she is married to (in his outer husk of daily life) a nerd. His inner life is a mystery that she only sees as “You’re tensed up again.” — Mary Lee Settle

Where you can read it: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was originally published in the March 18, 1939 issue of The New Yorker. It was collected in My World—and Welcome to It (1942). It is currently most readily available in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Penguin Classics).

Viet Thanh Nguyen at Library of Congress National Book Festival, 2015
Image credit: Fourandsixty, WikiCommons

10. “Fatherland” by Viet Thanh Nguyen, chosen by Kao Kalia Yang

Plot: Two half-sisters, one from Vietnam, one from America, both given the same name at birth, meet for the first time.

“I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “Fatherland” shortly after I returned from my first official visit to Laos, the birth country of my mother and father, and the land of my buried ancestors… “Fatherland” is a study of identity: who we are, how we present ourselves, and who we wish to be. As a woman whose own life’s circumstances have been shaped by the Vietnam War, the same war that resulted in the separation of the characters of Nguyen’s short story, although a war fought in a neighboring country, I was interested in learning how fiction may be useful for the experiences I’d just gone through in Laos.” — Kao Kalia Yang

Where you can read it: “Fatherland” was first published in the Spring 2011 issue of Narrative. It is collected and is currently most readily available in The Refugees (Grove Atlantic). You can also read it on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s website.

Why I Like This Story, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, is available in hardback from Camden House for £19.99/$29.95. Among the contributors to the book are Julia Alvarez, Andrea Barrett, Richard Bausch, Ann Beattie, Andre Dubus, George Garrett, William H. Gass, Julia Glass, Doris Grumbach, Jane Hamilton, Jill McCorkle, Alice McDermott, Clarence Major, Howard Norman, Annie Proulx, Joan Silber, Elizabeth Spencer, and Mako Yoshikawa.

Like this post and what to read more about short stories?
Take a look at our Why We Like These Stories series for Short Story Month.

Why I Like This Story
Edited by Jackson R. Bryer
Hardback / 9781640140585 / £14.99 or $22.46

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