Tuesday, September 27, 2011

My Favorite Short Fiction

"So, where can you get the best Chinese food in town?"

I get asked that question a lot. And I tend to meet it with a long calculating silence -- a pause really, and not completely silent. I'll usually say something like, "Ummmmmmmmmmm...." And if there is a foodie friend nearby, we tend to exchange wary glances.

This always puzzles the asker, because they've been told I know all the best Chinese places in town. And they were not told wrong. It's just that recommending a restaurant it's not really about the restaurant. It's about the person asking.

So I ask: "How do you feel about chicken feet? What about spicy foods? What's your favorite Chinese dish?"

This is important because the best Chinese restaurant in town is the super-authentic Sichuan place, and the food there is on another planet compared to the kind of food you get on your average Chinese-American buffet.

And yes, the chicken feet question is not really an honest question -- it's a test. I don't need to know how you like them -- you don't have to order them (I generally don't) -- I just need to know how you respond to the idea that they are a food product. That leads to a discussion which will tell me whether I should just forget it and send you off to P.F. Changs.

Recommending short fiction to someone who hasn't read much of it is kind of like that.

And unfortunately I am no expert on all the kinds of short fiction out there, and I have no "chicken feet" question to help ascertain your tastes and limits.

So instead I am just going to offer you a sampler platter of the short fiction which I like, or has at least influenced me. And what I like is mostly mystery and comedy.

These are mostly not current writers, and mostly not available in ebook format. Frankly, I haven't found many modern writers of formal short fiction who excite me that much -- but I'm finding more and more all the time, and I'm finding a WHOLE LOT in the more informal venues. I'll talk about that next Tuesday.


The great thing about classics is that a lot of them are available at Project Gutenberg or at least inexpensively. Sometimes they are harder to read because of older styles (slower styles, as well as old slang and long forgotten references - and often politically incorrect).

O. Henry

I haven't read a lot of O. Henry and his verbal style is pretty dated, but his influence is everywhere, and his stories were usually light and funny, and always feature a clever twist. You've probably heard or seen some adapation of his "Gift of the Magi" or "The Ransom of Red Chief." Project Gutenberg O. Henry collection.

If you like old-time twisty stories, you might also look for translations of Guy de Maupassant. ("The Necklace" is probably his most famous.) Project Gutenberg Complete Original Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant.

Arthur Conan Doyle

If you're into mystery writing, you have to read at last SOME Sherlock Holmes. And though I don't know if it's his best, I think that everybody should read "Silver Blaze" because it's culturally influential. (It's where the bit about "the curious incident of the dog in the night time" comes from.) It's in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. And "A Scandal In Bohemia" is also culturally important -- it has "The Woman" in it -- and it was in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. (As an overall collection, I enjoyed "adventures" more than "memoirs.")

Russian Dudes

In college I really enjoyed stories from Turgenev, Chekhov, and Gogol. And Pushkin was my dad's favorite author, I think. Many of the stories were bleak and ironic, but not always - and of course, the less bleak the more I liked them. I think Gogol's "The Overcoat" is a precursor to a lot of ironic modern science fiction, frankly.

I can't recommend many other stories by name, but here is a Chekhov story published recently in Flash Fiction Online which is a lot of fun: "A Living Calendar."

Baroness Orczy

Best known for her Scarlet Pimpernel stories -- about the secret hero who rescues people from the guillotine. She also wrote popular mystery short stories for magazines of the time. The short stories feel more dated than the novels -- I'll talk more about her when I talk about Agatha Christie on Friday but here are three public domain collections of her short stories:

League Of The Scarlet Pimpernel and Old Man in the Corner are both available at Project Gutenberg. Lady Molly of Scotland Yard is not available there, but here is an online publication of it, and there is a cheap Kindle Edition of Lady Molly (which I haven't checked out yet -- caveat emptor).

Golden Age of pulp and mystery

So many of these are simply not available, especially not in ebook format. They are likely to have a "best of" anthology here and there, though.

P.G. Wodehouse

Silly fluffy stories about air-headed upper-class British twits. Wodehouse was the master of wit, and of crazy drawing-room comedy plotting.

Some early work is available in the public domain -- and this is the ONLY work of his available in ebook form. Unfortunately, they aren't his really best work. You might like them, but if you want really top hole Wodehouse, you want the stuff from the late 20's, 30's and 40's. My favorite story ever is "Mulliner's Buck-U-Uppo" from the collection Meet Mr. Mulliner which is apparently only available as a collectible antique. (You may find it in your library or used book store, however.)

But fear not: this more current collection The Best Of P.G. Wodehouse, has my second favorite, a novelette titles "The Crimewave at Blandings" as well two novels and maybe a dozen or so of his topping short stories.

I will talk more about Wodehouse tomorrow.

Dashiell Hammett

Hard to find in ebook form. Heck, it's hard to find his short fiction at all. He wrote a ton of great short pulp stories particularly during the depression. Probably my favorite character is The Continental Op (who never gives his name -- a detective, or "operative" for the Continental Detective Agency). While the Op was definitely one of the prototypes for the standard hard-boiled detective, he was 1) more realistic because Hammett had been an operative for Pinkertons, and 2) the stories were more puzzle-based than action based. (Although there was certainly action, and the Op would get drunk and get into trouble with women now and then.)

Agatha Christie

Christie wrote quite a lot of short stories as well as novels, and they are much like her novels in style. And best of all, her books are available in ebook form!! (but unfortunately tend to be expensive). Some of Christie's shorts are great to study for technique -- such as Thirteen Problems, which are all "armchair" stories. They take place at dinner where people are telling stories to each other -- trying to stump each other with a mystery. I'll talk more about Christie on Friday.

Ellery Queen

No EQ fiction is available in electronic form whatsoever. Bah! But if you can get your hands on a copy of The Adventures of Ellery Queen, you'll find some straight-forward modern-style mystery shorts. (At least, you will if I remember right. It's been a LONG time since I read them.)

James Thurber

Thurber is, I think, a great model for the coming generation of indie writers-- which is why I'm going to talk about him extensively next week. He wrote for magazines, and his stories ranged from regular straight up literary short fiction to his famous modern fables and satires, to essays and anecdotes and wild autobiographical stories. He also drew cartoons.

Though he's not available in electronic form, A Thurber Carnival appears to hold all of my favorites and best known: "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," "The Catbird Seat," "The Night The Bed Fell" ... well, I could go on.

Damon Runyon

Have you ever seen Guys and Dolls? That was based on a Runyon short story, as was Little Miss Marker and Pocket Full of Miracles. Twisty comedy stories about underworld mooks. Unfortunately, out of print and not available in ebook format. But you should be able to find him if you search.


Can't really say I like Hemingway. Can't really say I don't like him. Most of his stuff leaves me kind of cold. However, the classic short short "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" is available to read online, and a great place to dip in and see if you like the water. (And if you read it and say, "okay, uh, what's the excitement about this?" you can go over to Wikipedia -- or a thousand other literary sites -- and read what people tend to think about it. Hemingway is worth reading the interpretations, imho. If only because he leaves so much to interpretation.)

Modern Writers

Harlan Ellison

I can't say enough great things about Ellison, even though I don't read a lot of his fiction. His stuff is deep, intense and often very dark. Ellison is sharp, opinionated, extremely smart and extremely well-read and culturally educated... and he expects the same of the reader. I mean, yeah, some of his stuff is funny and light and just interesting, but he grabs you by the gut too much to be taken lightly. (Or perhaps I should say he grabs you by the brain, and sometimes makes it hurt.)

I'm going to talk about him this week, so I think I'll leave the specific recommendations for then. I'll just say the best collection is Deathbird Stories, and they're mostly not the lighter side of Ellison.

Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl is perhaps better known for his wicked children's fiction, but he was also an incredible master of very wicked adult fiction. (Often very adult.) My two favorite stories of his are "Lamb To The Slaughter" and "Parson's Pleasure." (They both happen to be in this collection The Best of Roald Dahl. ) You can also see the wonderful TV adaptation of Lamb To The Slaughter on Alfred Hitchcock Presents -- free to watch on Hulu.

Garrison Keillor

The modern inheritor of Thurber's mantle if there ever was one. Keillor is as much a storyteller as a writer, famous for his radio show. I'll talk more about him later, but I do suggest that anybody serious about books should listen to his "The Writer's Almanac" podcast.

Lawrence Block

I don't recall particular stories by Block, but I do find that I always enjoy his short stories. Some Days You Get The Bear is a good collection. (Only caveat, when he's writing a well-established character, he sometimes writes as if you already know the characters.)

Dean Wesley Smith

Dean has written vast numbers of short stories, and his taste is often different than mine. However right now he is doing a short story writing challenge -- trying to write 100 stories in a calendar year. And he's writing them over and above his regular "professional" writing. He's publishing the stories on his website as he finishes them -- but he only leaves one up at a time. (Then he publishes them for 99 cents each on Amazon and other major ebook retailers.)

These stories, because of the nature of the challenge ,are often wild works of imagination. You should subscribe to the RSS feed of his website to catch them as they are written. The one that stands out most in my mind right now, though, is "My Socks Rolled Down" in which a man has a battle of wits with his socks. This story would never be published in a real commercial magazine. And this is why I love the internet.

I'll talk about most of these writers in their own post -- and probably some others -- over the course of the fall.

This week, though, I'll talk about three of these authors -- Wodehouse, Ellison and Christie -- in more depth. (I said earlier I would do O. Henry this week, but I'm rescheduling him.)

See you in the funny papers.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Some of these I've read, but many I haven't--thanks for the tips! Sometimes on busy days, all I really have time for is short fiction...

Hunter F. Goss said...

Glad you included Conan Doyle. He's one of my favorites.

A bit of conventional wisdom has it that one shouldn't give 'run down' descriptions of characters. But Conan Doyle, through the eyes of Dr. Watson, gives some of the best thumbnail sketches of characters I've ever read.They combine physical attributes along with Watson's very subjective impressions. A writer could do worse than study them.

The Daring Novelist said...

I think the best thing anyone can do with conventional wisdom is to toss it aside. Forget what you shouldn't do.

Instead look for examples of what you want to do, done well. And study them to figure out why they work.

ModWitch said...

Huh. Maybe I've read more shorts that I think. But it was all before I was 15 or so :-P. I definitely read a lot of Doyle & Christie.

And I consider chicken feet potential food - ideally for others, however :). Okay, off to read the gold I saw above this post...

The Daring Novelist said...

I thought I responded, but I guess I hit the wrong button....

I think we've all been exposed to more short fiction than we think. It's short, so it kind of blends in, like snacking. It's invisible.

ModWitch said...

The snacking is getting more visible lately :-).

The Daring Novelist said...

Certainly around my waist it is.

Arun said...

Always a pleasure to meet a Sherlockian :)

Silver Blaze is my favorite short story as well. The Valley of Fear is my favorite novel.