The short story, says Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Steven Millhauser, has powers the novel only dreams of. “The novel is the Wal-Mart, the Incredible Hulk, the jumbo jet of literature,” he wrote in his essay, The Ambition of the Short Story. “[And yet] the short story apologises for nothing. It exults in its shortness. It wants to be shorter still. It wants to be a single word. If it could find that word, if it could utter that syllable, the entire universe would blaze up out of it with a roar. That is the outrageous ambition of the short story, that is its deepest faith, that is the greatness of its smallness.”
Many of history's finest novelists have tried their hand at the short story, and some are even best-known for their prowess in this form. Think of John Cheever, Katherine Mansfield and Tessa Hadley, all of whom appear on this list. Elsewhere, short stories offer unfamiliar readers an opportunity to dip their toe into a writer's style, or else see a different side of them altogether: James Joyce, Carson McCullers and Ian McEwan, arguably best-known for their novels, can all be accessed in a different way through their short fiction.
Readers continue to show a huge appetite for the short story and it's no wonder when modern writers such as Lauren Groff, Daisy Johnson and Ottessa Moshfegh have turned out some of the most critically-acclaimed collections of recent years. There have even been viral short story sensations: 2017's Cat Person, a tale of romance gone wrong, captured the cultural zeitgeist and sparked conversations around the world immediately after its publication in the New Yorker.
So, without further ado, here are 50 of literature's greatest short stories to entertain, distract, reassure and inspire – just what a short story should do.
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