Hadley Mendelsohn of My Domaine includes Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees on the list of “14 Short Story Collections That Will Change Your Approach to Life.”
If you’re someone who loves reading but can never seem to find the time for it, we’ve found a solution: the humble short story. We get it, it can be intimidating to crack open a bible-sized novel after a long day, during a short vacation, or while on a quick commute, which is why short story collections are such a great alternative. The best ones are just as enriching and entertaining as their full-length fiction counterparts, but they’re decidedly easier to get through in one sitting.
Not only do short stories puncture the things that novels dance around for hundreds of pages, but they also make for great introductions to certain authors and literary styles. On that note, let’s make like a short story and get straight to the point with this list of the 14 best short collections, from contemporary hits to great classics.
1 / 14
As if the title and cover art weren’t amazing enough, just wait until you meet all of Mary Gaitskill’s skillfully drawn—though notoriously troubled—characters. Gaitskill writes in sharp, clipped sentences that even further convey the barbed nature of whatever grim thing her characters are up to. The dark eroticism will make you feel like a voyeur in the best of ways.
Standout Line: “Joey felt that his romance with Daisy might ruin his life, but that didn’t stop him.”
Similar Reads: Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin
2 / 14
Nathaniel Hawthorne is the ultimate American Romanticist, and if you need any further proof aside from his writing alone, just look at the dedication page in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Each of his short stories is an epic allegory. They’re like moralistic fairy tales for adults, addressing themes of materialism, repression, and humankind’s impossible pursuit of dominating nature. You shouldn’t miss “Earth’s Holocaust,” “The Birth-Mark,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and “Young Goodman Brown.”
Standout Line: “The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of men.”
Similar Reads: Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville
3 / 14
Leonora Carrington’s short stories are just like her surreal paintings and dreamscapes except they’re expressed in writing. Some would classify her work as fantasy, though there’s a distinct gritty real-world feel to the narratives as well. Take, for example, the debutant who switches places with a hyena so she doesn’t have to attend the party. If you love eccentric stories, give this collection a go.
Standout Line: “‘I smell a little strong, eh? Well, as for me, I do not eat cake.’ With these words she removed her face and ate it.”
Similar Reads: Get In Trouble by Kelly Link
Her Body & Other Parties
4 / 14
These short stories are so gripping that you’ll find yourself hungry for more on the last page of each one. It’s pretty incredible how much Maria Machado packs into one story. Some are eerie and some are erotic while some teeter on the absurd, and all of them are emotionally impactful. Its sci-fi meets fantasy meets horror all rolled into one fantastic feminist feat.
Tone Teaser: “A feeling settles over me—a one-beer-deep feeling, a no-more-skittering-feet-after-the-trap-snaps feeling.”
Similar Reads: Dead Girls and Other Stories by Emily Geminder
Go Down, Moses
5 / 14
Prepare for chills, people. William Faulkner’s sprawling sentences seem to on forever and quite literally take your breath away. It’s also worth noting that these short stories aren’t exactly short. You will want to keep a dictionary on hand, as his Southern Gothics allows aim to increase your vocabulary exponentially. And though it isn’t included in this particular short story collection, if you end up liking it, read “A Rose for Emily”; it’s truly life-changing.
Standout Line: “Not held fast in earth but free in earth and not in earth but of earth, myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part, leaf and twig and particle, air and sun and rain and dew and night, acorn oak and leaf and acorn again, dark and dawn and dark and dawn again in their immutable progression and, being myriad, one.”
Similar Reads: A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
6 / 14
Turning the gender trope of women being “difficult,” on its head, Roxane Gay’s collection of short stories is a tour de force. Written from a place of sincere compassion, she manages to create a cast of very flawed, very real women from all walks of life. The flexibility of short story collections allows her to experiment with a few different forms in each story, too, which is a joy as a reader who appreciates rage and variety.
Standout Line: “Everything in my head feels loose, lost.”
Similar Reads: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
7 / 14
Modernists, rejoice. James Joyce captures his city unlike anyone else, and while it paints a distinct picture of Dublin, the themes and language transcend any specific place. Written during the Irish Nationalist movement, the sense of independence and patriotism are strongly conveyed throughout, so history buffs will also appreciate this glimpse into the past.
Standout Line: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances. He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a verb in the past tense.”
Similar Reads: Monday or Tuesday by Virginia Woolf
8 / 14
This is one of the most underrated short story collections ever published—it’s a shame it doesn’t have a place on every bookshelf in the world, in my opinion. Most poignant is “Lust,” for which the collection is named after. The narrator is a teenager and presents her sexual history in intimate, impressionistic glimpses. She drops you right into the scene she’s painting by masterfully creating such a strong voice from the beginning, which is all the background and information and setting we need.
Standout Line: “After the briskness of loving, loving stops. And you roll over with death stretched out alongside you like a feather boa, or a snake, light as air.”
Similar Reads: Levitation by Cynthia Ozick
Brief Interviews With Hideous Men
9 / 14
There are stories that stay with you and shape you more than you could’ve imagined, and this is one of those books. The namesake story, “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men,” introduces us to some truly hideous men, while “Church Made With No Hands” is pretty much impossible to interpret but ridiculous emotionally striking, and “Forever Overhead” and “The Depressed Person” are introductions to Wallace’s iconic style and voice (read: footnotes and brilliantly written intellectual usings). The teaser below is an entire story, too, exemplifying Foster’s genius and range.
Standout Line: “When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces. The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.”
Similar Reads: Homesick For Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh
No One Belongs Here More Than You
10 / 14
Short and sweet but loaded with messages and lessons, Miranda July’s short stories are as whimsical as they are profound. Each tale is thematically unique, but they each fit within the same tone and overall feel. Each character is unique, offbeat, and quirky, while also managing to be totally relatable.
Standout Line: “They wordlessly excused each other for not loving each other as much as they had planned to. There were empty rooms in the house where they had meant to put their love, and they worked together to fill these rooms with midcentury-modern furniture.”
Similar Reads: The Color Master by Aimee Bender
This Is How You Lose Her
11 / 14
Controversial figure though he may be, Junot Diaz’s collection of short stories is a modern-day classic. If you’re going through a breakup or have every experienced heartbreak, it will be especially life-changing and comforting. He also captures certain moods and cultural norms that represent the contemporary moment unlike any other.
Standout Line: “And that’s when I know it’s over. As soon as you start thinking about the beginning, it’s the end.”
Similar Reads: Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros
12 / 14
Decidedly less gritty and more mature than her earlier work but just as swiftly written and emotionally piercing, Black Swans is a collection of nine stories that capture the 1980s and 90s. The time period it focuses is on really shapes the tone of the book, too, which makes it all the more fascinating.
Standout Line: “I discovered there was something else I had never considered—Plan C—don’t turn to mush, don’t leave, stay and resist. Tango’s entire point.”
Similar Reads: You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld
13 / 14
As the second work of fiction by Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Sympathizer), The Refugees will transform the way you think about language, identity, and love. There is much to learn from each beautifully crafted narrative in this book, especially considering our current political climate.
The Teaser: “In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.”
Similar Reads: Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami
The Thing Around Your Neck
14 / 14
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck is all about large and small-scale relationships and connections: those between family members, lovers, and countries. She writes about challenging and emotionally charged issues with clarity, precision, and compassion.
Standout Line: “There were emotions she wanted to hold in the palm of her hand that were simply no longer there.”
Similar Reads: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
For more reading recommendations that aren’t novels, try some of these incredible poetry collections.