We are in the Golden Age of Short Stories. More story collections are being published now than ever, and the quality is unsurpassed. In general, major publishers don’t love story collections because they don’t sell as well as novels. They’ll use them to introduce a new writer they’ve signed, because she will come to them with a backlog of stories which can be released while she works on her debut novel (which is what the publisher really wants). It’s a good way to get new talent under contract while they develop (like signing a young baseball player and assigning him to the minor leagues for a year or two).
Many short story collections are published by small, independent publishers and university presses. As a result, they often fly below the radar and rely on reviews and word of mouth to reach potential readers. That is where blogs and social media can play a key role in helping writers and readers connect.
These 12 collections deserve a wider audience.
Deceit and Other Possibilities: Stories (Counterpoint Press)
by Vanessa Hua
Deceit and Other Possibilities is the best short story collection I’ve read in quite a while. These 13 stories concern characters struggling with their immigrant identity and resulting life choices: an elderly immigrant from Chinatown forced to return home after 50 years (“The Older the Ginger”); a Korean-American teen who finds an unusual way to become a student at Stanford in order to satisfy his ambitious parents (“Accepted”); a young Chinese-American celebrity from Hong Kong who returns to Oakland following a sex scandal (“Line, Please”); and a Korean-American pastor doing missionary work in East Africa whose intentions are not as good as they seem (“The Deal”). Hua is a masterful writer. Her stories feature a finely-honed sense of characterization, an ear for realistically quirky dialogue, and an acerbic tone that doesn’t completely hide her sympathy for these very human characters.
News from Heaven (Harper Perennial)
By Jennifer Haigh
Jennifer Haigh is one of our very best writers. (I thought she would win the Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award for her last novel, Heat and Light.) News from Heaven is a sequel of sorts to her brilliant novel Baker Towers in the form of interrelated stories that help us catch up with key characters and the town itself. Her writing is keenly observed and very smart; it never calls attention to itself, so you get lost in the lives of her very real characters. Haigh’s latest novel, Mercy Street, was published this week and is receiving rave reviews.
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The UnAmericans (Norton)
By Molly Antopol
The UnAmericans came out of nowhere in 2014 and blew me away. Molly Antopol was named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” writers to watch in late 2013, based on their reading of advance copies of The UnAmericans. Antopol explores the lives of those outside the mainstream culture, whether because of ethnicity, religion, politics, or nationality. Her insight into human nature is psychotherapeutic and her polished prose is a pleasure to read. I’m still waiting for her follow-up.
In the Country (Vintage)
By Mia Alvar
Mia Alvar’s collection about the lives of Filipinos at home and abroad was the most impressive collection in 2015 (just as Molly Antopol’s The UnAmericans was the previous year). Sometimes a “new” writer comes along whose talent is already fully formed and whose sensibility is distinct and powerful. Underneath the placid surface of Alvar’s writing lie riptides of desperate love, family separation, cultural shock and adaptation, and a fierce determination to wrangle a better life out of the most difficult circumstances.
Bobcat and Other Stories (Algonquin Books)
By Rebecca Lee
Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee is another brilliant debut collection that knocked my socks off. Like Molly Antopol and Mia Alvar, Lee arrived playing at the top of her game. Every story is spellbinding in both characterization and prose. Several stories made me shake my head in amazement and appreciation of her immense talent. Saskatchewan, Canada has given the U.S. a great gift in Ms. Lee. Now, where’s her second book?
This is Paradise (Hogarth)
By Kristiana Kahakauwila
The daughter of a Hawaiian father and Norwegian-American mother, Kristiana Kahakauwila was raised in Southern California but often visited family in Hawaii. This upbringing gave her the ideal perspective from which to view and dissect modern Hawaiian life and culture. Kahakauwila is both sympathetic and unsparing in her depiction of the lives of real Hawaiians outside Waikiki and tourist traps. She also writes beautifully. This is an impressive debut; I’m looking forward to her next book.
To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts: Stories (Fomite Press)
By Caitlin Hamilton Summie
As the title suggests, Summie’s characters are at crossroads of various kinds; they are struggling for emotional independence, attempting to resolve long-standing conflicts (usually familial), and trying to make sense of a complex and confusing world. These are quiet, intimate stories driven by character more than plot, yet they are compelling in both their dramatic tension and often unsettling (but not unsettled) resolution. Set mostly in rural and urban Minnesota, with detours to and New York City, these stories are probing examinations of the seemingly small, mundane moments that reverberate through our lives. Summie’s empathy for her characters’ humanity is so strong, and her prose so lovely, that a palpable warmth emanates from the stories despite their physically frigid settings.
Faulty Predictions (University of Georgia Press)
By Karin Lin-Greenberg
Karin Lin-Greenberg won the Flannery O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction for the stories that became this collection (the winner is published by University of Georgia Press). She writes with a sharp eye and great affection for her flawed and very human characters. Some of the stories explore issues that arise from Lin-Greenberg’s upbringing and academic background (she earned a BA, MA, and MFA in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and now teaches at Siena College in upstate New York). Others probe the tensions in small towns among residents and, in some cases, a university community. This is an exceptionally strong and promising debut.
Know the Mother (Wayne State University Press)
By Desiree Cooper
Know the Mother by Desiree Cooper is a slim but potent collection of flash fiction that examines the multifaceted roles of mothers in our society. Cooper is a poet, journalist, and writer of fiction, and it shows in these finely wrought slices of life and character studies. In 120 pages she will expand and intensify your understanding of contemporary motherhood and of the women who live inside that role.
The Other Language (Vintage)
By Francesca Marciano
Francesca Marciano’s The Other Language deserved a lot more attention than it received upon publication a few years ago. It was very well-reviewed, but like most books, it didn’t reach as many people as it should have. Marciano is a keen-eyed observer, firm but sympathetic in her handling of character, and her writing is elegant but pointed. Highly recommended.
Bright Shards of Someplace Else (University of Georgia Press)
By Monica McFawn
Monica McFawn won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, which includes being published by UGA Press. This varied collection runs the gamut, from earthy horse trainers to quirky scientists and songwriters, from a precocious child to a mystery-solving professor. The thread holding these diverse stories together is McFawn’s empathy for these complex, even difficult people and her crisp prose. McFawn is a writer to watch.
The Loss of All Lost Things: Stories (Elixir Press)
By Amina Gautier
Gautier’s third collection, The Loss of All Lost Things, is her best work yet. Here she moves beyond the concerns of her earlier work to the issue of loss in its many forms. Her characters have either suffered a loss, literally lost someone or something, or are at loose ends in figuring out what to do with their lives following a significant and often unexpected event. What so impresses me about these stories is Gautier’s ability to plumb the psyche of complex characters with a psychological acuity that will break your heart repeatedly.