Tessa Hadley's top 10 short stories

Nadine Gordimer says short stories should 'burn a hole into the page'. Here are 10 of the most incandescent examples of the form

Reading short stories is a strenuous business, and that's half the joy of them. You can lose yourself in a novel – but because a story is short, you can always feel the end coming, sooner rather than later. This makes for a more self-conscious immersion. The reader is more aware of the edges of the fiction, and of how it's made.

Writing short stories is deliciously irresponsible – though irresponsible doesn't mean easy. A novel requires intricate engineering; writing a story, you're not distracted by holding the long span of the novel in place, making all its parts work together. A good story concentrates on what's essential, on the white heat at the core of perception. Nadine Gordimer says that short stories should "burn a hole in the page".

How can I not have included James Joyce's The Dead in my list, below, or something else from Dubliners? Well, it was agony, leaving him out. But, unlike all these others, Joyce wasn't a lifelong short-story writer. Dubliners is sublime, but feels like a writer on his way to something else. (It was agony leaving out John Updike too, another of my favourites – his stories are much more satisfying than his novels, I think).

1. Ward 6 by Anton Chekhov

With Chekhov, the modern short story seems to spring into being fully formed, in all its ambivalence and sophistication. In a country town in Russia, miles from anywhere, a doctor has lost his faith in modern medicine, and progress; the only intelligent person he can find to talk to is a madman confined in the hospital. It makes no difference, the doctor lectures his friend, whether you're inside ward 6 or out of it. He soon learns that he's wrong. It's a savage story, and profoundly moral.

2. Odour of Chrysanthemums by DH Lawrence

Lawrence writes about miners and their wives with the same tragic intensity as a great dramatist writing about kings and queens. Elizabeth Bates waits in a Nottinghamshire mining village for her husband to come home. Embittered, thinking how their marriage has failed, she's sure he's out drinking again – but then learns that he's been killed in a mine accident. As Elizabeth prepares her young husband's dead body for burial, Lawrence searches out a new range of expressivity in his language, to do justice to what she comes to feel and understand.

3. A Report to an Academy by Franz Kafka

An ape lectures in exquisitely sophisticated sentences to a distinguished audience in Vienna, telling them his tragic history: since he was captured on the Gold Coast, he has been forced to set about learning human culture. Kafka's deadpan fable is as vast and funny and terrifying as Metamorphosis.

4. At the Bay by Katharine Mansfield

Perhaps some of Mansfield's shorter pieces seem fey and mannered now, belonging to their era. But the late, great New Zealand stories, revisiting her childhood, are all fresh air and broad spaces of light. Their incompletions and free associations still feel audacious, like something new.

5. The Parrot by Elizabeth Bowen

Bowen has written stories as dark and deep as anyone – because my list was sounding solemn, I've chosen one by her that's purely funny. An escaped parrot causes mild havoc in suburbia. Each sentence is worth having by itself. "'Was it improper?' asked Eleanor in a low voice, winding wool quickly." Chasing the parrot, Eleanor – an inhibited lady companion – finds herself on a roof with a risqué artist in a dressing-gown.

6. The Immortal by Jorge Luis Borges

A Roman soldier searches for eternal life; we find his story in a manuscript hidden inside an old book. Granted immortality, the soldier learns that it's not worth having. "Everything among the mortals has the value of the irretrievable and the perilous." Wisdom to live by.

7. Moon Lake by Eudora Welty

The stories in Welty's collection Golden Apples make up a portrait of a small town in Mississippi between the wars. In Moon Lake the respectable little girls of Morgana coexist at summer camp with the orphans, who seem to them wilder and more entrancing. Welty's lovely language is involved and oblique, belonging to the high modernism of the southern states in the mid-century.

8. Country Lovers by Nadine Gordimer

This is one of a pair of stories set in apartheid-era South Africa – there's a Town Lovers, too, equally fine and terrible. A white farmer's son and one of the black girls from the kraal play together as children; when the time comes to grow up into segregation they can't unlearn the deep affinity they feel for each other. The blunt instruments of an unjust law invade their intimacy and privacy. Gordimer draws on two story traditions at once: an austere political parable is also a fragment of life, rendered with a sensuous and exact realism.

9. Gold Watch by John McGahern

McGahern in his novels and stories revisits the same material over and over – a tyrannical father, and a son who can't please him nor forgive him. The secret of McGahern's style is in his repetitions – of words, things, places. But this is a beautiful love story too. "'Why are we so happy?' I would ask."

10. Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro

Munro has changed our sense of what the short story can do as radically as Chekhov and Mansfield did at the beginning of the 20th century. She uses the form so capaciously – a whole community in 1950s rural Canada is captured in the loose weave of this one – around a woman who believes she's uncovered the secret of a violent death. She makes plans to do the right thing, bring the secret into the light of day. There's never a false or fussy note, as Munro penetrates in words into the hidden roots of how we choose to live, and why we act.

Tessa Hadley will be running a short story masterclass at the inaugural Rhys Davies short story conference on 14 September. The conference will be held at Swansea University from 13-15 September


Tessa Hadley

The GuardianTramp

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