As this year of illness, lockdown and loneliness heads towards its bitter end, finding ways to keep connected and our spirits buoyed is crucial. This might have seemed like the year of the writer, because cabin fever, economic precariousness and a climate of dystopia are staples for the profession. It might have been the year of the reader, as the desultory days of furlough and confinement allowed for more leisure activity. Certainly, ebook and classics sales are up.
A lot has been asked of literature in 2020. What do we need during hard, uncertain, even barricaded times? Escape? Comfort? A better vision of the world or a mirror of our malaise?
I’ve been making the case that the short story is the perfect form for our year of Covid. It’s very satisfying to complete a reading in a single sitting (or few) and enjoy the rich effect. Great short stories are artful, beguiling, dangerous or delightful narratives; they contain a diverting amount of energy. Within an hour a whole world, its inhabitants and its (often) vexing propositions can be consumed. And a disquieting tale can bring a lot of perspective. We may be in serious trouble but at least we aren’t bleeding to death in the back of a truck while our hunting pals procrastinate, or carting around granny’s werewolf hand in a handkerchief, or being held hostage by a depraved outlaw.
Short stories can deal so effectively in dark matter. The best are like suitcase nuclear devices – small, disproportionately powerful, capable of demolishing normality and morality. But in addition to dosage and cultural diet, short stories provide us with something else that’s a tonic in these times: they glory in being read aloud. For many people during the months of isolation, only the voice has offered connection – my dad included. He has underlying health conditions and can’t visit or host his adored granddaughter. Usually he would help tuck her up at night and read a bedtime story. Instead, two or three times a week, he FaceTimes and reads his Roald Dahl collection. She’s always rapt – partly because Grandad is not physically there to use as a human trampoline, partly because a good story with a good delivery is completely mesmerising. I can hear in his performance how much he enjoys it – the vim, the mischief, the drama as the aunts are mowed down by the giant peach, as Mr Fox outsmarts the dimwitted farmers. Over the months his rendition has settled, rather playfully, between the styles of Oliver Postgate and David Bellamy.
Reading out loud is a skill we often lose in adulthood or just aren’t encouraged to hone, but it exercises confidence, enlivens and can encourage our own creative voices. For children it can be a revelation. My dad is having a rough ride with his treatment, so during the last call my daughter, who has just mastered the skill of recognising words rather than decoding them by sounding them out, decided he should rest and she would read one of her school chapter books to him. His melty face and her sense of accomplishment were heartrending (or perhaps heart-mending).
I remember being spellbound when our primary headmaster told us ghost stories during carpet time. Spectral ferrymen on Windermere, moor-roaming giant dogs, grey headless ladies in ancient farmhouses: it was toe-curling stuff. (He’d be fired now for terrifying young innocents, but if you want to build a writer …) I also remember listening to stories on the radio with my mum – there were set times to tune in because it was an event, an entertaining instalment, both shared and a private listening experience. It’s invaluable that the BBC, Audible and other outlets are championing the form, commissioning and recording individual pieces or series, promoting prize shortlists in prime time.
I’ve been lucky over the years when invited to write stories first and foremost for the ear, for radio or podcast – it brings the craft back to its old oral tradition and can renew its attentive power. There are stories I’ve composed almost without a sense of the page: The Nightlong River, in which a young woman makes a sacrificial coat one harsh winter for her sick friend, and “Sudden Traveller”, narrated by a dislocated, steeled self that the protagonist employs to get her through the stormy burial of her mother. I’ve always tended towards this form during difficult times, both in reading and writing, as others might turn to poetry to grapple with momentous and meaningful occasions: weddings and funerals, suffering, hope. It fits. It makes sense, even if no sense may be made.
The suspense and surprises, the black existential humour, provocation and magic of the short story are second to none. In these dark, chilling days when we don’t know what is coming, we should turn to literature that reminds us we don’t ever really know what’s coming. So when your beau is in the bath, why not knock on the door and slip in with a seductive fantasy or a bit of subversive sci-fi. If you are cooped up in quarantine, the least weak soul could bust out some Chekhov – if he could write tales while suffering tuberculosis, we can read them with coronavirus. Caged-up kids can be subdued, and even stupefied, by the incandescent Angela Carter or some jocose George Saunders. And if we have been separated from loved ones this Christmas, and a voice over the phone has to suffice, don’t forget that a little literary daring is a marvellous gift. Here’s my advice this season: tell stories, be brave, keep good company with life’s uncertainty.
• Sarah Hall won the BBC national short story award with Cambridge University in 2020. The 2021 award will open for entries in January – for more information, see bbc.co.uk/nssa. Sudden Traveller is out now in paperback (Faber).
The best winter short stories to read aloud
‘The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter
(Published in The Bloody Chamber)
In this reimagining of the legend of Bluebeard, Carter takes no prisoners with her fierce, sensualist prose, and the monster’s latest hostage wife must rely on female guile and guts to help her escape the fate of her predecessors.
‘Fox 8’ by George Saunders
(Published in Fox 8: A Story)
In this dark, comic fable, an unusually curious fox learns to speak “yuman” by eavesdropping on children’s bedtime stories and becomes ensnared in the struggle to save his pack from the construction of a new shopping mall.
The Eatonville Anthology by Zora Neale Hurston
(Published in The Complete Stories)
A collection of satirical portrait vignettes illustrating the political dealings, romantic doings and folklore of a small southern-states town. In a single sentence, Hurston can capture the spirit of a character or the racial freight of history.
‘Hunters in the Snow’ by Tobias Wolff
(Published in The Stories Of Tobias Wolff)
Three friends go hunting in the woods near Spokane, in Washington, and the dynamics of power and powerlessness, nature and humanity are put to the test. When an accident occurs the situation unravels, resulting in one of the most excruciating literary experiences.
‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’ by Flannery O’Connor
(Published in A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories)
A family on a road trip find themselves entangled with a group of criminals led by the notorious Misfit. In the ensuing drama, O’Connor masterfully and remorselessly investigates human perception, morality and causality.
‘The Cheater’s Guide to Love’ by Junot Díaz
(Published in This Is How You Lose Her)
In the last story of the linked collection This Is How You Lose Her, Yunior, a silver-tongued Dominican-American lothario, reaches the nadir of his romantic downfall and is exposed to the cold forces of accountability, sorrow and reparation.
‘Most Beloved’ by Tatyana Tolstaya
(Published in Sleepwalker in a Fog)
Set in Leningrad and the surrounding countryside, this is the melancholy tale of Zhenechka, a governess. She’s no Mary Poppins, her wards love and take her for granted equally, but her soul is the old country and, like Tolstaya’s extraordinary, unapologetic prose, she’s unforgettable.
‘The Girls and the Dogs’ by Kevin Barry
(Published in Dark Lies the Island)
Things go wrong and then “wronger again” for Barry’s criminal protagonist as he hides from the authorities in a farm caravan on the west coast of Ireland, and is drawn into the dysfunction of his host and two sisters. Blackly and bleakly hilarious.
‘Sexy’ by Jhumpa Lahiri
(Published in Interpreter of Maladies)
Infidelity runs parallel as a woman conducts an affair with a married man while hearing the sad account of her friend’s jilted cousin. Themes of alienation and damage, loneliness and knowledge, and Indian and western cultures, are subtly interrogated throughout Lahiri’s story.
‘Antarctica’ by Claire Keegan
(Published in Antarctica)
What risks are worth taking in life? What experiences can we not live without? What penalties do women pay for seeking answers? Keegan terrifyingly reminds us that very little might separate wonder and the worst scenario, that chance and fate are randomly dealt.