20th Century female short story writers you should read

Rescue Reading for troubled times Part 3

My Rescue Reading series is suggested short reads for people who want the bliss and escapism of words but can’t concentrate on anything beyond a few pages.

Rescue Reading Part 2 was 10 female Australian short story writers you should read.

Part 3 is a list of 20th Century female short stories writers. Some of them are pioneers of the form. All of them are interesting to read and if we read them enough, we might replace the tendency to think of the big-names of the genre as male.

Mavis Gallant – Collected Stories

Mavis Gallant is a Canadian writer. I went all in and have a giant doorstopper of collected works that I slowly worked through over a year. She spans such varied eras and landscapes but really settles in with post-war Europe.

My brief sentences don’t do her range and sympathies any justice, so I’ll let the eloquence of Francine Prose do the talking. “There’s a light voice on the surface that you can very easily slip beneath, and it’s so deep and where she’s going is so profound.”

Zora Neale Hurston – Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick

Zora Neale Hurston wrote from the 1920s. She was the only African American student at a New York university and during that time became part of the Harlem Renaissance. 8 of the stories here are ‘lost’ from that time.

She also worked as an anthropologist and the story is that she packed a pistol together with her notepads, so she sounds as feisty and no-nonsense as her female characters who take on race and relationships and try to even their odds. Some of the stories are written in a vernacular that adds a cadence to their narrative.

Lucia Berlin – A Manual for Cleaning Women

She’s a new addition to the canon of female short story writers. She wrote for years, but this collection, which was published a couple of years ago, has brought her to a wider audience. I’m one of those grateful recent readers.

Read. This. Collection. She has a vast range and is bold with style and brave with content. Could definitely be categorised as ‘before her time’ writing, among many other things, about single parenthood, addiction and the taboo of female desire and seduction.

Elizabeth Bowen – Collected Stories

I have a brick of a book that is her collected stories. They can feel almost genteel to read (she was born in Ireland and lived in England) but then you get to one like The Working Party where a hostess desperately tries to hide the dead body of one of her staff because it’s finally her turn to have the local ladies over for tea.

She liked to peek under the lid of all that etiquette and respectability. A lot of her stories are set in London during the Second World War.

Grace Paley – Collected Stories

Grace Paley is another feisty one. She was a writer, teacher and activist and that intensity and passion is there in her stories. She’s at home with the ordinary lives, loves and losses of the common people. Her stories span the 1950s to the 1980s, definitely interesting for the modern reader considering the eras of social change.

This is a current constant in my bedside bookstack and I work through it slowly one story at a time. Check out my earlier bookstack post for some of my favourite quotes.

Alice Munro

Does she sneak in as a 20th Century writer? She crosses into the 21st Century but I think she’s been so influential on the form that I’m including her on this list. She won a Nobel for her short stories for crying out loud!

What can I say about Alice Munro that hasn’t been said before? She’s been at it for years, charting our small lives in just-enough words. We skate along with the narrative of her economical prose and there it is all along, what lies beneath.

Lithub has put together a list of 25 of her stories that you can read online.

Katherine Mansfield – In a German Pension

Katherine Mansfield was a New Zealand writer and another one who straddles two centuries (this time 19th and 20th) – even more reason to include her because she was writing as a woman and across topics that weren’t usual for the time. Her writing has also influenced what we think of a modern short story, so take that Hemingway.

Her stories and characters sometimes feel like psychological studies where characters are so tightly wound that the smallest vibration will set everything off. Some people feel her stories read a bit cool or stilted. I think it’s always interesting to see what people have been doing with the form over time. In a German Pension is a good place to start, but probably has a lighter touch than her later work.

Dorothy Parker – Collected Stories

Dorothy Parker is famous for her wit and wisecracks. She was a staff writer at The New Yorker and no one was safe in her reviews and essays.

Her stories are clever but where a one-liner is a quick hit, these carry bruises and have a sadder tone. For all the new freedoms of the age, women were still at the mercy of the men around them; for money, acknowledgement, access to power. If you’re looking for a light read, don’t start here. This is an honest take on mental health in the jazz era.

Shirley Jackson – The Lottery and Other Stories

I’ll fess up that I haven’t read any of her collections. I’ve read her novels and I’ve read her still-gives-me-goosebumps short story The Lottery. It’s her most famous story and I won’t say much for fear of spoiling it.

Shirley Jackson is way ahead of her time. Everything should be normal in her stories but it’s all just a bit off. She leaves an eerie and haunted residue on her pages that is part unnerving and part thrilling. Read The Lottery at the very least. You can read it or hear A.M. Homes reading it for the New Yorker.

Do you love your 20th Century shorts? Let me know any other suggestions you have for collections by 20th Century female short story writers.

I’ll be posting more suggested anthologies and collections for short reading over the next few weeks. Keep an eye out on Twitter @ninakcullen and Facebook or subscribe to my newsletter below for updates.  

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