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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10 female Australian short story writers you should read

Rescue reading for troubled times Part 2

Last week’s post was all about rescue reading, my suggestions for short reading to keep you in a world of words when your concentration is shot and you’re too distracted to stick around for long. Here are my Rescue Reading suggestions for female Australian short story writers that would be perfect for this.

Josephine Rowe – Here until August

Beautiful stories scattered across the globe. It’s an art to be able to furnish your characters and narrative so fully while using such spare prose. She places you as firmly in Western Australia as she does in a Montreal winter. A collection that will definitely take you away if you need to not be here right now.

Melanie Cheng – Australia Day

All these doctors who also write (Vincent Lam, Chekov, Peter Goldsworthy), how do they do it? Melanie Cheng is one of them as well.

These stories capture that rare cross-section of Australia in its more realistic diversity. A place where everyone is trying to find how and where they can belong. More recently, not a short story but well worth a read, she’s written an essay on her experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic as a doctor for the Guardian.

Cate Kennedy – Dark Roots & Like a House on Fire

For a while in the noughties Cate Kennedy was constantly referred to as Australia’s ‘Queen of Short Stories’. She’s been off the radar in recent years and is writing poetry now instead. But when you go back to her two collections, you’ll realise that human dynamics are timeless in her hands.

Listen to her on Conversations with Richard Fidler. It’s a great interview about the time she and her family spent living and working in Vanuatu. If you’re time-poor though, skip right to the end and listen to her reading one of her poems. The Midas touch with all forms it seems.

Julie Koh – Portable Curiosities

These stories are the wild love-child of satire and surrealism. As a taster, in the story Sight, our narrator, China Doll, has regular conversations with the enigmatic Tattoo Man. China Doll has a third eye located in her stomach (her sister used to have one on her left shoulder). Her mum arranges for it to be surgically removed but not before China Doll has a chance to meet the brother who never came home from hospital…in lizard form.

Emily Paull – Well-behaved women

This collection is perfect if you want to dip into a little nostalgia for adolescence and its sense of longing or feel the heat of endless summers, fractured friendships and family ties both tight and loose. A good read for sand between your toes in the middle of winter.

Alice Bishop – A Constant Hum

This collection of stories is written in the aftermath of the Victorian Black Saturday fires of 2009. So, this is what happens when big news moves from the front page. People live with it, the loss of it, the trauma of it and the seedlings of hope that sometimes still grow. Stories from one paragraph to many pages to suit your current abilities of concentration.

Maxine Beneba Clarke – Foreign Soil

This debut collection won quite a few literary prizes back in 2015. It was definitely a win for readers who got to hear from voices and read about lives that don’t always make their way onto the shelves from Sudanese migrants to asylum seekers and Chinese students. She was a performance poet first and the rhythm and cadence of language and speech is also something that’s noticeable in these voices.

Tegan Bennet Daylight – 6 Bedrooms

I love a good collection of inter-linked short stories like Tim Winton’s The Turning or Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge books. This isn’t a whole collection of linked stories but there are enough for you to chart the lives of a few characters. This is another collection to go to for coming-of-age first times and the longing, humiliation and triumph of youth.

She writes beautifully and if you’re more in the mood for non-fiction, The Details, her recently released book of essays, is another excellent option to dip in and out of.

Margo Lanagan – Singing My sister Down and Other stories

Margo Lanagan has that Margaret Atwood sense of disquiet to her stories where frightening things happen in a world that is similar but not-quite ours. The title story Singing my sister down has stayed with me like no other story since Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.

I get goose bumps just reading the first line. We all went down to the tar-pit, with mats to spread our weight. Read it. I think it might be one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.

Fiona McFarlane – The High Places

Fiona MacFarlane is best known for her novel The night guest but for me, this book of shorts was a much better read. There’s something very classic in the style of these stories that made them feel more like a 20th Century read, and I mean that in a good way. The subjects suit the style.

You can also read her story Demolition from the May 2020 New Yorker.

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

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

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