From a creative writing standpoint—or, at least, my creative writing standpoint—crafting a good short story is on the same plane of difficulty as scribbling down the next War and Peace.
I’ve thankfully ditched my old philosophy that a first draft was all that it took to get a short story into suitable shape, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t have a lot of progress left when it comes to writing good short fiction.
While I still plod along with my own work, I do enjoy seeing what others have been able to achieve in so little space (some of the best short stories I’ve read are in the range of a thousand words or even less). I also have a weakness for literary fiction, so it makes sense that I’ve read a plethora of short stories from literary giants like Cather, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner.
But, I started thinking one day, how well would these stories, although many critics consider them classics, appeal to others? So I have decided to review some of the literary short stories that I’ve read in the past few years and see if they’re worth dusting off and diving into. All the authors listed here are Americans, but I deliberately chose writers with chasms between their styles so you can get a good idea of the rich variety of classic short stories out there.
“Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I read this short story in the autumn of 2016 and was left with the classic head-scratching question, Am I missing something? “Young Goodman Brown,” published in 1835, details a young Puritan man’s discovery of sin in 1600s New England.
The dark, foreboding forest and supernatural characters (like the devil) add an unnerving quality to this theological tale, but I struggled to parse out meaning beneath the surface. Still, “Young Goodman Grown” has great potential to be your next favorite short story if you brush up on Puritan beliefs and prepare yourself for multiple readings.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. I felt clever and decided to place this 1953 short story right after “Young Goodman Brown” because both some form of “good man” in their titles . . . and much more importantly, deal with religion. Both the initial story and the deeper, more philosophical elements of Connor’s short are enjoyable. A Southern family, headed by a talkative, possibly insecure, grandmother, takes a road trip down to Florida. The vacation starts out humorously, and it’s easy to laugh at the grandmother. A dark twist, though, leads to a surprising, thought-provoking conclusion rooted in O’Connor’s views on Christianity.
“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway. A man and a woman in a Spanish train station debate if the woman should get an abortion or not. A huge chunk of the story is simple (though not simplistic) dialogue, and its ending answers nothing and brings up many questions.
I have heard others criticize this story for its clipped minimalism—it’s like Hemingway on steroids—and for another Hemingway trope, which is its depiction of women. I don’t disagree with these critiques. That said, “Hills Like White Elephants” stands out so much in American literature that I recommend reading it, if only for you to make your own opinion on its style and subject matter.
“Barn Burning” by William Faulkner. I like to think of Faulkner and Hemingway as matter and antimatter, at least with writing style, and if “Hills Like White Elephants” strikes you as too barebones, “Barn Burning” (1939) is probably a better bet. The disturbing, vengeful relationship between Sarty Snopes and his barn-burning father, Abner, make this a queasy and haunting read. (The Snopes family of Mississippi appear in several other of Faulkner’s works.) Faulkner showcases family dynamics of loyalty and trust put to the ultimate strain. Beyond the narrative story, Faulkner’s fondness for reveling in the English language is worth checking out in this tale.