1 March 2014

'A Kind of Permission': Short Stories for International Women's Day

Posted by Joanna Walsh

With major awards for Alice Munro and Lydia Davis last year, is now the moment for short stories? If it is, there are a few collections I’d very much like to see back in print.

I’d love a new selected, or collected, edition of the shorter works of Surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington. Last published in 1988 in the USA, you can read a few of her fierce, playful, funny stories from The Oval Lady online.

There’s no easily available UK edition of the stories of Clarice Lispector, the Brazilian writer described by her biographer Benjamin Moser as the ‘most important Jewish writer since Kakfa’, and by translator Gregory Rabassa as ‘that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.’ Family Ties (selected stories) is available from Texas University Press.

I’m a fan of Christine Brooke-Rose’s postmodern experiments. Most of her longer works are still in print with Carcanet; it would be great to see a reprint of her collection Go When You See The Green Man Walking, or an edition of shorter work by her and other radical women writers of the 1960s: Anna Kavan, Brigid Brophy, Ann Quin... I’ve only recently become aware of this tradition, and it’s one I feel we could be in danger of forgetting.

I don’t know how there isn’t a collected edition of Jean Rhys’s stories currently in print. The last was published by Norton in 1992. In his 1927 introduction to the original edition of her first collection, The Left Bank, Rhys’s one-time lover and mentor, Ford Madox Ford, is almost apologetic. He clearly has no idea how to deal with her only-seemingly slight and informal style, which remains radical today: contemporary author Tao Lin often cites her work as an influence.

There are many great women writers whose work is still available in print, however. Here are the books I’ve chosen.

Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior: bitter, pornographic, straight-talking, and frequently hilarious tales about the horrors of love, dating, and men. ‘Romantic Weekend’ is one of the funniest stories you’ll ever read about S&M. This collection also includes ‘Secretary’, the inspiration for the film that Gaitskill called, ‘The “Pretty Woman” version, heavy on the charm (and a little too nice).’

Lydia Davis – Collected Stories. There aren’t many stories I’ve loved more on first reading than that of Lydia Davis which is simply named ‘Story’. There can be few descriptions of a break-up so flatly told, and few so moving. Davis seems to have two projects, always in tension: to delineate the systems by which we construct our lives, and to uncover the ways we live in opposition to them. She does both with a language that’s as simple as it is complex, as sincere as it is – simultaneously – tongue-in-cheek. I showed some of Davis’s deceptively plain stories to a nine year old who was amazed, instantly hooked, and told me, ‘I didn’t know you were allowed to write like that.’

Sheila Heti’s Middle Stories was her first book, although it’s called ‘Middle’, published when Heti was 24. These switchback fables bely their fairytale shells (‘Mermaid in a Jar’ is not for children). They tell me all the truths I know about the relationships between people, but that I try so hard to forget.

‘The centuries go by and you are someone else.’ Susana Medina’s Red Tales is a life’s work, or the work of a life so far (Medina is in her 40s – or, if you go by the book’s release date of ‘3012’, her 1040s). ‘When I wrote Red Tales,’ says Medina, ‘I was particularly into short forms and fragments most of all, as if they could unearth the most intimate texture of emotions.’ Studies of ambiguity, there’s something hypnotic about the meandering nature of these tales set in an international postmodern floating world peopled by scientists, philosophers, exotic dancers, and Ph.D.-sporting latex fetishists. Red Tales is available in a dual Spanish-English edition; Medina writes comfortably (and discomfitingly) in both languages.

Deborah Levy – Black Vodka: ten stories of how love and identity are woven between couples adrift in the strangeness of modern Europe. ‘What is your first language?’ a man asks a woman. ‘There are so many languages,’ she replies. Levy writes, as almost always, about travellers, never sure where they’re going or exactly how to feel at home but – as deeply humane as it is deeply human – in Black Vodka regret is always balanced by hope.

Lindsay Hunter – Don’t Kiss Me: Hunter has voice, and pace, a killer sense of humour, and a truly horrifying sense of the abject. Hers is a raw, tragicomic world of ‘girls with smudged makeup, and rat’s nests in the back of their heads, proud unblinking eyes scanning the room like I dare you, I dare you...’, whether they’re in a post-apocalyptic hell, or just the mall. Don’t Kiss Me grabs you from page one, whirls you round, and throws you into a nearby dumpster along with its heroes and (mostly) heroines. Her first collection, published by FSG in the USA in 2013, is dedicated simply, ‘To Chicago’.

I read Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Stories when I was quite young, and ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ was one of the first stories that showed me what extraordinary things could be done in writing. The story slips back and forth between conventional realism and the interior worlds of the characters, with no borders, showing the world not as is it in ‘realism’ but as it is in life. The story gave me a kind of permission, said, yes, we’re allowed to write, to look at things, differently...

Anaïs Nin – Delta of Venus: I love the playful savagery of Nin’s erotic anthologies (if you like this, read Little Birds too), from its mise-en-abyme introduction (was it really true?) in which Nin tells the story of how she and Henry Miller were, Scheherezade-like, commissioned to write pornographic stories, a dollar a page, for a mysterious ‘collector’. The result is not so much erotic (though the stories are that too) as an examination of eroticism. Nin’s stories are games with mirrors, precise fables of cruelty, incest, power and pleasure, told with a seductively light touch.

Browse Joanna's choices and buy online...

Joanna Walsh is the author of Fractals. She also runs @readwomen2014.