This piece originally appeared in carte blanche, the literary review of the Quebec Writers’ Federation. My sincere thank you to Nicola Danby for editing it.
To me, the longstanding appeal of fiction has always been to escape my limited worldview and enter that of somebody else. Now, I don’t read stories by women to find out what women are like. There’s real life for that. I read stories by women for the same reason I read stories by men. When I say I love the stories of Mavis Gallant, I don’t say so because she is a woman. I say it because she is a great writer, full stop. It’s embarrassing to belabour this point, but I feel I should, because I am a man, and because there is nothing so awful for a man to say than something like, “She’s great. And she’s a woman, too!”
Something rather dreadful like this happened recently on Twitter, when Playboy (who’da thunk a Hugh Heffner production would be so sexist?!) tried to heap praise on the musician Neko Case. The cringe-inducing tweet that Case was “breaking the mold of what women in the music industry should be” elicited more than a cringe from Case—thank God. She replied:
It’s in this spirit that I present my list.
1. The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street, by Mavis Gallant
This story, about ex-patriot Canadians in Europe (like many of Gallant’s stories) is probably one of her most famous. It’s the kind of story you can read, not get, read again, not get, and keep not-getting, perhaps for your whole life. Because that’s how Gallant is—so astonishingly life-like are her literary creations that you never, ever feel the authorial temptation to tell you something, explain to you something. No, what you get is messiness, confusion, self-doubt. This story is about an encounter between a male protagonist with a younger woman who is originally from a small-town in Saskatchewan. It’s simple. And it’s not.
2. Dear Life, by Alice Munro
The title story of Alice Munro’s most-recently published collection is a gem, not just for all the many usual reasons that Munro’s fiction is celebrated, but also because it’s such a compelling account of how an author picks over the events of her own life—seeking stories, maybe meanings—and how both the stories and meanings change over the decades. It’s probably not a stretch to say that only a woman of Munro’s extraordinary longevity could pull off this kind of feat.
3. Bliss, by Katherine Mansfield
“Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at–nothing–at nothing, simply.” That’s how much fantastic writing is on offer just in the first line. New Zealand has produced so much more for us to marvel at than the backdrop for the The Lord of the Rings.
4. The Museum of Useless Efforts, by Cristina Peri Rossi
The imagination of the Uruguayan Rossi, is larger than the constraints of earthly reality, if one can make so bold a claim. Her highly experimental fiction is always weird, never dull. I really love this story because it starts with such a wonderful premise—a museum that catalogs all the “useless efforts” in history (“a man tried to fly seven times; some prostitutes attempted to find another job; a woman wanted to paint a picture”)—and it just gets better from there.
5. The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The classic story of a descent into madness. It’s made all the more poignant because madness, of course, plays out worse for women than men in the late stages of the nineteenth century, when this was written.
6. The Resplendent Quetzal, by Margaret Atwood
Atwood is possibly the wittiest author Canada’s given the world. Her story from 1977 about tourists in Mexico is a gem.
7. The Story of an Hour, by Kate Chopin
Intense, fast moving and with a shock ending. Frequently anthologized.
8. Why I Live at the P.O., by Eudora Welty
Set in the deep South, by an author who, like Faulkner, was determined to create narrative out of the society immediately around her, this story bursts off the page through the entertaining but also cruel conversation/argument that you get in a close-knit family.
9. How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti
This entry on the list is, well, me cheating, because this is not in fact a short story, but rather, a novel excerpt that the magazine n+1 published back in 2010. I was blown away by it and scant months later, bought the full work. Heti is easily one of the best young Canadian authors at work today.
10. In the Tunnel, by Mavis Gallant
I said I loved the stories of Mavis Gallant, so I had to include a second story by her on the list! This one sets a couple of stodgy old Brits in the south of France with a young Canadian guest who is sleeping with somebody she calls Professor Downcast. Brilliant.