Unsung Short Story Masters
September 13, 2013 3:01 PM   Subscribe

I want to know about that favorite short story writer of yours that no one else has ever heard of.

It occurs to be me that a form as dense, prolific, and yet, let's face it, as marginal to modern culture as the short story must have a lot damn fine artists smothered in the dark spirals of its long tail.

So tell me about the luckless grandmasters you love who never made it on to the O. Henry shortlist. Who never made it out of the purgatory of the small collegiate press, or who chose to practice their art on Blogspot, in zines, in fly-by-night urban journals, in the uncollected pulps, at open mics.

Or who won, at least, some little recognition from their more famous peers only to die in a Harlem shooting gallery in 1957, aged 24.

Or who were slightly overrated in 1880, and have been dismally underrated ever since.

Or who are household names in their native lands, but have received only inconsistent and unpublicized English translations.

Or who are honored and loved and discussed in your graduate English seminar, but whom your civilian book-reading friends recognize only with bewildered stares if you mention their name.

Or who never received a fair shake because of their age, their gender, their parents, who they loved, where they were writing from, what they were writing about.

Or who have been quietly turning out masterpieces this last little while, free, happy, and untroubled by anything but the desire for a recognition which simply hasn't yet arrived in force.

Isn't it about time, after all?
posted by Iridic to Writing & Language (42 answers total) 94 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: To get the potluck started, here are a few lesser known writers I favor:

Robert Aickman.
R.A. Lafferty.
Elizabeth Bowen (a marginal case, but passes the "blank stares from friends test," as do William Trevor, for God's love, and William Maxwell).
That sick bastard Dean Paschal.
Vincent O'Sullivan.
Joaquim Machado de Assis.
Steve Aylett.
Margaret Oliphant.
posted by Iridic at 3:03 PM on September 13, 2013

Best answer: Laura Riding
posted by vers at 3:19 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Jincy Willett's stories are jaw-droppingly good. Her novels have never really done anything for me: too "zany," too "quirky." But some of the stories in that book are way up there with Shirley Jackson on my list.

Kenji Miyazawa wrote these haunting odd little fairy tales — somewhere between "The Little Prince" and "Howl's Moving Castle," with maybe a smidgen of Shirley Jackson again — but that collection is unfortunately out of print. I've never read any of his longer stuff.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 3:20 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: While pointing out that "unsung" is highly relative, I've been blown away recently by these short story collections, all by authors I hadn't read previously:

Andre Dubus - The Last Worthless Evening (poignant insight into human relationships)
George Saunders - The Tenth of December (funny / dark / ultimately moving)
Nick Antosca - The Girlfriend Game (extremely dark)
Yoko Ogawa - The Diving Pool (creeping dread)

Sorry if these are big names and I just don't know it! I got the last two recommendations from this AskMe thread.
posted by The Minotaur at 3:21 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Aickman came to mind before I got to your update, so I guess I'm on track, though these won't be supernatural stories.

I discovered Juan José Millás via his story "Other Persons," and I'd recommend most stories in his collection Personality Disorders except for the long mash up that combines many of them into a monologue/play. They're all sort of existentialist or magical realist and also often slightly witty.

I'd also recommend Hiroshi Yamamoto's The Stories of Ibis. It's technically a fix-up novel, but the little bits that connect the stories are transparent fix-ups until you get to the last story, which is especially brilliant. It probably sets expectations too high, but if you like Ted Chiang, that's the closest comparison I can come up with.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:26 PM on September 13, 2013

Best answer: I'm not sure how unknown he is, but Howard Waldrop is probably at least as unsung as Lafferty. (They also have kind of a similar sensibility.) "The Ugly Chickens" is a classic.

In a completely different vein, I enjoyed the linked short story collection On the Line by the almost totally forgotten Harvey Swados (whose novels I've also enjoyed).
posted by enn at 3:38 PM on September 13, 2013

Best answer: Breece D'J Pancake. Popular for a brief time. Poignant slightly dark stories.

Tennessee Jones
. Complicated stories about the south and gender/transgender topics

Ben Loory. His book Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day is a collection of modern oddities in the style of Brautigan or Barthelme.

Max Apple has some weird stories in his book Free Agents that I think never got the attention they were due.
posted by jessamyn at 3:41 PM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The author of "The Great Frustration" — No idea who this guy is but he's genius. I assume pretty young.
posted by amoeba at 3:42 PM on September 13, 2013

Best answer: Three of my favorites.
Two recent:
Karen Russell - Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Manuel Gonzales - The Miniature Wife
and one slightly older:
Lucius Shepard - The Jaguar Hunter
Not sure how "unknown" they are but I picked up all of them cold (before reading about them).
posted by DaddyNewt at 3:42 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Etgar Keret - especially The Nimrod Flipout. He's Israeli and actually fairly well known, but I don't think most people I know would think he was a household name.
posted by sweetkid at 3:47 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: John Collier. It is utterly absurd that he isn't better known. His work is somewhat reminiscent of Roald Dahl's short stories for adults.
posted by kyrademon at 3:50 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ray Vukcevich sounds like he's right up your alley.

Leslie What might also make you quite happy.

Leonora Carrington is primarily known for visual art, but she also wrote quite a few short stories, and a novel. (The short stories are wonderful; the collections are hard to get, but worth it. The novel is sort of an intriguing mess, but it can usually be had for cover price.)
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 3:57 PM on September 13, 2013

Best answer: Oh, and I don't know if this counts, but maybe also check out ZZ Packer. Her collection blew up like an A-bomb when it came out in 2004, but publications since then have been scarce. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is an incredible book.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 4:02 PM on September 13, 2013

Best answer: He's not unknown, but also not a household name: I really like Mike Resnick's short stories (especially his short short stories).
posted by jb at 4:05 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Leonard Michaels
Charles D'Ambrosio
Thom Jones
I think of Renata Adler's "Speedboat" as a book of stories, but maybe it's something else entirely.
posted by baseballpajamas at 4:08 PM on September 13, 2013

Best answer: I came in to recommend John Collier, but kyrademon beat me to it! So I will instead say Lord Dunsany, for tales of the weird, and Cordwainer Smith for wondrous science fiction stories like those of no one else. I defy anyone to read "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" and not mist up.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 4:11 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you think you might like early 20th-century Swiss and Austrian modernism...

The amazing, mysterious Robert Walser. Start with his Selected Stories.

Arthur Schnitzler, whose Dream Story became the basis for Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Bachelors and Night Games are great collections.

Joseph Roth, Collected Stories
posted by scody at 4:17 PM on September 13, 2013

Best answer: Seconding Thom Jones - he really is amazing and does not get enough mainstream attention.
posted by barnoley at 4:33 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just can't get out off this thread, can I?

In terms of international-badasses-of-whom-the-English-speaking-world-is-tragically-ignorant, two immediately come to mind:

Olga Tokarczuk is a glorious, living miracle. In Poland, she's Margaret Atwood. Here in the U.S., she's two small press novels and a handful of short stories. All are worth tracking down. If I had more time, I would straight-up teach myself Polish in order to read more of her work. Her novel Primeval and Other Times is my go-to Xmas present for the discerning and bookish.

Then there's Turkey's Murathan Mungan. I got addicted to this guy reading back issues of Grand Street. As far as I know, that's still the best way to get access to his stuff if you don't read Turkish. They used to publish him all the time.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 4:49 PM on September 13, 2013

Best answer: Came to suggest Pancake, but jessamyn beat me to the punch! Great writer with a strong sense of place (SE Ohio/WV)
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 5:17 PM on September 13, 2013

Breece D'J Pancake. Popular for a brief time. Poignant slightly dark stories.

My favorite writing professor (sadly deceased) handed out a D'J Pancake (also sadly deceased) story. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it was about a family of three where the mother suddenly dies, the son tries to give her mouth-to-mouth, and the father gets upset?

It was odd, but it had a way of sticking in the memory.
posted by JHarris at 5:17 PM on September 13, 2013

Best answer: A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray is a series of brilliant portraits of lives defined by unexpected turning points. The settings range from war zones to the Himalayas to the Florida keys. The characters are sometimes obsessives, they are idiosyncratic, they are well defined individuals. Very beautiful stories.
posted by alms at 5:40 PM on September 13, 2013

Best answer: I'm going to stop after this, I promise.

But I've got to get this guy's name out there.

Chris Furst is an emerging writer. To date, I don't believe he's published more than two stories, but man does he have promise. I will be watching, avidly, for further publications.

While I'm at it, here are few other early career writers whose stuff is wonderful:

Brian Conn, who seems to be just on the verge of blowing up up;

Kiini Ibura Salaam, whose potently sexy stuff ranges from almost-mainstream to Ursula Leguin-like social speculation to Jay Lake-style mannerist space opera. Not all of her experiments are successful, but even when she falls on her face, she does it fascinatingly, and with aplomb.

Meghan McCarron, whose stories can be as warmly funny as Laurie Colwin's and as glitterily mysterious as Kevin Brockmeier's.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 6:02 PM on September 13, 2013

Best answer: A certain sort of devoted fan of classic sci-fi has definitely heard of Cyril Kornbluth, but a lot of people who've read, say, Heinlein and Asimov, have never heard of him as far as I can tell. He was certainly in the right crowd, with Pohl and Asimov and the other Futurians, but he unfortunately passed away at age 34. I think if he'd kept writing, people would have kept looking up his back catalog, but without new output, he kind of got shoved to the back burner even though he was easily as brilliant.
posted by Sequence at 8:10 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I love the story by the Hawaiian writer Kimberly Kepa'a Tubania in the flash fiction collection New Sudden Fiction, and it drives me up the wall that I can't find anything else by her. Apparently she has no online presence whatsoever.
posted by book 'em dano at 8:32 PM on September 13, 2013

Best answer: Barry Yourgrau
Kelly Link
posted by moonmilk at 9:03 PM on September 13, 2013

Best answer: Sherman Alexie-- I don't know if he counts as "less well-known", but at this point he's definitely better-known for his novels and YA fiction. However, his short stories are excellent. He has a couple collections; I get confused between them but I think Ten Little Indians was my favorite. (He's also a good poet.)
posted by threeants at 9:35 PM on September 13, 2013

Best answer: I can't help adding a bunch more now that I have my bookshelves to look at. Confining myself first to works unjustifiably out of print in the US: These are in print but worth mentioning because they're much more interesting than they are popular (if the number of commenters at Goodreads means anything): Nthing SF/F titans like Lucius Shepard, Cordwainer Smith, and Lord Dunsany as deserving of wider recognition. In that vein--well-known to a 'fan' community but on point--I'll add a few NESFA titles: I'll also second New Sudden Fiction, because that's the one with "Other Persons" in it.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:48 PM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Which languages do you read?
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:31 AM on September 14, 2013

Best answer: He's best known for his long SF and Fantasy series, but Stephen R. Donaldson has published two collections of short stories I highly recommend.
posted by hippybear at 7:34 AM on September 14, 2013

Best answer: I'm currently reading Map of Dreams by M. Rickert and adoring it. An elegant style, memorable (occasionally haunting) images, and a deft handling of characters and emotion. Even among readers of speculative fiction, I don't think she gets enough attention. Some stories here.

Similarly, Theodora Goss. Christopher Barzak. Rachel Swirsky. Margo Lanagan. Ted Chiang is, with good reason, celebrated in spec fic but not much outside it. If you read some of Lucius Shepard--I hope you do!--and like what you find, I'd also recommend Jeffrey Ford.

In the vein of Keret, Saunders, and Russell, I'd add Kevin Wilson (Tunneling to the Center of the Earth), Jonathan Carroll, and Steven Millhauser (the latter only if you dig metafictional not-quite-stories).
posted by xenization at 7:38 AM on September 14, 2013

Response by poster: Wow. Thank you all.

Too-Ticky: I can read French, if more slowly than I'd like, and my German's not so far gone that I can't limp through with a ready dictionary.
posted by Iridic at 11:34 AM on September 14, 2013

Best answer: Oh yeah -- James Tiptree, Jr! More wondrous sf. (The pseud of Alice Sheldon.)
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 6:40 PM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Pleasant surprises by people I’ve never heard of;

The Piano Tuner by Peter Meinke
Last Days of the Dog-Men: Stories by Brad Watson

I’m going to second Sherman Alexie, but I don’t think of him as unsung, I think he’s one of the best there is.
posted by bongo_x at 10:47 AM on September 15, 2013

Best answer: Theodore Sturgeon and Robert Sheckley were much celebrated within sf in their lifetimes, but so far as I can see, they're not being discovered by new readers.

Big dittos to Howard Waldrop (who has managed to remain fairly obscure despite nearly universal admiration by other writers), Ted Chiang (who's pretty well-known among well-read sf readers, but having only written about ten stories, isn't huge), and Lucius Shepard (again, fairly well-known within sf.)
posted by Zed at 11:41 AM on September 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'll also recommend Kelly Eskridge; Dangerous Space is a great collection of her stuff.
posted by kyrademon at 3:06 PM on September 15, 2013

Best answer: Seconding Etgar Keret as a short story writer everyone should check out. I liked "Lieland" especially.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 6:56 PM on September 15, 2013

Best answer: How in hell did we forget Maureen McHugh?
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 2:58 AM on September 16, 2013

Best answer: I have also enjoyed collections by Mark Richard (The Ice at the Bottom of the World), Mark Costello (The Murphy Stories and Middle Murphy), and also Denis Johnson (Jesus' Son), though the latter probably not unheralded enough for your needs.
posted by baseballpajamas at 10:38 AM on September 16, 2013

Also possibly not unheralded enough, but the reference to Denis Johnson reminded me to mention Richard Lange's collection, Dead Boys.
posted by scody at 12:08 PM on September 16, 2013

Best answer: Brian Evenson. He has a few novels and novellas as well, but where he really shines is in short story format. He writes these dense, claustrophobic horror stories that will haunt you for years to come. The Wavering Knife and Altmann's Tongue are two good places to start. Don't expect the supernatural, nor exposition or moralising, no masterful plot twists and cheap tricks, just raw earnest and bleeding all over the floor, human evil.
posted by MysteriousMan at 2:04 AM on September 17, 2013

Best answer: And now, for some Latin Americans:

Augusto Monterroso: A Guatemalan, part of the Latin American "Boom", wrote (almost) exclusively in the short story form. His story "El Dinosaurio" has been called the "shortest novel published", and it reads in its entirety: "Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí."

Miguel Angel Asturias: As a Nobel laureate he may not be "obscure", but for readers looking for reading recommendations in this thread his first book "Leyendas de Guatemala" (Legends of Guatemala, a re-telling of Maya origin stories) is a favorite of mine.

García Márquez: Known for his novels, he also wrote several short stories. I am particularly fond of his collection "La increible y triste historia de la cándida Eréndira y de su abuela desalmada y otros cuentos" (Translated as: The Incredible and Sad Story of the candid Erendira and her heartless Grandmother)

Julio Cortázar: Probably not super-obscure, as "Rayuela" (Hopscotch) is somewhat well-known, but his short stories are out of this world. You could do worse than start with his 5-story collection "Las armas secretas" (four of these stories were published in English as "Blow-up and Other Stories", which was the inspiration for the Antonioni film of the same name)
posted by papafrita at 12:55 PM on September 17, 2013

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