The Galley Beggar Press
Short Story Prize 2019/20
Six classic stories recommended by our 2019/20 prize judge, Arifa Akbar
Angela carter, ‘The Bloody Chamber’
I read this radically revisionist version of the Bluebeard fairy story when I was 18 and it shocked me with its language and ideas around sexual desire which occupied what I saw then as a grey zone between voyeurism, sadomasochism and knowingness. Since that first reading I have seen it for the exquisitely rendered feminist fairy-tale that it is with all its subtle, ingenious, subversions. Carter’s novels are stuffed full of imagination. What is extraordinary is that her short stories seem just as extravagant in their imagination, and as complicated in their ideas.
Anton Chekhov, ‘The kiss’
This bittersweet short story hinges on a single incident: a young Russian soldier goes to a lieutenant’s house for tea with fellow offices and is kissed, accidentally, in a dark drawing room by a woman who mistakes him for her lover. The kiss is over in an instant but it draws out so much from his inner world – his romantic hopes and dreams – before they come crashing down. It is a masterclass in conjuring a world in the space of a few pages that seems to carry on existing in your head after the story has ended.
Kathleen Collins, ‘Whatever Happened to Interracial Love’
Kathleen Collins was an African American civil rights activist and writer who died at the 46 and seemed all but forgotten until her daughter went through her unpublished works and found stories to publish in 2006. This one has such sparkling dialogue and contemporary satire that you might be reading the script of new Netflix series. It draws back to a wide-eyed moment in American history when it seemed suddenly de rigueur to have ‘mixed race’ relationships. Collins’ satire is delicious even as this high season for integration wanes and dies.
‘Whatever Happened to Interracial Love’ is not currently available to read online, but you can read a review of Collins’ collection in the New Yorker, here.
Herman Melville, ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street’
I read this story after being sent a tote bag by a publisher which the words: ‘I would prefer not to’. I had no idea what or whom it referred to until a friend mentioned Bartleby. ‘Read the story,’ he urged me and I did. It is about the enervating effects of American capitalism on the human soul, and rebellion against it, though at first it just reads like a very peculiar story. Bartleby is a brilliantly vivid creation with his mix of absurdism and resistance to the crushing forces of nine-to-five life.
Shirley Jackson, ‘The Lottery’
This short, sharp shock of a tale has been described as the most famous short story in American literature. I also think it is one of the best. Published in the New Yorker in 1948, it caused a scandal for its savage ending (subscriptions to the magazine were cancelled; hate mail rolled in). It said something important about mob culture but more than that, it is astonishing how Jackson built such taut drama and suspense in a story this short.
Ali Smith, ‘The First Person’
Go to any Ali Smith story and you will find all the elements of short story writing genius: there are stunning sentences, experiments with form, a playfulness in storytelling and alongside the formal innovations there is – the most difficult thing – a real heart, soul and humanity to her characters. This story, about two people coming together, is whimsical, romantic and deeply affecting all at once.
‘The First Person’ is not currently available online – but another of Smith’s stories. ‘I heard it on Classic FN’, can be found here.
ARIFA AKBAR is theatre critic for The Guardian and arts editor at Tortoise Media. She is the former literary editor of The Independent, where she worked from 2001 to 2016 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk. She has been the Head of Content for the crowd-funding publisher, Unbound, where she launched and edited the long-form literary website, Boundless, in 2017. She has contributed to the Observer, the Financial Times, the Daily Mail and appeared on Sky News as a newspaper reviewer. She is now a regular voice on BBC Radio 4's Front Row. She is also a trustee of the Orwell Foundation and co-administrators the annual Orwell Prize for Political Writing. She has previously served on the advisory board for English PEN's writers in translation committee and in the advisory group for the Cheltenham Literature Festival. She has moderated panels at literary festivals across the UK and judged prizes including the Orwell Prize for Books 2013, Costa Biography Award 2017, the Aesthetica Short Story Prize 2015 and 2016, the UK Theatre Awards 2018 and 2019, and the Women's Prize for Fiction 2019.
Full information on the 2019/20 Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize, and how to enter, can be found here.