Electric Literature’s 25 Best Short Story Collections of 2016
The 2016 collections that every short story lover should read
Each year, Electric Literature polls our staff and regular contributors to pick our favorite books of the year. Whichever books get the most votes make the final list. Here are the 25 amazing, diverse, innovative, and moving story collections from 2016 that we are proud to recommend. Check them out at an independent bookstore near you.
(You can read our 25 best novels of 2016 list here.)
The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George
Chasing greatness spurs doubt, self-hatred, and pain — especially when the conditions for greatness are determined by the sort of egotistical men that reappear throughout George’s collection. Despite its criticisms of greatness — or perhaps because of them — The Babysitter at Rest is an undeniably great debut collection of stories. George’s writing is funny, courageous, smart, surreal, seductive, and terrifyingly vulnerable.
— Alex McElroy in our review of The Babysitter at Rest
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
Helen Oyeyemi is one of those writers who, no matter when you discover them, makes you wish it had been long ago so you’d have extra hours left in your life to read the rest of their work. She published five novels by the time she turned thirty, and now, at the ripe old age of thirty-one, she’s coming out with a beautiful, brilliant, evocative collection of (somewhat) linked short stories. She is also, incidentally, one of those artists whom you cannot hate for such early success, not even a little tiny envious bit, because she’s clearly so, so talented.
— Ilana Masad in our review of What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours
The Unfinished World: And Other Stories by Amber Sparks
Amber Sparks’ work in her collection, The Unfinished World, is an imaginative exploration of what-ifs. What if Lancelot was lost in a jungle? What if we could time travel, but we did more harm than good? What if a couple’s romance was linked in some way to a cabinet of curiosities? … Sparks understands timing, juxtaposition, and how to create original characters within the confines of a short work.
— Heather Scott Partington in our review of The Unfinished World
A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson
A Collapse of Horses is a master class in unnerving storytelling; seventeen short narratives that range from horror to science fiction and from surrealism to noir. The variety is outstanding, the writing is superb, but what makes this collection deserving of attention is how Evenson manages to achieve a perfect balance between what is on the page and what is left out.
— Gabino Iglesias in our review of A Collapse of Horses
Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett
Readers and reviewers of Pond have questioned whether it is a collection of stories, or a novel, or some hybrid of the two. This woman’s voice is the one you will hear throughout the book. Individual pieces from it were initially presented and published as stories though, and here now is “Morning, 1908,” standing alone again. The classification does not seem to me to be very important — my only concern being that imposing one classification over another might deter readers or limit the book’s success in any way.
We are very proud to have published Claire-Louise Bennett in the magazine and with the press. Discovering a writer of this caliber among the submissions and then getting to share her work with readers really is what it’s all about.
— Declan Meade, Publisher and Founding Editor or The Stinging Fly, in the introduction to “Morning, 1908” in Recommended Reading
Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams
Every Joy Williams publication is a cause for celebration, and Ninety-Nine Stories of God shows Williams in her usual biting, insightful, and darkly humorous form. As the title implies, this is a collection of 99 flash fiction pieces. Some read like short stories, others like fables, aphorisms, or newspaper columns. But all of them are exquisitely written and thought-provoking.
— Lincoln Michel, Editor-in-Chief of Electric Literature
A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell
A talented, at times even daring, stylist Bell is a literary experimentalist who never lets his experiments overtake his fiction’s need for dramatic effect, that necessary quality of making the reader want to read. This is something many literary writers forget or even disdain: the fact that it’s their responsibility to attract readers and keep them interested, not the other way around. And it’s a lesson Bell seems to have learned from an early age. Fearless in terms of the subject matter he’s willing to write about and perhaps ever more so in the unexpected, sometimes extremely dark angles he takes in fleshing out his stories, Bell has the goods, no question.
— Kurt Baumeister in our review of A Tree or a Person or a Wall
Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka
The narrator who frames each of these fourteen stories is vulnerable — she’s caught up in the tumult of an ended marriage, and the poverty of an artist without a back-up plan — and her vulnerability resonates across the desolate landscapes she stops in. […] The stories in Cities I’ve Never Lived In are high-cost, and also necessarily gentle. In addition to the narrator reporting on her own life, she also tells the stories of the people she meets.
— Nathan S. McNamara in our review of Cities I’ve Never Lived In. You can also read our interview with Majka.
Goodnight, Beautiful Women by Anna Noyes
Within these pages, love is cut with many poisons — paranoia, indifference, circumstance, violence — and the New England settings seethe with suffering and shame. Loosely connected, the stories create a web the reader walks into without realizing it: A woman carries memories of a girlhood love into her brutal marriage; a college student’s relationship with her boyfriend and his mother changes dramatically during a summer vacation; a woman meets someone who might be her mother on a bus to Boston; a teenager’s love affair with an older man comes between her and her young sister. Below the tranquil surface, these beautiful women — and the beautiful girls they used to be — are screaming at the top of their lungs.
— Carmen Maria Machado in her introduction to our interview with Noyes. You can also read a story from the collection in Recommended Reading.
Heartbreaker: Stories by Maryse Meijer
Maryse Meijer shreds readers’ hearts and souls in her debut collection Heartbreaker. Her characters are lonely, obsessive, and sometimes otherworldly. In the title story a high school student named Natalie molests a mentally handicapped boy. In “The Daddy” a woman hires a younger man on Craigslist to play her doting father. In “Love, Lucy,” the antichrist emerges on Earth in the form of a little girl. “The Cheat” involves an actual fox that seduces a teenage girl with junk food at a Christian weight loss camp. The rest of the stories also unmask humanity’s worst creatures so that every instance feels dangerous and leaves you with images that are impossible to forget.
— Andrea Arnold in her introduction to our interview with Meijer. You can also read a short story from the collection in Recommended Reading.
Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott
Some stories — usually the best ones — come to life and carry you along with their own special, inexplicable gravity and when they’re over you’re not even sure what it was that pulled you in and wouldn’t let go. No literary mechanics or plot devices came into play; the writer, now magician, simply won you over and off you went.
This is how I feel about Rion Amilcar Scott’s writing in general, and particularly his story “202 Checkmates.”
— Daniel José Older in his introduction to “202 Checkmates,” excerpted from Insurrections in Recommended Reading
Intimations by Alexandra Kleeman
Books and stories are a form of escapism for many of us. We read to go away from our current lives, or to learn about people who are vastly different from us, or to be swept up by language, or — well, a list of reasons we read would be endless. But escapism is definitely there, whether it’s something we seek or only a byproduct. The stories in Alexandra Kleeman’s new collection, Intimations, both distressingly and beautifully convey a different message: there is no escape.
— Ilana Masad in our review of Intimations
Allegheny Front by Matthew Neill Null
Matthew Neill Null’s collection Allegheny Front is as notable for the strength of its prose as it is for the ways in which it eludes expectations. One story focuses entirely on the shifting relationship between a group of bears and the humans living nearby; another story leaps ahead several decades at its conclusion to show how the aftereffects of its violent resolution are perceived in the decades to come by people with no knowledge of the events described. It’s a way of finding compelling drama in the spaces normally left blank in histories and stories, and it’s to Null’s credit that these stories never feel academic or dry. Instead, they’re as visceral and tense and the landscapes and relationships that they describe.
— Tobias Carroll in his introduction to our interview with Null. You can also read the story “Gauley Season” in Recommended Reading.
Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein
For lovers of the TV series “Black Mirror,” and anyone who racks up hours on Twitter, this is your short story collection of the year. The 13 stories are set in a future an arm’s length from now, and consider how technologies we can already see on the horizon affect the most intimate aspects of life: sex, breakups, illness, and, as the title suggests, family and parenthood. Think those Facebook “Memories” posts are a little much? In Weinstein’s world, try recreational memory implantation.
— Lucie Shelly, Associate Editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading
Furnace by Livia Llewellyn
Furnace is Livia Llewellyn’s second short story collection. NPR’s Jason Heller, describes her latest horror stories as “beautiful and hideous in the same breath,” and commends “its 13 tales of erotic, surreal, existential horror [which] pack a logic-shattering punch.” Llewellyn is a household name in dark fiction and has been nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award several times. These might not be the best stories to read right before bed, but they’re the cream of the crop for horror fanatics and disturbed readers (so every reader) alike.
Man & Wife by Katie Chase
Puberty rites, a child bride, a burning city, comically horrific families? Yes please! Man and Wife hits the story collection trifecta of story, sentences, and book-ness. Each story is excellent; there are no duds or space-fillers. Chase’s writing is addictive and clean, a perfect vessel for her fantastically creepy imagination (“They say every girl remembers that special day when everything starts to change,” begins the title story, a mundane enough sentiment that nevertheless gives me goosebumps every time I read it). And the stories work together without feeling repetitive.
—Kelly Luce, contributing editor at Electric Literature
Of This New World by Allegra Hyde
Each story, in its own way, is asking deft questions about the possibility of improvement, both on the micro and macro level, and where other writers could have fallen into didactic or moralistic traps, Hyde’s stories move effortlessly and gracefully, never once causing the reader to feel as though she has her authorial thumb pressed on the scale.
— Vincent Scarpa in his introduction to our interview with Allegra Hyde
Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar
In “Building Girls,” Jarrar captures the complicated dynamic between Aisha and Perihan, childhood friends now separated by geography, race, and class (and their daughters separated by all that, plus language). Wealthy Perihan only visits Egypt during the summer, whereas Aisha lives there full-time and even then rarely ventures beyond the paths of her daily routine. On a trip to the beach, she compares Perihan to a soaring kite and herself to a novelty pet crab on a leash, an image that manages to be all at once weird, hilarious, melodramatic, gorgeous, and sincerely resonant. Like the rest of the book it comes from, I can’t get it out of my head.
— Mia Nakaji Monnier in our review of Him, Me, Muhammad Ali
The Dream Life of Astronauts by Patrick Ryan
Patrick Ryan’s latest, The Dream Life of Astronauts (The Dial Press, 2016), is an exquisitely crafted collection of short stories set in Merritt Island, Florida — better known as the home of Cape Canaveral. The space program forms the backdrop to each of the book’s nine tales, which span the period between the 1969 Apollo 11 launch to present day. But the author’s intimate, character-driven narratives draw their power more from family dynamics than they do launch pads or rocket boosters (even if both of those make appearances).
— Jonathan Durbin in his introduction to our interview with Patrick Ryan
The Virginity of Famous Men by Christine Sneed
Though taken from a story within, the title of this collection is a clever deflection; Sneed’s stories consider sex and men, but they’re as much about the nuances of life’s mundane moments, and the surprising ways that such moments change the desires and aspirations of women. From a mother vacationing with a reluctant teenage son, to woman who is anti-wedding but throws a Couplehood Jubilee, to an over-zealous applicant for an HR job at a t-shirt manufacturing company, the characters we meet in the 13 stories will upset your expectations every time.
— Lucie Shelly, Associate Editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading
This Is a Dance Movie! by Tim Jones-Yelvington
Jones-Yelvington’s debut short story collection This Is a Dance Movie! has been met with plenty of acclaim. Alexander Chee praised his deft ability to juxtapose the playfulness of a dance party with serious modern social concerns, and described Jones-Yelvington’s stories as “a remix of pop culture, gay sex and celebrity, ranging from the confectionary to the visionary.” And you know that when Roxane Gay says, “Tim Jones-Yelvington doesn’t push the envelope. He kicks the shit out of it,” it must be worth the read.
We Come to Our Senses by Odie Lindsey
I loved his collection, We Come To Our Senses, and “Colleen” is one of my favorite stories. It begins with twenty-two-year-old Colleen back at home in her childhood bed in her childhood bedroom in Mississippi, staring at the pink walls while a box fan blows, which is the same place I’ve found myself on too many occasions throughout my adult life. […] There is no love story here. This story will crush you, and I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic way. I mean pulse-racing-aw-hell-no-I-need-to-lie-down-for-a-while crushed.
— Mary Miller in her introduction to “Colleen” in Recommended Reading
The Bed Moved by Rebecca Schiff
There are a whopping 23 stories in Rebecca Schiff’s slim new collection The Bed Moved, and this is just one of Schiff’s many sleights of hand. Each story is a delight — drily funny, irreverent, original. But just as they’re refreshingly candid and witty — they are very witty — Schiff’s stories also offer tender, but stubbornly unsentimental emotional truths. The stories in this collection are interested only in being honest, and that means shedding light on grief, pride, promiscuity, and loneliness in ways that are surprising, funny, and frank.
— Claire Luchette in her introduction to our interview with Schiff
13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad
In “If That’s All There Is,” a story taken from her gutsy and glorious debut Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, the narrator is the recipient of a dubious overture from her co-worker, Archibald. She contemplates his offer and decides — though it is a decision saddled with ambiguity — to take hold of the door he has shaken loose and pull it open a little wider. […] As the story hurtles toward its destination there is the sense that we are plunging deep into a moment of raw and exhilarating truth — and then, like lightening, we are there.
Mona Awad is one of the most exciting new voices I have read in a long time. Welcome to her world.
— Laura van den Berg in her introduction to “If That’s All There Is” in Recommended Reading. You can also read our interview with Awad.
The Great American Songbook by Sam Allingham
Sam has said that his stories are his attempt to cover songs he loves, and surely the stories in his debut collection, The Great American Songbook, are linked inextricably to music, to song, to chord changes, and voiced heartache. The nine stories in the collection take the Talking Heads literally. They follow Rodgers and Hart as they negotiate parallel realities and their relationship with each other. They employ humor and formal invention to build and crescendo, to speak melodically, jazzily, out of human experience.
— Callie Collins in the introduction to “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” in Recommended Reading