Recommended Reading’s 10 Most Popular Posts of 2021
Hilma Wolitzer, Megan Pillow, and Brandon Taylor wrote some of our most read short fiction of the year
This week Recommended Reading published its 500th issue. For 500 Wednesdays in a row since May 23, 2012, we’ve shared extraordinary and innovative fiction from emerging and established writers with heartfelt, personal recommendations. The fiction we publish is not only formally masterful, it’s exciting. We are drawn to stories that usurp expectations: charismatic and troubled narrators, new takes on contemporary topics, inspired flourishes of genre, humor that makes way for deeper revelations. We’re also proud to be one of the largest free online archives of short fiction in existence, especially considering (not to brag) our outstanding ensemble of writers. In 2021 alone, we’ve published work by Brandon Taylor, Hilma Wolitzer, Weike Wang, Elizabeth McCraken, Lily King, Ayşegül Savaş, A.S. Byatt, and 44 others. Today we are sharing our ten most popular stories of the year starting with the most read.
“Great Escape” by Hilma Wolitzer, recommended by Roxana Robinson
After almost two years of Covid, there’s been a lot of pandemic fiction. However, Wolizter handles our new reality with unparalleled grace and wisdom. “Great Escape,” the only new story in her recent collection, Today a Woman Went Mad In the Supermarket (one of EL’s favorites of the year), follows nearly ninety-year-old Paulie and her husband, Howard. After their daughter warns them of a new dangerous virus, the seasoned couple tries to remember to wear a mask and not take the train. Paulie watches her husband in the mornings, “to see if Howard was still alive, holding [her] breath while [she] watched for the shallow rise and fall of his.” That the tragedy that follows was inspired by events in Wolitzer’s own life makes the story all the more powerful.
“Long Live the Girl Detective” by Megan Pillow, recommended by Brandon Taylor
This genre-bending tale turns the Girl Detective trope on its head. Opening with her death, the Girl Detective must work backwards to solve how she died or who is responsible, and as former senior editor Brandon Taylor puts it in his introduction, “what will she do once she knows?” This inventive story tightropes between the familiar and the uncanny, breaking form and expectations with every new hint.
“Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary Discuss Their Suicides” by Pauline Melville, recommended by Brandon Taylor
Perfect for the literary buff, Pauline Melville’s humourous homage opens on the eponymous heroines mid-conversation. Brimming with nods to their stories, creators, and status in the literary canon, “Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary Discuss Their Suicides” is cleverly pokes at the agency of these fictional women. At one key moment, which former senior editor Brandon Taylor notes in his introduction, “Anna asks if Emma would like to read her story, Emma responds, “I don’t think so. Not if it doesn’t have a happy ending.”
“Filthy Animals” by Brandon Taylor, recommended by Calvert Morgan
The silver lining to Brandon Taylor stepping down from his role as senior editor was that we could finally publish his fiction. His debut collection, Filthy Animals (also on our best of the year list) opens with this titular story. Milton and Nolan are two friends headed to one of their last parties before their separation—only Nolan doesn’t know yet. The two boys repel open communication, instead opting for drugs and whichever hands are closest. Executive Editor of Riverhead, Calvert Morgan, sums up the heart of the story, “We wonder not only what he will choose, but how he will learn to live, there or anywhere, and to reckon with the tenderness in his heart.”
“Chance Me” by Caitlin Horrocks, recommended by Ramona Ausubel
After fifteen years of not seeing each other, Harry picks up his son, Just, from the airport. Though he’s in Boston to visit Harvard, MIT, Lesley, and all of the others, Harry can’t tell whether his son is academically accomplished enough for these schools, or if the campus visits are merely an excuse to see each other. The tension is palpable as they shuffle around their estrangement and Harry recalls his origins with Just’s mother in a pseudo-cult in the Arizona desert. If you love this story, read the entire collection, Life Among the Terranauts.
“The Ring” by Pedro Mairal, translated and recommended by Jennifer Croft
In this ribald and satisfying story, Emilio leaves his wife at home to go to friend’s party and pick up women, which doesn’t go entirely to plan. Translator and recommender Jennifer Croft, sums up the genius of the story in her introduction: “Mairal is always able to recruit the characters most suited to a given journey, protagonists both lovable and loathe-able, hilarious and sad. No matter what—no matter how deplorable their actions—we can identify at least a little with the impulse.”
“The Boyish Lover” by Laurie Colwin, recommended by Halimah Marcus
Laurie Colwin passed away in the early 1990’s and was arguably best known for her collection of essays and recipes, Home Cooking. However, this year Vintage Books and Harper Collins republished her entire catalog, including five novels and three short story collections, resparking interest in her fiction. Editor of Recommended Reading, Halimah Marcus, notes in her introduction, “Her stories and novels are crisp and dynamic… Colwin is interested in the topography of happiness. Rather than a flat, unattainable goal, she sees happiness as dynamic and nuanced.” This story from her collection The Lone Pilgrim, traces the relationship of two professors: Jane, a warm and self-assured cosmopolitan woman, and Cordy, a austere and penny-pinching rich kid.
“Mrs. Spring Fragrance” by Sui Sin Far, recommended by C Pam Zhang
Originally published in the 1910s, Far’s posthumous collection, Mrs. Spring Fragrance, holds some of the first recorded fiction of the Chinese American experience. “Far’s stories have that speed, that cadence, that resounding thud of a moral message hitting the floor,” notes recommender C Pam Zhang. In this tale, a woman living in San Francisco meddles with the love life of her young neighbor, while her husband frets over a misunderstanding. “Mrs. Spring Fragrance” is sharp with moments that gleam through the decades and utterly electrify.
“Terms of Agreement” by Clare Sestanovich, recommended by Leslie Jamison
It’s been a buzzy year for autofiction and discussions of what to do if you find yourself the main character in someone’s story. In “Terms of Agreement” the main character dissects her friendships with her former lover, You, and their mutual friend, Nicole. Her ex made a habit of picking up details from everyone he encountered, and leaving them to parse themselves out of his work. Now, the narrator is turning this borrowing technique back on him. “Terms of Agreement” is collected in Objects of Desire, which made it on to our list of the best short story collections of the year.
“Fable” by Ethan Rutherford, recommended by Jill Meyers
At a dinner party amongst old friends, the newcomer shakes things up. Karen, Sasha’s third wife, is a translator by trade, but she is introduced as someone who “tells stories.” She weaves a detailed story within a story, a fairytale world of foxes and baby-thievery, which interrupts an otherwise realist scene one might find in a Raymond Carver piece. Jill Meyers notes, “The inside story, with its moral trouble, threatens the frame—it leaks, it skips, it crosses over.” Read more from Ethan Rutherford in his two critically acclaimed short story collections, The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories, and Farthest South.