The Word Factory Short Story Club began in January 2014, and we’ve been reading and dissecting stories together ever since. In that time we’ve read work by Ernest Hemingway, Alice Munro, George Saunders, Sarah Hall and more, and had some very thought-provoking discussions.
The club is run by Zoe and Sophie. We are just putting together our final plans for 2018, which will include an exploration of writers we believe are pushing back the boundaries of the short story form. We look forward to sharing our selection of stories with you and the chance to also meet some of the authors we select at Word Factory salons, talks and classes.
By sharing and discussing stories each month, the group finds new fiction that we love, an author whose work we want to explore further, or techniques to incorporate into our own writing. Occasionally, we learn more about what we’re not so keen on.
Who our members are
Conversation in the group is open to all opinions, and there’s rarely a consensus — which is precisely what makes it so interesting. Our members range from those who are only just discovering short stories, to writers who have spent years crafting them.
You don’t have to be a writer or have any formal training, just a love of short fiction! You can say as much or as little as you like in the discussions, it’s strictly no pressure.
Why I enjoy the Word Factory short story club by Melissa Fu
“It’s such a treat to discuss stories in a group of short-story aficionados, who each bring their different tastes and perspectives. The best part is how there’s so little agreement on the stories – their meanings, their merits. It’s wonderful to see how a short piece of writing can open up such big worlds. I always leave with a bigger view of the story we read and new insights into the form in general.”
If you’re interested in hearing how other people interpret short fiction, like discovering new authors, and enjoy picking apart what works and what doesn’t in short stories (or simply want to receive a monthly short story to your inbox, wherever you are in the world), we’d love you to join us.
The short story club meets for an hour before each Word Factory Salon. All short story club meetings are at Waterstones Piccadilly, from 4.15-5.15pm, but venue is subject to change. Please note, the May 12th meeting will be held at Waterstones Gower St. It’s free to attend, but please do let us know if you’re planning to come so we can accommodate everyone.
Each month, we’re also looking for someone who attended the discussion to write up a 400 word review, which will be published here, on the Word Factory website. Please let us know if you’re keen to write a summary of the story’s plot, themes and nature of our discussion.
Zoe Gilbert’s short stories have appeared in anthologies and journals in the UK and internationally. Her story Fishskin, Hareskin won the Costa Short Story Award in 2014. Her work has also won prizes from Cinnamon Press, Lightship, and the British Fantasy Society, among others, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her first book will be published by Bloomsbury in 2018, and she is currently working on a PhD on folk tales and the short story at Chichester University. She is co-founder of London Lit Lab with Lily Dunn, and she co-hosts the Word Factory short story club. Twitter: @mindandlanguage.
Sophie Haydock co-hosts the Word Factory short story club. She is a Sunday Times journalist and food writer, with a passion for short stories and wild mushrooms. Twitter: @SophieHaydock
Zora Neale Hurston: Sweat
In March we’ll be reading Sweat, by the American writer Zora Neale Hurston. The story was first published in 1926 revolves around a washerwoman and her unemployed, insecure husband. It has been hailed “an ecofeminist masterclass in dialect and symbolism”. You can read Sweat online here.
We’ll be discussing this story for an hour at Waterstones Piccadilly on Saturday 16 March, from 4.15pm. It’s free to come along to the short story discussion, but if possible, do email email@example.com to let us know if you can make it, so we have an idea of numbers.
Stories so far:
JD Salinger: A Perfect Day for Banana Fish
In February, we read A Perfect Day for Banana Fish, by the American writer JD Salinger (who was just 28 when it came out).
It was originally published in the January 1948 issue of The New Yorker. The story is an enigmatic examination of a young married couple, Muriel and Seymour Glass, while on vacation in Florida and explores some troubling themes. You can read it online here.
Miranda July: The Metal Bowl
In November, we read The Metal Bowl, a darkly funny story by the American writer Miranda July. It was first published in the New Yorker in September 2017, and was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Award the same year.
July is a filmmaker, artist and writer. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Harper’s and The New Yorker. Her collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, came out in 2005, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and went on to be published in 23 countries. (It’s really good.)
Sophie interviewed July earlier this year and you can read that here to get more context about how she came to write this unusual and unnerving story (inspired by a photograph by Friedl Kubelka).
Alison MacLeod: Sylvia Wears Pink in the Underworld
On 22nd September at Waterstones Piccadilly, we read ‘Sylvia Wears Pink in the Underworld’ by Alison MacLeod, from her 2016 collection, All the Beloved Ghosts, which was recently shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. MacLeod is the author of three novels and two short story collections, and has been longlisted for the Booker Prize. In this story, the narrator reimagines Sylvia Plath as she goes to visit her grave. She is conversational, almost conspiratorial, breaking away from the standard, simplified view of Plath as a troubled writer.
Lydia Davis: How Shall I Mourn Them and Jury Duty
In June, we read two very short stories, How Shall I Mourn Them and Jury Duty by Lydia Davis, who is an American writer noted for literary works of extreme brevity.
Here’s a little more about her, from The Atlantic: “Lydia Davis, who was awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, has been publishing short stories utterly unlike anyone else’s for almost 40 years. Sometimes as brief as a sentence or several paragraphs, they dispense with conventional narrative and character in favor of astringent wit and aphoristic insight.”
Taiye Selasi: Driver
In May, we read Driver by Taiye Selasi. Taiye Selasi is a writer and photographer of Nigerian and Ghanaian origin. She is the author of a novel, Ghana Must Go, as well as short stories and essays. Her story The Sex Lives of African Girls appears in Best American Short Stories 2012, and Driver was included in Granta’s Best of young British Novelists 4 (2013).
Driver is narrated by Webster, chauffeur for a rich family in Ghana, and admirer of his employer’s beautiful wife, Madam. This story is itself driven by the rhythm of its prose, which intensifies whenever Webster contemplates the forbidden object of his affections. How does the rhythm of this piece affect you as a reader? What do you think about Selasi’s careful depictions of desire and disgust in a strong social hierarchy?
Eley William: Attrib.
In April, we read Attrib. by Eley William. Eley William is the author of Attrib. & Other Stories (Influx Press, 2017), and a poetry pamphlet, Frit (Sad Press, 2017). She is the co-editor of 3:AM Magazine and also lectures in creative writing at universities in London. Attrib. & Other Stories has been longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize 2018 and Shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2018, as well as picked by many newspapers as a book of the year 2017.
In the title story, Attrib. we watch a sound artist attempt to work as household items around her pollute the silence with random words. Play with words is Williams’ signature and strong point, but this story also plays with sound and images, and how they might enhance each other. Do you relate to Williams’ protagonist, with her odd work and absurd torture? What is the effect of sound in this story?
Irenosen Okojie: Gunk
In March, we read Gunk by Irenosen Okojie. Irenosen Okojie was born in Nigeria, and later grew up in the UK. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Observer, The Guardian, the BBC and the Huffington Post. Her debut novel, Butterfly Fish, published by Jacaranda Books, won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Edinburgh First Book Award. Her short story collection, Speak Gigantular was shortlisted for the Edgehill Short Story Prize, the Jhalak Prize, the Saboteur Awards and nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award.
Gunk, the first story from Speak Gigantular, is in the form of an address, or a set of instructions, or possibly an accusation. How does it make you feel as the reader, to be put in the position of the addressee? What gives the story its power?
James Salter: Twenty Minutes
At May’s Short Story Club, we took a look at James Salter’s ‘Twenty Minutes’ – and it takes almost exactly that amount of time for the action to unfold: a woman, thrown from her horse, weighs up her options and looks back at her life, as her luck runs out…
“She went over his head and as if in slow motion he came after. He was upside down – she lay there watching him float toward her. He landed on her open lap.”
Helen Oyeyemi: A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society
At February’s Short Story Club, we discussed ‘A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society’, by Helen Oyeyemi. This short story is from her collection, What is not Yours is not Yours, which was published in 2016 by Picador. Helen Oyeyemi is the author of four novels, including White is for Witching, which won a 2010 Somerset Maugham Award, and Mr Fox.
In ‘A brief History of the Homely Wench Society’, the newest member of the society resists the overtures of an admirer, who is a member of their rival society, the Bettencourts. Set at Cambridge University, Oyeyemi plays with our expectations about students, and creates a cast of characters who are never quite what we expect. Join us to talk about the author’s choice of form and style to tell a warm, surprising and humorous tale.
Tobias Wolff: Bullet in the Brain
In May, we read Tobias Wolff’s ‘Bullet in the Brain’.
Muriel Spark: The Twins
In April, we read ‘The Twins’ by Muriel Spark, published in the late 1950s. The narrator pays a visit to her old school friend Jennie, who is married, with young twin children. The story possesses something Pinter-like in its interest in the banalities of everyday life – the dropping of biscuits crumbs and the refilling of petrol tanks. But in this world everything can be questioned, and even the most innocuous remark can cause great offence. This is a story about truth and the telling of stories.
AL Kennedy: Touch Positive
In March, we read ‘Touch Positive’ from A L Kennedy’s 2002 collection, Indelible Acts. Kennedy is prolific: she has written seven short-story collections and seven novels, as well as non-fiction and stand-up comedy. And she has rightly earned praise: Ali Smith describes Indelible Acts as a “study of people in varying existential states of desperation, usually to do with love”. In ‘Touch Positive’, we watch Tom as he navigates a supermarket, where he has gone to get cardboard boxes, of all things. With a combination of wit and precision (with words and timing), the reason for Tom’s uncomfortable state of mind is gradually revealed.
Angela Carter: Gun for the Devil
In February, we read ‘Gun for the Devil’ by Angela Carter. The story is taken from her last collection, American Ghosts and Old World Wonders, which was published in 1993, a year after her death. Gun for the Devil is set in “a hot, dusty, flyblown Mexican border town – a town without hope, without grace, the end of the road…” where a pianist makes a Faustian pact to enact revenge. Brothels and bars, bandits and Aztec gods meld to create an aesthetic quite different from Carter’s better known “fairy tales” of The Bloody Chamber. Nevertheless, the story is inspired by a character from German folklore, the freischutz, a marksman whose pact with the devil means he can shoot six bullets with perfect accuracy, but the seventh belongs to the devil himself.
Sarah Hall: Vuotjarvi
In November, we read ‘Vuotjarvi’ by Sarah Hall, from her 2012 collection The Beautiful Indifference. Hall’s stories are often sensual, sexy, uncomfortable, and this is no exception. In this story, a woman loses sight of her lover as he swims out across a lake. Ostensibly not much happens in the present moment; how does the story manage to achieve such a powerful effect?
Katherine Mansfield: Bliss
In October, we read ‘Bliss’ by Katherine Mansfield. Despite her work appearing a century ago, Mansfield is still thought of as a queen of the short story form. This story, published in 1920, is one of several she wrote in which a happy protagonist is forced to confront an unpleasant reality. How do you respond as a 21st century reader to the depiction of inner life and scathing social satire?
Ernest Hemingway: Hills Like White Elephants
In September, we read the classic Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants – one of the most iconic short stories in the English language. It’s a tale that seems simple and straightforward, but is laden with symbolism and meaning.
Roald Dahl: The Great Automatic Grammatizator
In July we read a dark and twisted (but bitingly funny) short story – The Great Automatic Grammatizator – by the brilliantly playful Roald Dahl. The story, written in 1954 (but still alarmingly relevant) imagines a world where stories are written by machines. This continues to strike a wry chord with all writers out there.
Tessa Hadley: One Saturday Morning
Tessa Hadley is a British writer whose short stories have been described as ‘novels in miniature’ and also as ‘domestic fiction’, conjuring as they often do the minutiae of comfortable lives, where subtle shifts and minor observations can take on huge significance. In ‘One Saturday Morning’, published in The New Yorker in August 2014, ten-year-old Carrie’s piano practice is interrupted by the arrival of Dom, one of her parents’ bohemian friends. We follow her as she tries to make sense of the adult news and events that define the rest of the day. Is this a story in which nothing really happens, or does it illuminate a pivotal coming-of-age moment? We were enthralled to discuss this subtle, affecting story in May.
Italo Calvino: All at One Point
Calvino’s The Complete Cosmicomics is a collection of stories, all narrated by the character Qfwfq, each of which takes a scientific fact as a starting point for a fantastical narrative. In ‘All at One Point’, Calvino takes the notion of the universe’s matter all being concentrated at one point before it began to expand, and imagines Qfwfq and other characters dealing with this situation. It combines a scientific flight of fancy with a familiar-feeling tale of neighbourly tensions, as at the inhabitants of the point clash over gossip, opinions and shared attractions. This is a story which does not fit contemporary expectations. Do you find it satisfying, silly, or wondrously clever?
Shirley Jackson: The Lottery
When The Lottery was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, readers were so horrified they sent hate mail; it has since become one of the most iconic American stories of all time. Shirley Jackson was born in San Francisco in 1916, and went on to earn a reputation as “one of the 20th century’s most luminous and strange American writers”. The Lottery is Jackson’s best-known short story: Jackson draws us in to the dark, unsettling world of a small farming village, who come together for a terrible game of chance…Find out what we made of the story on our blog.
Hilary Mantel: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
In March we read the most controversial short story of 2014: Hilary Mantel’s ’The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’. The story springs from the two-time Man Booker prizewinner’s “boiling detestation” for the politician – Mantel recalls how she once spotted the former Prime Minister standing unguarded near her Windsor flat in 1983 and imagined shooting her. The action begins when a woman in her Windsor flat opens the door expecting a plumber… Have a read and make up your own mind – is this tale as damningly provocative as certain papers would have us believe?
John Burnside: Slut’s Hair
In December we are read ‘Slut’s Hair’, by the Scottish writer John Burnside. As a short story writer, Burnside has published two collections Burning Elvis (2000) and Something Like Happy (2013), from which this story is taken. Burnside is unflinching in his bleak portrayal of “unpleasant” subjects – cruelty, domestic violence, outright loneliness – and this spotlight on the darker side of human nature has earned him a reputation as a Scottish Raymond Chandler. ‘Slut’s Hair’ is archetypal Burnside. In it, a woman in Dundee tenement is stuck in an unhappy and unforgiving relationship. Then she reveals she has toothache, and they can’t afford a dentist…
Angela Carter: Peter and the Wolf
This autumnal story is one of Carter’s many retellings of folk and fairy tales, in which she twists away from the original, riffing on the familiar to satirical and baroque effect. This swiftly told tale is simple in content but rich in language, a style less fashionable in 2014 (it was first published in 1982) but no less powerful for it. Desire, freedom, nature and chaos abide here – an apt story for the turning of the seasons. Associate editor, Zoe Gilbert, provides a write-up of all that was discussed.
Colin Barrett: The Clancy Kid
This is the opening story from Barrett’s new collection Young Skins. Hungover Jimmy is in the pub in his Irish home town, in which all the stories are set, listening to his unstable friend Tug talking about a small boy who has gone missing – the Clancy kid. The story evokes the place and the characters Jimmy encounters in confident strokes, blending warmth with the sinister, the modern with the mythic, and hooking the reader whilst leaving us wondering. Associate editor, Zoe Gilbert, provides a write-up of all that was discussed.
Lucy Wood: Lights in Other People’s Houses
In September we explored the work of the young British writer, Lucy Wood. Diving Belles, her debut collection, was recorded as a series for BBC radio. All the stories are inspired by Cornish folklore, and in ‘Lights in Other People’s Houses’ the ghost of a wrecker appears in Maddy’s house amidst the moving boxes she is refusing to unpack. Gradually the house fills with sand, and shells, and an atmosphere is created that is both dreamlike and unsettling.
George Saunders: In The End of Firpo in the World
In July, we read a short story by the award-winning George Saunders, a “savage satirist” who critics have praised for his “demented black comic view of modern American culture”. ‘In The End of Firpo in the World’, selected from Saunders’ 2001 collection Pastoralia, an overweight, bullied boy rides round his neighbourhood on his bicycle, reflecting on his unpopularity. This story has been described as the perfect example of the short story as a form, and is full of irony and pathos.
Zadie Smith: Moonlit Landscape with Bridge
In June, we turned our attention to the acclaimed British writer Zadie Smith, who has been making an impact on the literary world since the age of 25, when her first novel, White Teeth, won the Whitbread and Guardian prizes for a first novel. This short story, Moonlit Landscape with Bridge, which first appeared in The New Yorker in February this year, is about the nature of disaster, and how people respond when everything seems lost.
Hassan Blasim: The Iraqi Christ
In May we read the title story from the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim’s collection, The Iraqi Christ, about a soldier with supernatural abilities. Blasim became the first Arabic writer to be win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier in May and continues to impress and shock with his surreal tales of war and terror.
Word Factory regular, Jarred McGinness, provided insider info about May’s Club here.
Steven Millhauser: In the Reign of King Harad IV
Steven Millhause is an American writer born in 1943 who still writes and teaches fiction in the US. ‘In the Reign of King Harad IV’ appears in his collection Dangerous Laughter, which was published in 2008.
In these and his most recent collection, We Others, Steven Millhauser often uses elements of the fantastical, and has been likened to Jorge Luis Borges. This particular story is simply written but full of gorgeous detail, evocative of myths and parables, and seemingly with a message for creative people – we discussed what we felt this was.
Our Associate Editor, Zoe Gilbert, provided insider info about April’s Club here.
Flannery O’Connor: A Good Man is Hard to Find
If you’ve not read O’Connor before, be prepared: her stories are gripping – full of dark, unexpected, and often very funny, twists and turns.
Flannery is an American author credited for taking the short story to new places: she has a very distinctive style, strong voice and her themes still seem thoroughly modern. She died in 1963, age 39 – and A Good Man, written ten years earlier, continues to feel fresh and edgy. Her style has apparently had a big impact on a lot of modern American fiction and TV drama.
James Salter: Comet
Salter is another master of the short story. Now 88, he has enjoyed a long and successful career, including 12 years in the US air force. His first novel came out in 1957, and he has earned his living as a writer ever since, winning many prizes for “excellence in the art of the short story”. Comet is taken from his collection Last Night, published in 2007.
In 2013, Salter also won the Windham–Campbell Literature Prize (and received an impressive $150,000). The judges said: “Sentence by sentence, James Salter’s elegantly natural prose has a precision and clarity which make ordinary words swing wide open.”
Alice Munro: The Moons of Jupiter
Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature in December 2013. She has been dubbed the “the master of the contemporary short story,” so seemed the obvious starting point for our new short story club.
Her story, The Moons of Jupiter, consistently comes up as one of her most memorable and powerful – one that really captures her “serene, simple and stunningly precise” style.