Perfect Stories

One of the things I love about baseball is that it is possible to have a “perfect game.” A perfect game is one in which a pitcher faces 27 batters, and not one of them gets on base. There are no hits, no walks, no one hit by a pitch, no one ever making it on base. Period. The perfect game, as you might imagine, is incredibly rare. From 1903 to the present, the era of “World Series” baseball, spanning 118 years, there have been 21 perfect games. In that same period of time, there have been approximately 220,000 regular season baseball games. That’s one perfect game for every 10,500 games played, which is itself about 4-5 seasons of baseball.

Like an elusive perfect game, I think stories can be perfect, too. The guidelines for a perfect story are not as well-defined as those of a perfect game, but I suspect they are just as rare, and just as impressive. In all of my reading, I’ve encountered only a handful of what I consider perfect stories.

My paperback copy of The Illustrated Man
My paperback copy of The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

My list of perfect stories, and the writers who wrote them, are:

  1. “The Rocket Man” by Ray Bradbury. You can find this one in The Illustrated Man.
  2. “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” by Harlan Ellison. You can find this one in Slippage.
  3. “The Bicentennial Man” by Isaac Asimov. This one appears in The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories
  4. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King. This one appears in my favorite Stephen King collection of novellas, Different Seasons.
  5. “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu. It turns out this one is currently available online, on Gizmodo
  6. “Understanding Entropy” by Barry N. Malzberg. This one can found in In the Stone House.
  7. “A Death” by Stephen King, making him the only author with 2 perfect stories on my list. I wrote about “A Death” when it first came out. This story can be found in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.

I’ve never tracked the stories I’ve read in the way I keep track of the books I’ve read, but I would guess that by now, I’ve read thousands of short stories. These are the 7 out of all those thousands that, to me, are the fictional equivalent of the perfect game. Over the years, I’ve tried to think about what makes a story “perfect” in my mind. I think it involved a couple of factors:

  • After reading it the first time, when it seems that any possible change would diminish the story, it is a sign that it is perfect.
  • A perfect story keeps me thinking about it for a long time after I’ve read it.
  • A perfect story gets better with each re-read.
  • A perfect story involves a deep appreciation of the craft involved in its creation, in much the way one can marvel at the skill of a pitcher who tosses a perfect game.

There are some stories that have come close to perfection–these are the no-hitters of the short fiction world. This list is obviously longer, but here are three that immediately come to mind as close to perfect:

As I was writing this, it occurred to me that there is probably such as thing as a perfect essay as well. But I’ll save my list of perfect essays for another time.

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