ROBERT OLEN BUTLER AND TARA L MASIH (Eds) The Best Small Fictions 2015. Reviewed by Allan Drew
What happens to time, space and meaning when fiction gets brief and small?
This is an international anthology of 55 pieces of sub-1000-word fiction – microfiction, although there are many terms for it. The shortest fictions in the collection are very short: Stephen Orloske’s ‘590’ is three lines long. The longer fictions, covering several pages, would not be out of place in any collection of conventional short stories, and pieces such as Stefanie Freele’s ‘Scarlet Fever’, Jane Liddle’s intoxicating ‘It Will Never Be Enough’, or Yennie Cheung’s stunningly human ‘Something Overheard’ are stand-outs in the set.
The fictions in this anthology demand more than a straightforward review. They (and microfiction in general) demand formal acknowledgement and visibility – to be placed within the context of a burgeoning literary shift. These fictions are something peculiar, something curious: especially those fictions that are very brief.
In his 1958 essay ‘What makes a short story short?’ Norman Friedman argues that short fiction differs from novels ‘in degree but not in kind’: the fiction is short because it is of ‘small compass’. Friedman echoes Aristotle, who wrote that ‘the longer the story, the finer it is by reason of its magnitude’; this may once have felt true but now feels simplistic. Whether or not Friedman’s argument is defensible for conventional short stories, it begins to crumble when short fiction becomes very short.
James Claffey’s ‘The Third Time My Father Tried to Kill Me’ is a useful example. This 700-word piece of fiction presents, in lucid and unsentimental detail, three occasions when the narrator’s father tried to take his life. The fiction ends with the narrator recalling an (un-recallable) attempt made on his life when he was only a few weeks old:
I was swaddled between both my parents and couldn’t stop crying … She must have fallen asleep from exhaustion, and he placed his hand over my mouth and nose and pressed down. Only the 5 a.m. milk delivery cart and its rattling bottles saved me. She woke to the tinkle of glass on glass, and he pulled his hand away like a bad school-boy trying to steal a few sweets from a jar of Bulls-Eyes.
The narrated events could not be described as of ‘small compass’; nor is the action reduced in length – all the action is present, all that is needed is there. It is doubtful that the story would be more effective or affective if it were longer. The fiction’s brevity has facilitated … something.
Here is Stephen Orloske’s ‘590’, a 27-word story that is to me the best of an excellent collection:
No-one is watching how I weep into the earth, thought Abel as his brother’s cudgel fell again, that now there is neither one God nor many.
Nearly every word or phrase both narrows the setting and broadens the scope, without compromising the fiction. Consider the shift that occurs with ‘thought Abel’, the circularity imparted with the word ‘again’, the time-slip caused by the word ‘now’. But beyond this, ‘590’ possesses many of the peculiar characteristics of microfiction. William Nelles, in his essay ‘Microfiction: What makes a very short story very short?’, says that, in contrast with Friedman-type longer short stories, microfiction is expressly not limited to (often not even interested in) matters of ‘small compass’. In fact, ‘the actions narrated in microfictions are likely to be more palpable and extreme.’ ‘590’ also makes use of another of Nelles’s trademarks of microfiction: intertextuality, with its power to focus attention and provide immediate setting and context. The experience of reading ‘590’ quite startlingly supports Nelles’s provocative assertion that ‘The very short story goes through a narrative wormhole beneath a certain length, and the actions narrated pop back out to full size.’
Microfiction is a progressive form in terms of the attention it pays to social constructs, to power structures, to societal issues. The Best Small Fictions 2015 is heavily skewed towards fiction that deals with matters of racial and religious difficulty, poverty, gender relations and domestic violence. These subjects are more treacherous to approach with longer short stories where they risk striking a reader as didactic, sentimental, trite, moralistic or even all of these. The brevity of the microfiction form minimises the possibility of authors intruding into the interpretation of their text.
Stuart Dybek’s ‘Brisket’ is an excellent example of progressive engagement. ‘Brisket’ is a small fiction that, while gracefully exposing human folly, also manages to breed discomfort and to spark thought over issues such as the Holocaust, society’s view of poverty, and the nature of self-interest – and all with an ironical eye. The fiction also permits a deeper reading: I can see the subject of exploitation invoked – the matter of dollars for food, of capitalism disguised as charity, of financial opportunism. Likewise, Dee Cohen’s ‘By Heart’, the first piece in the anthology, takes aim at domestic psychological terrorism, but also sees this manifested on a societal scale, reflected in popular culture and across the breadth of public life. The violence is captured and denoted in cultural artefacts:
Strange how years later, the smell of that past fury will float up from a chiffon nightgown in a thrift store or from an open jar of Vaseline… Or how the stylish objects from the ‘60s – pointy fenders and pointy eye-glasses, pointy shoes and even pointy breasts – still look like weapons to her.
And what of ‘The Theatrical Production of Lewis Carroll’, a 500-word gem? In this fiction, William Todd Seabrooke imagines Lewis Carroll’s disapproval of the 13-year-old girl, Isa, who had been cast as Alice in a production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Yes, the fiction raises questions about the relationship between character and author; but how can one not also think of Creator and created? Of God and humankind? Of man and woman? Of patriarchy? Of silencing and oppression?
‘You did not imagine me,’ Isa said. ‘I don’t belong to you.’
‘And I should think you are too tall for Alice,’ he said, producing a bone saw.
Nelles quotes Lauro Zavala saying that ‘minifiction is the writing of the next millennium’ and is ‘the key to the future of reading’. This assertion is not made solely on the growing popularity of the microfiction form, or the feeling that the human attention span, or our time for applying it, is shrinking. Instead, contemporary microfiction – because of its tendency to approach the ‘palpable and extreme’, because of its penchant for collapsing time while reading cultural history, and because of its ability to create literary ‘wormholes’ that alter perception – is a progressive political form. Or at least it has the potential to be. Microfiction, especially at its most micro and when embedded in digital media, can transform into a meme, a cultural tic, a self-replicating literary artefact of dizzying fecundity. The immediacy of microfiction – the speed of production (basically instantaneous, when compared with a novel, even when the microfiction is delicately crafted) – renders it more likely to engage with the existing moment, with matters of immediate cultural and political significance. The Best Small Fictions 2015, then, could be at the forefront of a burgeoning cultural movement.
Robert Olen Butler and Tara L Masih (Eds) The Best Small Fictions 2015 Queen’s Ferry Press 2015 PB 143pp $23.50
Allan Drew is currently completing his PhD in Creative Writing at Victoria University Wellington, New Zealand. His short stories, poems and non-fiction have appeared in literary journals and magazines, and his work has won or been shortlisted in several international and national writing competitions. You can find him online at www.allan-drew.com
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