shining the spotlight on short story collections
Alan Ziegler, editor. Alan Ziegler is professor of Writing and Director of Pedagogy at Columbia University’s school of Arts. Author of Love at First Sight, The Swan Song of Vauderville, The Green Grass of Flatbush.
Persea Books 2014
Long Stories! That Long! One Page Long!
(Juan Ramón Jiménez)
NOT what it says on the tin.
If I say that this book is not designed to be read, will you understand me? It is a work of reference, for students, to be pointed at – ‘read pages 206-207’; ‘discuss the development of the short form from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.’ It is destined to have many of the pieces lie unread, disregarded as they fail to fit into this month’s seminar topic.
I take issue with the title: Five centuries? Hardly. I anticipated an even distribution and fair representation, but no: 2 pieces from the 16th Century, 4 from the 17th, 8 from the 18th. International is an exaggeration too. The introduction justifies this with how big the book would need to be, and so the examples are drawn from Western Literature. Now, of course I appreciate the huge task it would be to get good translations of multiple languages but I would be wary of even claiming Western Literature as the gene pool for this anthology. The overwhelming majority are from the US. Women are severely under represented too at barely 30%.
I suspect part of the fault lies with the basic premise of the short-short form (no more the 1250 words was the arbitrary cut off.). It was not an especially popular form in the 16th-18th Centuries – apparently (No John Donne? No Aphra Behn? No Jonathan Swift? No Mary Manley…)
Have you noticed how very cross this book made me? I am a simple soul, I read for the joy of a story well told, a well turned phrase, a cracking idea well tricked out. And before you think ‘oh well, she’s not a short-short enthusiast’, I will demur: I love short fiction, and prose poetry, and read 300 word stories with great enjoyment – However I long ago gave up reading anything that didn’t hit at least one of those basics. Had I not been asked to review this I would have given it to Oxfam midway through 1810. Instead, once I had been disappointed about thirty times, each piece got three sentences to engage me (some of these pieces are only that long in any case), if it hadn’t managed by then, I moved on.
Actually the ‘start in 1510 and work through’ thing made it even more apparent this is not a book designed to be read, merely referenced. It might have kept my attention more if the pieces had been grouped by theme, or even what kind of piece they are. Talented writers are represented here, for the most part, with throwaway pieces. These vary from the blatantly unfinished to the pretentiously smug, by way of the failed experiment and extended joke, so I was very, very grateful for the few that achieved something more. With such short pieces there is no room for development, so the concept needs to be capable of expression with panache and brevity. VERY few achieve it.
So, no, I did not enjoy the book as a whole. A few pieces stand out (you have 180 authors, some with multiple pieces to choose from, there has to be something for everyone there.)
So, class: your assignment for this weekend is to read the following excellent pieces and work out why the reviewer liked them enough to give them a mention: no more than 1250 words, mind.
Louis Bertrand Haarlem,
Traci Brimhall Rookery,
Ann Dewitt Influence,
Joy Harjo, Deer Dancer,
Zbigniew Herbert History of the Minotaur,
Franz Kafka, Poseidon,
Etgar Keret What do we have in our pockets?
Donald Barthelme, The King of Jazz,
Stephen Mitchell Jonah,
Scott Russell Sanders Aurora Means Dawn,
James Thurber Variations on a Theme,
Barry Yourgrau Domestic Scene
About the reviewer: Cherry Potts is the author of two short story collections, Mosaic of Air and Tales Told Before Cockcrow, and the editor/ co-editor for Arachne Press of several anthologies: Lovers’ Lies, Stations, Weird Lies, London Lies, Solstice Shorts and The Other Side of Sleep.