Guest Editor: Amy Hempel
Series Editor, Tara L. Masih
Available September 5th, 2017 by Braddock Avenue Books (Press Release)
There is no writing toward the story in a short-short; the author must begin with the story. – Amy Hempel, Guest Editor, The Best Small Fictions
If you logon to Duotrope and conduct a search for publications which feature flash fiction, you will find over 1000 listings featuring every genre, audience and market imaginable. The list is daunting and inspiring at the same time. This speaks to the increasing popularity of short fiction in an age where attention spans have shortened and technology has rendered it possible for a reader to carry hundreds of books on e-readers that can be slipped inside of purses and bags.
This year, the collection of The Best Small Fictions 2017 demonstrates, in content as well as scope, the growing ubiquity of this writing form. A sign that flash fiction is coming into its own (yet again) is the way in which it not only reflects the themes and preoccupations common to literary writing, but reaches out and engages with our current culture, offering commentary or simply reflecting what is relevant in the now. The thematic concerns include the latest U.S. elections (“Election Cycle” by Alex Simand) rape culture (“Help” by Pamela Painter) and an interesting submission featuring an Latino protagonist doing a gruesome kind of work which, in its particulars, creates a parallel between two groups which rarely intersect in American society (“The Crossing” by Mona Leigh Rose ). It’s exciting to watch writers of short-short fiction reach out into the world and grapple with it, turning the power of seeing the part for the whole into another way of documenting the specific angst of our times.
But there is also true art here for its own sake, and that beauty takes a myriad of striking forms. I don’t normally point out individual stories, especially in a collection of this quality, in which each story is exemplary in its own way, but I was particularly moved by the beauty of “The Sea Urchin” by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello which, in 235 words, renders a relationship between a daughter and her grandmother as both intimate and mythic. This is the speaker’s grandmother but she could easily be the Greek goddess, Thetis, returning from the sea. As a study of compression and economy of words while preserving the essential meaning and lyricism of language, it is one of the very best in this collection.
As usual, this anthology features flash fiction at its best and most varied. David Galef divides flash fiction into five types: monologue, tale, individual, snapshot and experimental. Refreshingly, every type is represented here. Even more exciting, the experimental form (including ekphrastic poetry and the one-line paragraph or story) finds a solid place within the covers of this collection in bold and moving fashion, such as in the works of Joy Katz’s “Don’t Walk,” William Woolfitt’s “Hatchlings” and Karen Brennan’s “10 Birds.” Joy Williams contributes two stories of uncommon precision and Stuart Dybek features a story which transcends its form and delivers something close to the divine.
As a student of flash fiction, there are some lessons to be gleaned from the pedigree of the authors themselves. Writers who produce such flawless writing normally do so well into their writing careers, beyond the apprenticeship phase of their development, which speaks to the importance of persistence in practicing this or any other art form. They’ve earned awards and in more that 90% of the cases, possess MFA degrees, which can also be taken as a commentary on the racial and socioeconomic diversity of the authors of these stories and the appeal of flash across dividing lines.
If the reader is a student of this art form, this collection is well-worth picking up and studying closely. In the spirit of Francine Prose, closely reading great works can provide the scaffolding a budding writer needs to work towards excellence in her own work.
As usual, here are some of my favorite quotes:
“But she knew herself well enough to know that they irritated her because they had found happiness in a simple place where she had not.” – Dearest, Joy Williams
“She begs you to listen, but her teeth run away, chattering.” – Election Cycle, Alex Simand
“Bombarded by starlight, the climbers reflected the radiance.” – Ascent, Stuart Dybek
“He’d gotten himself to the place where the words made themselves out of absences, out of needs that were barely perceived.” – Writer, Scott Garson
“Once when she returned, I counted the stiff lines around her mouth, which never seemed to open but held back entire tides.” – The Sea Urchin, Marcie Calabretta Cancio-Bello
“And the old sadness came back to her, familiar and fathomless.” – Registry, Phillip Sterling
“That flick in the corner of your eyes? That’s them, he says” – The Crossing, Mona Leigh Rose
“I mark a tally through the dust, one for every night I should have slept alone.” – Nightstands, Cole Meyer
“I think about the art shrink, how she told a roomful of monsters to leave space for luminous moments.” – In Our Circle, Kimberly King Parsons