Book Review — The Best Small Fictions 2017

“There’s something about [an extremely short poem] that calls for attention. Surrounded by white space, it stands out, glowing like an island inviting us to land. It asks for only a moment of our time, and offers the hope of instant reward.”
X. J. Kennedy

The Best Small Fictions 2017

The Best Small Fictions 2017 is guest edited by Amy Hempel.  Hempel is a former student of Gordon Lish, in whose workshop she wrote several of her first stories.  She has produced three other collections: At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1990), which includes the story “The Harvest”; Tumble Home (1997); and The Dog of the Marriage (2005). The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel (2006) gathers all the stories from the four earlier books.  Tara Masih, the series editor, has won multiple book awards as editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, and The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays. She is the author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows: Stories and has published fiction, poetry, and essays in numerous anthologies and literary magazines.  Masih also provided the quote at the top of the page in her introduction.

This is the third year that I have been asked to review Best Small Fictions. The opportunity to review this year’s edition is courtesy of  Braddock Avenue Books. Although I have usually reviewed poetry, I found there is a good deal of commonality with small fiction.  Early Eastern poetry strived for brevity, but delivered an image far greater than the characters used.  Yosa Buson (1716-1784), for example, wrote a complete poem that translates into eleven English words:

       Coolness–
the sound of the bell
      as it leaves the bell

Small fictions strive to complete the same result.  They create complete experiences with a minimal amount of words.

This year’s edition features fifty-three writers with two returning contributors Kathy Fish and Robert Scotellaro.  Last year’s guest editor, Stuart Dybek, and roving editor, Tara Laskowski, each contribute to this year’s fictions.  Also featured is an interview with Joy Williams, who contributes two works and an interview with the managing editor of SmokeLong Quarterly, Christopher Allen. This year also features a wide variety of contributing publications from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Baltimore Review, Steel Toe Review, and many others. Some I also know well from my other readings such as Unknown Press, University of Iowa Press, and Tahoma Literary Review.

The writings are sorted well through the collection so the reader does not feel trapped in a genre.  After each fiction, there is a mini biography of each writer that includes published works, education, and awards.  The biographies tend to be as diverse as the writing. Christopher DeWan writes about the discovery of faith and belief. Allegra Hyde places a brother and sister into a surreal adventure. Anne Valente combines science and an arsonist’s thinking. Some fictions even contain some interesting facts and advice.  Jen Knox includes:

You said talking to plants gives them life, not because they hear you but because they feed on your breath. It doesn’t matter why a thing works, so long as it does.

Some writings make me feel old. Ras Mashramani writes of a video game that I had to look up. Others write of a youth that was far different than my own, which was set firmly in the last century.  Nick Admussen does deliver some relief with a rotary phone and a healthy dose of discovery. Missing in this anthology is the “Tweet” sized fictions.  It seems that the writing has gotten longer in this edition.  Fictions like Mona Leigh Rose’s take up three full pages, but are very well worth reading and have no wasted words. Matthew Baker also contributes a longer fiction that will bring a smile to the face of a political scientist.

The stories presented, or the most memorable ones, seem to have a touch of the bizarre associated with them.  Alex Simand’s “Election Cycle” brings the vivid imagery of a nightmarish circus scenario that many people have experienced. There is a thread of shared experience, either real, dreamed, or imagined, that make small fictions enjoyable and triggers part of the mind that can expand the handful of words into an experience.  Most people have or had an uncomfortable feeling about clowns, be it last year’s clown sightings around the country, a childhood fear of creepy circus clowns, or Stephen King’s Pennywise. It just takes a few words to bring it back into our active memory and mentally expand on it.

The art of fiction is the relationship between the reader and the text.  When the text is short more needs to be pulled from shared experiences or ideas.  Opening that shared experience is the art. Not everything is a circus, clowns, or dark, but those were the strongest triggers for me.  Other stories surprise with an unexpected twist.  But all the fictions have one thing in common.  They are complete and greater than the sum of their words.

Available September 5, 2017

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2 Comments

Filed under Book Review

2 responses to “Book Review — The Best Small Fictions 2017

  1. Wow. Shorter –

    than

    a

    Haiku.

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