“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 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:
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.
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.
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