The Best Small Fictions 2017
Amy Hempel, Guest Editor; Tara L. Masih, Series Editor. Braddock Avenue Books, $13 paperback (164p) ISBN: 9780998966717
A good short-short isn’t that different from a good traditional short story. They both need strong writing, developed characters, specificity, and surprise. But the strange thing about brevity is that it adds more to a story, which can be seen in the 55 stories collected in The Best Small Fictions 2017. The third volume in the series features stories 1,000 words and under from collections and journals, both print and online. You’ll find some expected voices here like Joy Williams and Stuart Dybek. Likewise, you’ll see well-established presses featured. But you’ll mostly find emerging writers and small presses.
While the stories in the anthology are varied—fantastic and realistic, language-driven and character-driven, allegorical and domestic—each shows what can be accomplished through concision. In one paragraph, Joy Williams gives us the normal world. In the next, a disruption, then a twist. In six paragraphs, a character is changed. Larry Brown relies on object instead of exposition. Cereal and beer paint a relationship without the need for explanation. In her introduction, Guest Editor and small fiction hero Amy Hempel writes, “There is no writing toward the story in a short-short; the author must begin with the story.” Allegra Hyde’s “Syndication,” begins with “My parents are in the backyard, digging their graves.” Randall Brown opens “What a Beautiful Dream” with “My aunt had a puppet made to look like her dead daughter, Peach.” And immediately we are running alongside the narrators with no time, or need, to get settled.
Most often, these stories focus on one staggering moment or the impact of one person, like the sea diving grandmother in Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bella’s “The Sea Urchin” and the possibly homeless Jesus lookalike in Scott Garson’s “Writer.” But other stories are expansive, like Matt Baker’s modern fable “The President’s Doubles,” which takes us through 19 years in an impressive use of economy and specificity.
In her introduction, Hempel also quotes David Shields, stating the end of small fictions “should force the reader to process anew what she has just read.” Many stories in the anthology do just this by offering us only a beginning. Len Kuntz describes two moments that will likely shape a young farmhand’s life. Emily Corwin focuses on the motivation before the action, creating a new backstory for a Little Red or Gretel. Ras Mashramani surrounds a girl with death and danger as she plays a gory video game and then leaves the climax offstage. In these three stories, action happens without happening. And we are left with what Shields calls “retroactive redefinition.”