Short: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms
Edited by Alan Ziegler
354 pages / $16.95 Buy from Amazon
I realize now that the only thing you can do with any anthology is take issue with it: who was included, who wasn’t, what order they’re in, why there’s more x than y. But before I step into the trenches, I want to note right off the bat that Short is an important and impressive document. It comes at a time when the short form, especially in its incarnation as “hybrid genre,” is gaining traction both in indie and (to a lesser extent) mainstream circles. I need not list presses like Tarpaulin Sky and Rose Metal Press; authors as different as Lydia Davis and Amelia Gray; lit mags like NANO Fiction and Gigantic. And that’s just a very small, very indie cross-section. Hell, Sentence already lived a full life and closed its doors.
Point is, I shouldn’t have to convince you that understanding the evolution of very short prose is an important project for the contemporary literary landscape. And it seems that Alan Ziegler, editor of Short, is the right man for the job. On his resume, besides his own books of “tales” and “takes,” is having taught Short Prose Forms at Columbia since 1989. That’s a long time.
Of course, here’s where the bones-to-pick start coming in. Ziegler’s definition of “short” is a little different from what mine might be: 1,250 words is his limit, which allows writing up to four pages to make it into Short. I can’t help but think that some of the pieces at the upper limit of this mark—Donald Barthelme’s happily tooting “The King of Jazz,” for example—cease to be short a few hundred words before their end.
If I was looking to criticize, I might take issue with the treatment of the pieces too: they’re printed one after another, with almost no whitespace. I understand that this is a logistical measure, and the anthology couldn’t house nearly the number of pieces it does if each piece were given its own page. Still, the purist in me argues that fewer, better-presented pieces would be more effectual than more works, smashed into the same space. Such a large part of reading very short prose is having the visual space to consider it after its textual work is done; reading Short is a little like reading Shakespeare in one of those two-column tiny-print Collected Works volumes.
Then again, such are the casualties of reading an anthology cover-to-cover. Those shorts which originally appeared in a full book of such pieces appear bizarre and sort of hamstrung out of their context. Amelia Gray’s, for example, the last one in the anthology, doesn’t carry nearly the pleasure as when you read it in the context of AM/PM as a whole. “Remain Healthy All Day,” it begins, before its laundry list of odd directives. If we didn’t know better, we might think she was being glib. But in the original, wonderful edition from featherproof, we’ve already begun the everyday tragedies of our friends Terrence and Charles and see, through their eyes, the direness of being asked to “Use a warm towel to dry the cat.”
This strange, decontextualized nature of the anthology might partially be remedied, I thought, by changing the order of the pieces. Ziegler orders them according to the birthdate of their authors; we start at Girolamo Cardano’s “Those Things in Which I Take Pleasure” (1501) and end with Gray. The shorts take on an often similar thrust to those with which they are surrounded, then. The beginning is full of fairly staid ruminations, which pick up speed as we pass through Poe and Baudelaire and reach a cruising altitude more amenable to the contemporary palate with writers born after 1925, to whom the second half of the book is devoted. I appreciated the alternative jaunt through literary history but perhaps, I wondered, the crowdedness of this volume might be better suited to a random sequence—by first initial of last name, for example. Then the close juxtaposition of pieces, instead of being tiresome and chronological, might be fortuitous and on any given page point to a sort of conversation across the ages. What an artistic concept! All of them in a room together!
But this is not the purpose of Short, I don’t think, to be read cover-to-cover. Instead, it seems to me that the book works better as a textbook, a compendium of sources for the educated instructor to pick and choose from. Ziegler does not specifically state this in his introduction. Instead, he focuses primarily—and helpfully—on the freedom of the short prose form, and the uncertain navigation many pieces have made between labels like “prose-poem,” “short-short story,” “brief essay,” and “fragment.” Short, he states, differs from other collections of short prose in that it doesn’t seek to make such distinctions; all comers are invited, at least (he admits) from Western literature.
But there is another element of the book that strikes me as particularly “educational” (as opposed to “readerly”). The author biographies at the end, which are allotted a generous 31 pages, provide details about each writer’s life specifically in relation to their practice of writing short prose. We learn, for example, that António Lobo Antunes, a novelist, also “regularly contributed crônicas to the Portuguese newspaper O Público.” Or that Walter Benjamin’s two pieces “are from One-Way Street, a collection of Denkbilder (thought-images).” The author notes even include “Spotlight” sections, which give extended bios of authors judged to be of particular importance to the history of the short form. Among these are Russell Edson, Czesław Miłosz, Luisa Valenzuela, and Diane Williams.
In the end, Short is perhaps more than anything an incarnation of Ziegler’s Short Prose Forms class at Columbia and its corresponding philosophy of genre: his students may use labels or not, but they certainly don’t have to. “My objective in Short,” Ziegler writes, “is to offer a reading experience made richer by setting aside categorical imperatives.”
If it is, then, a reading experience that Ziegler means to cultivate, readers will be better served by picking and choosing pieces that interest them—perhaps guided by the biographies in the back—than by starting at the beginning and reading through to the end. For it is an unfortunate side-effect of any anthology of work as short as this that after a few pieces, all in different registers, the reader begins to be exhausted by the sheer effort of shifting gears. Brevity, it would seem, does best in an environment where there is at least some thread—be it authorial, thematic, or even (I shudder to say) generic—that “ties it all together.”
The dependence of short prose on what surrounds it might, in fact, have been my greatest takeaway as a reader of Short. It is easy to believe, given the profusion of short work available through (e.g.) the internet, that literally anything is possible. And it is, but that doesn’t mean it will be good. Even playful short forms have a deep responsibility to the reader: that of holding the reader’s attention across multiple pieces and especially, I’d suggest, privileging silence—white space—as much as the written word.
Dennis James Sweeney is the author of What They Took Away, winner of the 2013 CutBank Chapbook Contest. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon. Find him here.