In Defiance of Categorical Distinction: On THE BEST SMALL FICTIONS: 2019 ANTHOLOGY
by Robb Todd
Flash fiction is not fiction as a white horse is not a horse.
Fiction, the god of the outermost circle, is so powerful that those who strictly write facts are defined in opposition to it: as writers of “nonfiction.”
Categorization is tyranny, even if it is useful to customers who might care to know what they are buying without having to think too much about it.
Equal parts of that tyranny are served to an unknown indie writer who keeps her tales tight and to Stephen King, whose 61st novel was just published and who has another blockbuster movie in theaters. Despite making many millions of dollars terrorizing the dreams of even more millions of people, any gentle poke of the internet will reveal King moaning about being labeled as everything but literary and “being dismissed by the more intellectual critics as a hack (the intellectual’s definition of a hack seems to be ‘an artist whose work is appreciated by too many people’).”
This is all to say, in what must already be too many words when discussing a form that is defined by its brevity, that "The Best Small Fictions: 2019 Anthology" defies its categorical distinction.
Holding this book goes a long way toward feeling the weight of its stories. It would not be easy to squeeze this global collection of 146 stories into a suitcase, even if some of them could have author bios that are nearly as long as the narratives. This anthology is literally huge. Almost too big to read on the subway while standing, since opening it comes close to requiring a book-reading equivalent of man-spreading.
This anthology from Sonder Press chooses the word "small" for its title to encircle some of the many categories that are included, all followed by the word "fiction": sudden, flash, short, micro, hint — there are more. And there are many definitions, and arguments about the definitions, of these forms. Whatever the category, guest editor Rilla Askew writes in her introduction that these stories "render the human heart in conflict with itself, as Faulkner long ago said, and most certainly the human heart in conflict with others."
More writers of long stories should pay attention to that and to the way these shorter ones are crafted. What makes flash fiction great is no different than what makes any fiction — or poem, memoir, or horror novel — great. A plea for composition should not be reduced by the term “minimalism.” Stripping stories of needless exposition or, worse, ham-handed exposition is a favor for every reader of a thousand words or a thousand pages. Information is entropy.
"Best Small Fictions" features outstanding work from Carrie Cooperider, Hugo Ríos Cordero, Christine Schutt, Diane Williams, Lydia Davis, Robert Vaughn, Elaine Chiew, Sheldon Lee Compton, Vi Khi Nao, Hiwot Adilow, Amelia Gray, Meg Pokrass and more than a hundred other writers worth reading.
Nicole Nyhan, the managing editor of Conjunctions, told Jen Michalski in an interview in the back of the anthology that the journal has featured so-called flash fiction since it launched in the early 1980s, including some early stories from Williams and Davis.
"We never really considered their work with this terminology in mind," Nyhan said. "Then and now, we tend not to delineate between 'flash fiction' and other forms of short fiction. Other boundaries are perhaps more interesting to examine: how to categorize an essay written in verse, for instance. Our contributors tend to experiment with formal and genre boundaries, often transgressing both, so distinctions on the basis of length alone are less important to us."
These stories offer the chance to savor what is being read — and should be reread — as well as the pleasure of discerning meaning for yourself, which is the light by which one can explore what is not already known.
Robb Todd is a journalist and author in New York City. He has lived all over the country and was lucky enough to live in Hawaii twice. He also lived in Texas twice. And North Carolina twice. Actually, this is his second stop in New York City, too. He doesn’t do things right the first time.