Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The Best Small Fictions 2015

The Best Small Fictions 2015, edited by Robert Olen Butler, series editor Tara L. Masih 

Reviewed by Tim Jones

With input from consulting and “roving” editors around the world including Michelle Elvy, co-editor of New Zealand’s own “Flash Frontier”, Best Small Fictions 2015 brings together a selection of the best small fiction (short-short stories) written in, or translated into, English for the year. There are 55 stories in all, including “Eat Beetroot” by Waikouaiti author Jane Swan, which was first published in Flash Frontier.

Stories from 6 to 1000 words could be submitted to the anthology: to me, 1000 words is approaching the confines of a ‘traditional’ short story, while 6 words makes Twitter’s 140-character limit look positively Tolstoyan. So there is a wide variety of forms even with the overall constraint of “small fictions”.

In addition to the literary merits of the work included, as discussed below, this is an excellent resource for anyone teaching, or teaching themselves, the writing of short fiction. The introductions, interviews and features on flash fiction at the end of the anthology add to its merits as a teaching tool.

The stories included are selected from a lengthy list of finalists by the editor, who reads the finalists blind, so the selection inevitably reflect the editor’s personal taste. My own taste in very short literary fiction runs to the surreal, the bizarre, the metafictional. It’s fair to say that that’s where my tastes alight in short fiction in general, but I think the shortest lengths of fiction are especially suited to the type of conceptual experiments that can quickly pall if sustained over longer works.

Most of the stories in this anthology follow the more traditional realist short fiction trope of focusing on a still, small moment – and do it very well. Jane Swan’s “Eat Beetroot” is a concise and well-executed example of such a story, and there are many others in the collection, by writers both new to me and others well-known (Bobbie Ann Mason, for example).

But my personal favourites include “A Notice from the Office of Reclamation”, by J. Duncan Wiley, in which the institutional language of an official safety pronouncement battles human curiosity; the Northern-Ireland-set “The Third Time My Father Tried To Kill Me”, by James Claffey, with its time-reversed sequence of events; Lisa Marie Basile’s “Apocryphal”; “Before She Was A Memory” by Emma Bolden, which has an opening line a scriptwriter would kill for; “The Intended” by Dawn Raffel, a perfect cocktail of unease, expressed in striking imagery, which was my favourite story in this anthology; the single two-page-long paragraph of Julia Strayer’s “Let’s Say”; and Ron Carlson’s “You Must Intercept the Blue Box Before It Gets To the City”, which cunningly thwarted this reader’s expectations of box-interception.

These are my favourites; but the stories which hew closer to “traditional” literary realism are also fine examples of the craft of story-telling, and whatever your preference you are likely to find much to enjoy – and, if you are a writer, to aspire to.

Despite its international ambitions, the final selection is still largely US-centric. That could be because the best small fictions in English are being written in the US; it could be because not enough small fiction written in other languages is being translated into English. But it could also reflect the editor’s personal taste, and so I hope that guest editors of future editions will be from a range of countries, cultures and writing traditions. And I hope there will be many such future editions.

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