I just found out that the 22nd of this month is International Flash Fiction Day. Who knew? I’m not sure how I’m going to celebrate this event, other than read some stories. But it gives me an excuse to list, in an informal manner, ten of my favorite collections of short stories, just for the fun of it.
Let’s pretend we’re having a tea party. I prefer strong coffee; you can have that if you like, but I also have Earl Grey and some fine Japanese green tea. Oh, and some great organic chocolate cookies. We’re talking books. Short story collections, to be exact. Anyway, let’s pretend that we’ve already discussed what “flash fiction” is supposed to be, that basically it just means really short short stories, and the word “flash” is misleading—as in “flash in the pan”—here a moment, and gone. No, they don’t flash like a camera, they’re the snapshots themselves, taken with great care, keepers. We’ve already discussed that the term “microfiction”, although merely descriptive, is better (after all “short story” is a merely descriptive term), but like the poor and misleading terms “Minimalism” or “Post-Modernism” we seem to be stuck with “flash”. Oh, and we’ve already mentioned the so-called connection between flash and prose poetry, that basically flash is more concerned with narrative and less with the “poetic moment”, but that nobody really knows what a prose poem is anyway, because the “poetic moment” cannot really be defined (and that’s why we love it and them), so we’ve agreed to skip a discussion that just travels in circles and go right to the list:
1) First, let’s get Raymond Carver out of the way with the Library of America edition of the Collected Stories, which contains the original versions of the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love before Gordon Lish got his hands on them. We’ll save the discussion of their differences, as well as the broader issue of the role of editor for another day, there’s no time for that now. I discovered Carver just a few years ago when a neighbor in a creative writing class gasped in disbelief that I’d never heard of him, then shoved the book in my hands, uttering, YOU. MUST. READ. I took the book home and read it straight through, stopping now and then to turn it over and over in my hands, in absolute disbelief that I’d never heard of him. And everything you’ve heard is true. He’s incredible.
2) And let’s just agree, shall we, that Hemingway is the bees freakin’ knees. ‘Nuff said. No? Oh please don’t tell me you’re one of those who say they don’t see what the big deal is. Please don’t tell me that. Try a very short one, say Old Man at the Bridge. Aren’t you there? Don’t you see it, even more vivid than a picture or a film? Try Cat in the Rain. Could any scene of words be more vividly constructed, and with such economy? This is the closest the art of placing one word after another on a sheet of paper gets to chiseling in stone. Oh, I guess you have something against Michelangelo too? Too hard, too masculine, too many “toos”? Oh, brother.
3) Sherwood Anderson was one of Hemingway’s teachers, but he could teach anyone who’s interested in putting together a collection of stories that really work. And what I love most about Winesburg, Ohio is the way the stories work together; here the whole is greater than its parts. We get portraits of some of the residents of this town, very precise portraits that capture each in a specific moment of their “grotesquery” (the word is Anderson’s). Many of them find their way to George Willard, reporter of the local paper and promising young writer, somehow feeling that by using him as a sounding board their peculiarity will come into focus. Willard has not yet been deformed by life, and in the end he leaves town. The contrast between these “grotesques” and the unformed young man is exquisitely painful and profoundly moving, and it is Anderson’s genius that he found this simple device for drawing a portrait of American small town society.
4) From the country to the city. Because of copyright issues no “Collected Stories of Donald Barthelme” exists, a damn shame. If I were forced to pick a favorite from his collections, it might be City Life. But I’ve written about it before, so let me read a passage instead, from The Genius, in the collection Sadness, which is probably just as good as City Life.
5) Once in Key West I came across a tattered old book at a library sale (yes, Key West actually had a library. This may have been their going out of business sale). It was the Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken. I had heard of Aiken, having found pleasure in some of his poems in an anthology. In the years since then Aiken’s star has been fading and fading. Just do a search on Amazon. It’s sad. Maybe he’ll come back. Writers do, sometimes. James Purdy seems to be coming back, hurray. As of now, that dilapidated collection of Aiken’s stories is gold. As a storyteller Aiken is as sophisticated as Flaubert. Don’t ask to borrow it. Maybe I’ll let you see it.
6) Murder! Revenge! Faith! Doubt! Politics! Corruption! Death! Horses! Is it a Hollywood blockbuster? No, it’s Michael Kohlhaas, written by Heinrich von Kleist in 1810. He wrote some of the best stories and plays of all time and then, at the age of thirty-four, committed suicide with his girlfriend. The story of his life is as volcanic as one of his fictions, one of those people who burned way too hot. He was a postmodernist before modernism even entered the lexicon, a hundred and fifty years ahead of his time. Kleist, one of Kafka’s favorite writers. And one of Barthelme’s favorites, too.
7) Problems by John Updike. I bet you didn’t see that coming. I read it as a teenager and it’s still one of my favorites—such a variety of storytelling forms. Updike gives the impression of having read every type of discourse imaginable, just so that he could use them as devices for fiction. Within this collection he uses Plato, natural history, math, the quiz, minutes of a committee meeting and the plotline structure of a TV commercial, to name a few. My only criticism of him is that he is sometimes too good, too literary. But that’s a bit like saying this coffee’s too rich, or these cookies have too much chocolate in them (have another, you only live once). He is too good. I could write for a thousand years and never be as good. Come to think of it, I don’t like Updike at all. I hate him.
8) Herman Melville’s short stories are just as good as his novels. I know, I know, we have another I-just-don’t-get-what-all-the-fuss-is-about writers. Do you like Shakespeare? The King James Bible? No? Well then that explains it. Don’t get me started. Melville is sacred to me.
9) Borges, the Collected Fictions. Of course. I’ve written about one of my favorites, here.
10) Kafka. It’s always been Kafka for me, and probably always will be. But by now you’re sick to death of hearing me go on about Kafka. So I’m done, and now it’s your turn. What are your favorite collections of short stories?