The Importance of Short Literature in the Age of TMI
The phrase “Too Long To Read” is apparently Too Long To Say—TLTR is an acronym for articles, essays, and whatever else we scroll past on our phones. Whether you use this (increasingly common) phrase or wish it were a “LOTR” typo, the fact remains: things are getting shorter. Texts, articles, attention spans—and as the distance between two points virtually shrinks, constant innovations allow us to communicate more with less. Condensed meaning, one of poetry’s proudest features, has taken on new forms more rapidly than ever before. Short: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms, edited by Alan Ziegler, reminds us that this work was happening long before ‘lol’—and extending far beyond the realm of the poem.
Some people read horoscopes daily. Others, a Bible verse. Fortune cookies, proverbs, the bathroom collection of Calvin and Hobbes—everyone appreciates brevity. Short gives us nuggets of short ‘information’ in the guise of great literature. Without overly lending itself to debating literary labels, the validity of different forms, or the need for genre categories, the book is a veritable treasure chest—a collection of writing so varied, it boggles the mind to think of the time, space, and circumstance these pieces traversed to unite in this gift of a collection.
The main draw of this volume is its promise of variety, and it delivers aesthetically diverse pieces of exceptional quality representing four admittedly nebulous categories, as hinted in the subtitle: prose poems, short-short stories, brief essays, and ‘others’ or ‘fragments.’ In a useful, candid introduction, Ziegler welcomes the reader into the discussion at hand, admitting “the concept of genre is slippery, shape-shifting, and sometimes nonexistent…what’s an editor to do about pieces of short prose left uncategorized by their authors or given names like “anecdote” or “picture”…The answer in Short is to put them all together.”
After giving readers a sense of the history and range of these shorts, Ziegler gives us the barest definitions of the four sub-groups: “A prose poem is a piece without line breaks that the author calls a poem…A short-short story must be short and contain a narrative element…Brief essays…offer the reader an explicit promise of truth—however the author defines it…and ‘Fragment’ is used…for a complete piece with a fragmentary quality “like a chef ’s amuse bouche—which is not scooped out of a pot.” Ziegler goes on to note that the subtitle for this book could consist of a half-page list of short form nomenclature—a prose poem or brief essay unto itself.
After the introduction, Short sets aside the issue of categorization. The texts are presented not in formal groupings, but chronologically by author birth. This helps to brings them, and the book as a whole, out of the ordered realm of anthology and into the world of art, as the emphasis lands on the phenomenon of creation rather than category—celebrating invention, not ideology. Rather than chose the pieces that are easiest to put under particular subheadings, Ziegler gives us examples and counter-examples, leaving us to wander around and make up our own minds rather than leading us down the garden path. This is intentional, as the introduction notes that “One advantage of not designating a genre—or of using a nondescript term like paragraph, piece, or text—is that readers cannot respond that they like the work but it is just not a poem/story/essay….Each piece makes a prima facie case for itself, with no room for rebuttal based merely on formal expectations.” The point is inclusion, not despite uncertainty, but of it, and the possibility it represents. The only line in the sand seems to have been practicality—for reasons of space, Short is limited to pieces from Western literature with fewer than 1250 words. The way this arrangement encourages readers to take a text on its own terms is perhaps the greatest achievement of this anthology.
It’s a mixed and surprising bag—stories, sketches, and experiments that explore history, politics, emotions. Reading several pieces in one sitting can be quite the ride: narrative, allegory, address, and confession are among the myriad devices used by the authors to raise questions that range across the existential, the rhetorical, and the deeply personal. Paul Valery’s “Last Visit to Mallarmé” combines literary history with (quelle surprise) lovely prose. Luisa Valenzuela’s work appearing between Charles Simic and Margaret Atwood draws out the dark humor they share—all the more interesting for their disparate origins. It feels appropriate the Paul Celan’s stunning relationship to language coexist with that of Walter Benjamin, who has contributed so much to literature and translation theory. August Wilhelm Schlegel’s fragments arrive about one hundred years (and a few pages) after François de la Rochefoucauld’s, with a zing that harkens back to kindred minds, while asserting itself with lines like “Notes to a poem are like anatomical lectures on a piece of roast beef.”
Ziegler writes his own shorts and has taught short form courses for years in Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and his experience manifests in a comfort with ambiguity that is passed on to the reader. Whether the writers are adhering to, disregarding, or undermining genre ‘rules,’ this expertly curated collection enhances and challenges our understanding of literature by virtue of what is juxtaposed within its pages.
The collection raises as many questions as it answers—probably more. What are these short forms, and what do they have to tell us? How do they challenge our notions of value and purpose? Ziegler discusses modern platforms like Twitter, but many of these concerns are hardly new. What is the difference between process and product, if notebook jottings are presented as Fragments? Does it change things if the author never presented those words as ‘work’? The only response is to read on, and perhaps enjoy the way the theoretical gears take a backseat to the work itself. Marcel Schwob “Cyril Tourneur: Tragic Poet” and Macedonio Fernández “A Novel for Readers with Nerves of Steel” are examples of the way these texts are, to take another phrase from Ziegler’s introduction, ‘literary tricksters.’ An Anne Carson “Short Talk” appears, drawing the connection between speech and written anecdotes. Anne DeWitt’s “Influence” was a response to Esquire’s call for stories that could fit on a napkin, demonstrating how our quotidian realities inform current art.
Readers will likely be familiar with some of the texts included, or their respective authors. Baudelaire’s “Get Drunk”—so often quoted—is here, in its three-paragraph entirety. Max Jacob’s “The Beggar Woman of Naples” is heartbreaking, especially on the heels of Jacob’s “Fake News! New Graves!” Oscar Wilde’s “The Artist” is an arresting instance of gravity not always associated with the notorious wit. Other heavyweights are present—Stein, Borges, Davis, to name a few—but the best part of this book, aside from the fact that it all happens in one place, is the inevitable discovery of great writers. Though a fan of Edward Thomas, I hadn’t read “One Sail at Sea,” until Short. Dawn Lundy Martin’s quicksilver voice contributes “If there is a prayer…” and “Lazarus,” Liliana Blum’s first work to be translated into English, is here, raising its hand. I enjoyed Lord Dunsany’s “The Demagogue and the Demi-Monde,” and then learned he was an influence cited by H.P. Lovecraft, Tolkien, Borges and Neil Gaiman. Many anthologies focus on a single genre or form of short (prose poem, flash fiction, etc), but here we have access to a fuller spread—the etc. Additionally, Ziegler shines several ‘Spotlights’ in the author bio section, elaborating on several authors’ work and context. These add fascinating social, political, and personal dimensions to the reading experience, especially through periods before the internet was able to facilitate dispersion of art across oceans and borders. Factual snippets about the criss-crossing of literature over the world are like candy to the literary-minded—for example, we may learn that Baudelaire read Bertrand and Poe in Paris; Peter Altenberg read Baudelaire in Vienna; Franz Kafka read Altenberg in Prague—and the rest is history. More ‘Spotlights’ would be wonderful, though it’s surely a challenge to include as much as possible without things getting unwieldy.
The selection gets heavily American as the timeline pushes farther into the twentieth century (due partly to the proliferation of these forms in the U.S and possibly to the simple fact that this book was produced in America). Ziegler notes that there are reams of good shorts being produced elsewhere, particularly Latin America. As a whole though, the texts do span continents, and their collective presentation in English is eloquent testament to the magic of translation—and an argument for language learning. The chronological structure reminds us about the evolution of literary approaches and styles, tracing lines that help us develop a richer web of understanding. Short is also a fantastic kickstart for writers, creators, and teachers—interesting language and unexpected turns are antidotes to all kinds of creative blocks, as well as marvelous examples for the classroom. Similar volumes representing other areas of the world would be a welcome companion. In the meantime, we’ve got a lot to dive into.
Press: Persea Books, 2014
Page length: 354
K.T. Billey moved from rural Alberta, Canada, to study poetry at Columbia University, where she is now a Teaching Fellow. Poems have appeared in CutBank, The New Orleans Review, Phantom Limb, Ghost Proposal, Prick of the Spindle, the sensation feelings journal, and H.O.W. Journal. Translations have appeared in Palabras Errantes. She is proud to be a Girls Write Now mentor.