Lisa (Harmonybites)'s Reviews > Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories

Sudden Fiction by Robert Shapard
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review

liked it
bookshelves: short-stories, literary-fiction, fiction, contemporary
Recommended for: Those Interested in Writing, The short story, and Literary Fiction

The rating is a compromise. The result of my conflicting sense that this is a landmark book that everyone interested in contemporary literature and professional writing should own--and well, the fact that I liked such a small percentage of these stories even a little.

On the must-read/own side, at the time this collection was put together (1986) the literary world saw an explosion of short-short fiction. As noted in the introduction, the great majority of these stories had been published within the last five years. As it happens, only 22 out of the 70 stories here were published before the 1980s, and over half of those were published in the seventies. Thus this collection was part of the whole debate about what are these things and what do we call them? (Ultimately, they've generally been called by a term the editors didn't adopt but mentioned in the Introduction--Flash Fiction--and they're ubiquitous these days on the literary scene.) Does the length by itself call forth a form different in quality than the ordinary short story? The stories in this collection run from less than 300 words to 1,500. Each story is only a few pages that can be read in less than five minutes. The authors include many celebrated literary names such as T. Coraghessan Boyle, Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, Bernard Malamud, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike and Tennessee Williams. The collection consists not only of these stories but nearly 30 pages of an Afterwards by editors and celebrated authors examining the theory and practice and definitions of the short story and particularly the short-short.

But then there's that of 70 stories, I liked little more than about one-tenth of them. This says more about my literary tastes (or some might feel, the lack of them) than the job the editors did. This is decidedly contemporary literary fiction. It has that sensibility and style. There is fiction that falls into that category I do love, but so much contemporary literary fiction comes across to me as sterile, pretentious and crass, and that's true of the vast majority of this collection. (Including by the way, Hemingway's contribution, "A Very Short Story," which coming from 1925, is the earliest entry in the anthology. Take a look at its last sentence.) It's as if today's literati would rather die than entertain, move or inspire. Almost all of these are decidedly downbeat and few have a twist, a surprise or a smile in store. The contribution by Ray Bradbury, "I See You Never" is the dullest story by him I've ever read. Yet, mainstream fiction these might be, so many seem gimmicky--see, for instance, "A Questionnaire for Rudolph Gordon." I can however, name 8 stories I know I'll remember for a long time. For the record, in the order they appeared:

John Cheever, Reunion (1962) - a wonderful character study about a son's experience with his father that reveals so much with just a few telling words.

Bel Kaufman, Sunday in the Park (1985) - for something so short and so seemingly trivial (an incident at a sandbox) this manages to have quite a punch.

John Updike, Pymgmalion (1981) - the title expresses perfectly the theme of this story about a man shaping his wife to his tastes.

Elizabeth Talent, No One's a Mystery (1985) - about the different expectations of a couple about their future--this manages to be cynical and hopeful at once.

Mary Robison, Yours (1981) - this does what few contemporary literary stories dare to--turn around and play with your expectations.

Langston Hughes, Thank You, M'am (1958) - does something else few contemporary stories dare to--create a memorable character you actually care about.

Raymond Carver, Popular Mechanics (1982) - not sure how to characterize this one. Prose poem? Magical realism? But while I wouldn't call it horror exactly, it has the chilling impact of the best in the genre. One of those, like "Pygmalion" I know I won't forget. Ever.

Chet Williamson, The Personal Touch (1983) - the humor might be a bit grim--but it's there. I almost laughed out loud at the twist. And it is a twist.

So, as a collection of stories, most of which I'd want to read again and again, this fails. Yet it will stay on my bookshelf because I find there's much I've learned--and still could learn--about contemporary literature and writing fiction reading these.

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Sudden Fiction.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

April 25, 2010 – Shelved
April 25, 2010 – Shelved as: short-stories
April 25, 2010 – Shelved as: literary-fiction
May 13, 2011 – Shelved as: fiction
July 16, 2012 – Started Reading
July 17, 2012 – Shelved as: contemporary
July 17, 2012 – Finished Reading

No comments have been added yet.