Adventures in Writing and Reading (An Occasional Series), Part 6
With its horrible, garish front cover this book doesn’t look up to much. I wonder what the publishers were thinking when they designed Sudden Fiction International to look like a business studies text book that got dressed in the dark. Perhaps it was supposed to stand out amongst the tasteful, sensibly-designed books on the short fiction anthology shelf, its ugliness compelling the innocent browser to pick it up and have a look. Perhaps the idea was to make it into some kind of undercover agent, a covert text that would alter readers’ perception of the short story from the inside. Perhaps you just shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
So, judging it by it’s innards alone, this is the finest short fiction collection I have come across and when I first read it, it pretty much redefined what I thought a short story could be or do. It has a great selection of short fiction by great writers (well-known, quite-known, not-really-known) from around the world, but in addition to that it also has a great essay-introduction as well as notes on their thinking by a number of the authors/ translators. So perhaps designing it to look like a textbook does make sense after all.
The stories in Sudden Fiction International are all short. Not super-super short, it’s not one of those compendiums of 50 word fiction (which occasionally throw up storytelling gems but for the most part seem to be more ‘clever’ than necessarily ‘good’), but certainly shorter than your standard short story. You could say that they are defiantly short – sudden (hence…). Whereas some short stories resemble novels in a shorter form (and creep towards a point where the long short story nudges into the novella, the point where you wonder why we categorise these things by length), these pieces recognise that the dynamics of short fiction are different and change tack accordingly. The difference is defined in Charles Baxter’s introduction as, “The chances are that the story has to do with a sudden crisis, in which a character does not act so much as react. When a character reacts, the situation is larger and more powerful than that character is.”
I don’t want to ramble on too much, so I will just do a quick scree of some favourites from this collection, starting with Fernando Sorrentino’s ‘There’s A Man In The Habit Of Hitting Me On The Head With An Umbrella’, (brilliant self-explanatory title) in which surreal circumstances lead the protaganist to be caught in a situation he is unable to react to, and in the space of four pages the author captures the frustration of events beyond our control. Moving on to Doris Lessing’s ‘Homage To Isaac Babel’, a subtly realised coming-of-age tale which rewards repeated reading and feels like it packs the weight of a classic novel into just five pages (as always I’m not quite writing what it is I want to express). Panos Ioannides’ ‘Gregory’ is a taut, tense war tale about a man trying to shoot a prisoner whom he has come to know, and as he squeezes the trigger he tries to balance out decisions made and actions not taken. And I’ve always had a bit of a thing for ‘Don’t You Blame Anyone’ by Julio Cortazar, in which a man struggles to pull on a sweater for several pages. Brilliant.
As well as all that, the book has pieces by writers like Brautigan and Yourgrau (who I’ve written about before) and Calvino and Barthelme (who I will surely write about soon(ish)). Basically, this is just a great primer for finding out what kind of sudden fiction pushes your buttons. An iceberg tip – you cannot lose! Ramble over (for now).