The third instalment of one of the most popular and esteemed series of flash fiction anthologies, The Best Small Fictions 2017 (Braddock Avenue Books, 2017), is an essential read for every flash fiction writer or reader. From Matthew Baker’s island of presidential doppelgangers to Harriot West’s ekphrastic haibun story about Van Gogh’s sunflowers, each of the pieces in this anthology proves that writers are not only continuing to produce high-quality flash fiction, but that the imagination and scope of flash fiction is far-reaching, whether writers choose to explore the uncharted or re-invent the wheel.
A wonderful aspect of this series is its author spotlight, which includes an interview with an author with either more than one story in the anthology or multiple nominations (and being nominated just the once is an achievement in itself!). This year’s spotlight author is Joy Williams, a renowned American writer. The two stories, taken from 99 Stories of God (Tin House Books, 2016) serve as a great opening to the anthology and as a taster of Williams’ engaging, stripped-back collection itself. ‘36’ tells the story of Penny and the house she and her husband lived in, a house that she despises and rents out after her husband’s death. The story is laced with wit, the language is stripped back to the bare essentials, and culminates in a final striking image that offers a spectacular opening to the anthology.
As well as a spotlight author, there is a spotlight press or publication. The honour belongs to SmokeLong Quarterly this time, an online journal that anyone who reads flash should be well acquainted with. As noted in the interview with Managing Editor, Christopher Allen, SLQ is always well represented in this anthology series and others, such as the annual Wigleaf Top 50. Allen describes one of the stories from SLQ in this anthology, Cole Meyer’s ‘Nightstands’, as starting ‘with a great idea, a play on words’ before Meyer ‘unravels his character’s dilemma with precision and brevity’. Each sentence in Meyer’s story drives this tiny story onwards, each revealing a key detail and building on what came before: ‘Every morning I wake with a new woman on my left. Every morning I wake with my wife on the right, and I expect her to be yelling, to be angry, demanding to know why I’ve been unfaithful, but every morning she is only ashes in an urn.’ Meyer demonstrates in ‘Nightstands’ exactly how flash can tightly pack so much meaning in the smallest of crevices.
‘What We Bought’ by Rebecca Schiff is another flash that particularly drew me in. Schiff demonstrates how a simple motif can be unpacked into a narrative that is surprising, insightful, and humorous. The opening sentence rebels against the idea that your opening sentence must be original and attention-grabbing: ‘He bought me flowers and a vase.’ This is not to suggest that the sentence is a poor sentence, but there is nothing striking about this sentence. This is deliberate. The magic emerges because Schiff teases it out from its hiding place, resulting in the story taking an unusual and amusing turn: ‘He gave me the vase three days after he gave me the flowers. I don’t know what he thought would happen in the interim, maybe that I would just leave the flowers on the table, and the flowers would die there.’ The narrator buys her own vase in the interim because she doesn’t have a vase, and the jar she has is too short for the flowers, and she ends up giving the man’s vase to her aunt” ‘My aunt loved that I couldn’t look at a vase a man had given me. Giving her my vase made it seem like gifts from men happened to me all the time, or at least often enough that I would know what to do with one.’ Schiff’s flash is masterful at showing the reader how a seemingly pedestrian concept can be taken into a new direction that is both evocative and very human.
All of these pieces in this anthology are noteworthy, but I also especially enjoyed those by Kathy Fish, Robert Scotellaro, Len Kuntz, Eugenie Montague, Stuart Dybek, Ras Mashramani, Pamela Painter, Frankie McMillan, Hannah Harlow, and Matthew Baker. I could speak about these and more at length, but these wonders are yours to explore. The Best Small Fictions 2017 is an invigorating read from beginning to end. Whether you read the anthology in its entirety in one sitting or dip in and dip out, each piece feels like an arrow striking a bullseye.