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An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms

Alan Ziegler

March 2014

Matt Weinkam

Amid the ever-increasing number of short-form anthologies, Short: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms attempts to distinguish itself through comprehensiveness. As the unwieldy subtitle demonstrates, all genres, modes, centuries, and nationalities are fair game and the only limitation is that the piece be “fewer than 1250 words.”

The result is a diverse collection filled with the usual suspects (Mallarmé, Edson, Borges, Beckett, Davis, Tate, Williams) along with more than a few pleasant surprises (Moacyr Scliar, Luisa Valenzuela, Jack Anderson, Ana Maria Shua, Max Frisch, Francis Ponge), adding up to a complex picture of short-form work designed to blur boundaries and defy categorization.

While the anthology is ideally suited for academic use—best for introducing young writers and scholars to different artists working in the form—it is also a pleasure to pick through. Common themes and formal experiments echo across time and genre. Skipping from Montaigne’s “Something Lacking in Our Civil Administrations” to Kafka’s “Poseidon” to Wenderoth’s “In Response to the Disciplinary Action Taken Against Me by the Human Resource Manager,” illuminates the timeless indignities of bureaucracy. Different pieces complicate and enhance each other through proximity alone; after reading an office worker’s last mundane hours before the apocalypse in “Agenda of Executive Jorge T. Flacks for Judgment Day” by Moacyr Scliar, Amelia Gray’s morning directives in “AM:3” take on richer and more ominous tones.

Editor Alan Ziegler—a writer of prose poems and short-short stories as well as the instructor of a Short Prose Forms class at Columbia since 1989—reveals more such threads in his introduction to the anthology, at one point linking Bertrand to Baudelaire to Altenberg to Kafka to Edson to Davis to Unferth. While he does take more space than necessary to define the four most common short forms—prose poem, short-short story, brief nonfiction, and fragment—Ziegler uses the introduction more to raise questions about genre and labeling than to provide answers, thus enlarging the work within rather than closing it off.

True to his vision, Ziegler does away with labeling the pieces in the anthology, forcing the reader to approach each work without any of the baggage that comes with this or that particular terminology. It’s a smart move that shifts the focus from what we should call these pieces to how we can appreciate all these authors can do in such a small amount of space.

But, as with any anthology, individual readers will no doubt take issue with which of their favorite writers are missing or why one particular piece was chosen over another. For instance, only one work by Anne Carson appears to Kenneth Patchen’s four, out of all of Diane Williams’ remarkable work, “Glass of Fashion” is the only story included, and in the entire 352 pages, Rilke is nowhere to be found. Injustices abound for the sake of space but if the collection leaves readers seeking more Aimé Césaire, for instance, or appreciating Walter Benjamin’s work in a new light, we can call it a success.

One major shortcoming is that the anthology leans heavily toward narrative with only a handful of pieces landing more firmly on the non-narrative poetic side of the spectrum. Evidently by “prose” Ziegler primarily means story, and while he touts the “subversive proclivities” of the pieces, no more than a half-dozen of the several hundred here try anything unconventional with formatting. Standouts like Jack Anderson’s “Phalaris and The Bull: A Story and an Examination,” which takes the form of a thirteen-question reader quiz based on a four-line story, only highlight how much the collection could benefit from more daring selections.

The greatest disservice to the anthology, however, is Ziegler’s decision to order the pieces chronologically by author’s birth date. Rather than giving a sense of how short-form work evolved over time, it only reinforces the way Western writing as a whole has evolved—a history most are already familiar with. Shuffling the order and letting the new go to bed with the old would better serve the reader and the individual works by sparking more enlightening juxtapositions. In fact, this anthology seems primed for an e-reader edition where a reader could choose which way to order the works—by style, sensibility, subject matter, even genre label. If there were ever an argument for the advantage of digital over print, it would be the undeniable benefit of an interactive anthology that provides greater reader engagement.

But every anthology has its shortcomings and whatever problems Short has, it’s long on great work by great writers. Even if you take issue with individual aspects of it, Alan Ziegler’s anthology provides such a diverse and refreshingly label-less mix of short work all in one place, you’ll want to make sure to have a copy on your bookshelf.

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