Review: Sudden Fiction: American Short Stories, Edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas

Review: Sudden Fiction: American Short Stories, Edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas

 

Review: Sudden Fiction: American Short Stories, Edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas

No, you haven’t wandered onto the wrong blog, and no, I haven’t lost my mind (yet). There’s a reason that the battered short story collection on the left is on a photography blog, and a reason it’s one of my favorite books in my whole collection.

Sudden Fiction isn’t just a title, it’s also a genre unto itself. They’re sometimes called “Flash Fiction,” sometimes “Short Short Stories.” In any case, the aim is the same; tell your story quickly, minimally, generally in five pages or less. It sounds like a gimmick, at least ’til you start reading. The authors here, and in the other Sudden Fiction titles that followed, are a pretty varied lot (Bradbury, Cortazar, Borges, Oates, and Paley, alongside other, lesser-known authors), and the stories themselves read almost like punk tunes. They’re epigrammatic, lean, terse… taciturn, even. Nothing is wasted.

I learned a lot from this little book as I set out, somewhat clumsily, to become a writer. It’s one thing to stretch storytelling to its limits; some writers read as though they’re paid by the word. It’s good practice, though, to say only as much as you absolutely must to get your point across. These are as much sketches as stories, with an economy of line and shading that allows, or even encourages, the reader to imagine what’s going on outside the frame of the story. 

So what’s this got to do with photography? If we accept that a photo’s worth a thousand words (let’s suppose for the sake of discussion that there’s some volume of verbiage behind the visuals), I realized that my photos sometimes have the same problem as my writing used to. There’s a lot going on in any scene we photograph. We sense, on some instinctive level, that there are any number of stories in each of the visuals we try to capture, and there’s an urge sometimes to want to tell all of them at once.

We end up cramming the frame with more information than it needs, more than it can hold, even. We forget that sometimes that our photos don’t all have to be shaggy dog stories. They’re allowed to say their piece, and then be quiet. Our photos don’t and can’t tell the whole story,  and we need to free them from that expectation. Like the stories in this collection, they work best when we take them for what they are: snapshots of simple moments in time, taken one at a time.

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