Most Anticipated: The Great 2023A Book Preview
Welcome to our biannual Great Book Preview! We've assembled the best books of 2023A (that is, the first half of 2023), including new work from Nicole Chung, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Claire Dederer, Brian Dillon, Samantha Irby, Heidi Julavits, Catherine Lacy, Mario Vargas Llosa, Rebecca Makkai, Fernanda Melchor, Lorrie Moore, Jenny Odell, Curtis Sittenfeld, Clint Smith, Zadie Smith, Brandon Taylor, Colm Tóibín, and many, many more. At 85 titles, you may notice our 2023A list is a bit trimmer and more selective than in year's past. We wanted to make sure that our list comprises the books that we are truly anticipating the most—which is to say, we've carefully curated our selections to showcase the very best books coming out in the first half of 2023. We hope you enjoy! Love reading our Great Book Previews? Learn how you can support The Millions here. January Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor Part crime thriller and part saga of the powerful Wadia family, Age of Vice roams across India, from the dusty villages of Uttar Pradesh to the cauldron of New Delhi. Three lives intersect in this world of lavish estates, extravagant parties, drugs and seamy business deals: Ajay, the watchful family servant; Sunny, the playboy heir; and Neda, a journalist out to expose the consequences of corruption. The writing has authority. Kapoor, author of the novel Bad Character, grew up in northern India and has worked as a journalist in New Delhi. The result is an addictive, vivid spellbinder of a novel. —Bill Morris Decent People by De'Shawn Charles Winslow Winslow returns to the fictional Southern town of West Mills for a second time in this expertly-plotted and character-driven follow-up to his award-winning debut novel. In the 1970s, an investigation into a triple homicide reveals surprising and profoundly sad layers of reality for the townspeople of West Mills—the trauma and ramifications of segregation, class, deeply kept secrets, and underlying homophobia. A haunting, page-turning mystery, Decent People makes a must-read on anyone’s literary list. —Jianan Qian The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley In this debut novel, a perpetually single Black lawyer, Aretha, falls in love with Aaron, a coffee entrepreneur who shares a brownstone with a stable of bizarre roommates. When Aretha moves in with Aaron, she gets caught up in their household dramas, which range from illegal gun sales to half-baked schemes to prepare for the end of the world. It will not surprise people who’ve read Cauley's essays—or seen her work on The Daily Show, or read her excellent tweets—that The Survivalists is, according to Tom Perrotta, an “edgy” and “darkly funny” book. —Thom Beckwith Still Pictures by Janet Malcolm Malcolm was a master of reportage, able to dissect and decipher her subjects with startling precision. (Also one of my own writerly heroes.) She often mused on the relationship between journalist and subject; in much of her journalism, she judged her subjects from a cool distance. How, then, would she approach a memoir? What would a self-portrait by one of our most formidable portraitists look like? These were the questions that exhilarated me when I began Malcolm's posthumous memoir. Still Pictures is as much a look at Malcolm's own photos and memories as the nature of photography and memory, written with all her characteristic style and clarity. —Sophia M. Stewart The Half Known Life by Pico Iyer In this philosophical and theological travelog, Iyer searches the globe for paradise. Not for himself—he wants to understand the idea of paradise, that incentive and dream and goal that undergirds the world's religions. Maria Popova herself, the brilliant mind behind The Marginalian, has called Iyer "one of the most soulful and perceptive writers of our time" and I expect The Half Known Life will further cement that status. —SMS OK by Michelle McSweeney In this slim and lucid addition to the Object Lessons series, which explores the hidden lives of everyday objects, linguist and author Michelle McSweeney unpacks the phrase “OK,” coined 200 years ago and now ubiquitous in spoken English. As an object, “OK” reveals how technologies inscribe themselves into languages—originally, it was an acronym that stood for “all correct,” a phrase which marked some of the earliest printed newspapers as ready for publication. From there, McSweeney traces the word’s evolution through the present, illuminating the ways in which its meaning developed over time. —TB The 12th Commandment by Daniel Torday Torday presents a provocative and unexpected tale of contemporary Jewish life that owes less to Philip Roth and Saul Bellow than it does to Cynthia Ozick and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The 12th Commandment concerns the historical sect known as the Dönmeh, Turkish followers of a seventeenth-century Jewish pseudo-messiah who outwardly practice Islam but who are actually adherents of an esoteric kabbalistic faith. “Weird folk,” explains a character, “They’re like Jews and Muslims at the same time. Or something.” Unexpectedly set among an imagined group of Dönmeh in small-town Ohio, with a noirish murder plot driving the action, and The 12th Commandment will appeal to fans of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but Torday’s unique imagination and vital vision are his own. —Ed Simon Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes, translated by Ann Goldstein The story begins when Valeria Cossati—a 43-year-old office worker, self-sacrificing wife, and mother of two—buys a thick black notebook and begins writing at night—her thoughts, experiences, and fury. What follows over the course of six months are reflections on motherhood and femininity in postwar Rome that were as urgent and revelatory in the 1950s, when the novel was originally published, as they are today in post-Roe America. In the words of Annie Ernaux: “Reading Alba de Céspedes was, for me, like breaking into an unknown universe.” —Jenny Wu Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter by John Hendrickson I've been waiting for John to write this book since I first read his paradigm-shifting Atlantic article "What Joe Biden Can't Bring Himself to Say." Like Biden, John is a person who stutters. In Life on Delay, and with profound intelligence and insight, John examines his own stuttering life, as well as the lives of many other stutterers, to probe the many contradictions of disfluency. John has become something of a torchbearer in our community, and this book is going to be an essential contribution to the (currently very limited) literature of stuttering. I hate when people call certain books "important"—but this book is very important me, and will be important to a lot of people. We've been waiting a long time for a book like this. —SMS The Call of the Tribe by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by John King When I began my undergraduate studies, I was disappointed by how little nonfiction appeared on the syllabi of my Spanish literature classes. Then I encountered Llosa, a Nobel-winning nonfictioneer and intellectual heavyweight (and occasional novelist) who rose to prominence during the Latin American Boom. In The Call of the Tribe, he maps out the minds that shaped his own: Sartre and Adam Smith, Friedrich A. Hayek and Isaiah Berlin, and many more (mostly male) writers and thinkers. It's a pleasure—and a pleasurable challenge—to read Llosa on the roots of his ideology. —SMS The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women's Roles in Society by Eleanor Janega Ever since I visited the Cloisters for the first time earlier this year, I've been hungry to learn more about medieval life, and specifically women's place in it. Enter The Once and Future Sex, the subtitle of which quite directly addresses this yen of mine. Janega, a medievalist by training, makes middle-age sociology accessible, highlighting how archaic notions of femininity continue to shape modern womanhood in ways both subtle and overt. Beauty, sex, work, labor, motherhood, decorum—no aspect of women's lives goes unexplored in this rigorous study, which also highlights many of the era's subversive trailblazers. —SMS Black and Female by Tsitsi Dangarembga Zimbabwean writer Dangarembga explores the long shadow cast by imperialism in her own life, and the lives of all African people, in this volume of essays. The personal and political commingle (because, as all feminists know, they're one and the same) as Dangarembga excavates her own history and the history of her nation. The result is a clear-eyed look at what navigating life and art-making as a woman in Zimbabwe has taught her, as well as the possibilities and limits of a distinctly Black feminism, which she calls "the status quo’s worst nightmare." —SMS A Guest at the Feast by Colm Tóibín One of Ireland's greatest living novelists, Tóibín is known the world over for his fiction. That's why I'm so curious to read his new essay collection, to see how he transfers his mastery across genres. A (supposedly) great compliment is to be called a nonfiction writer with a "novelist's" sensibility—the implication being that nonfiction is best when it reads like fiction. (I disagree!) This isn't Tóibín's first foray into nonfiction (he's written books on Elizabeth Bishop; contemporary queer artists; and the fathers of famous Irish writers)—but it is one of his most intimate. This is clear from the book's outset, which features one of best opening lines I've read in a minute: "It all started with my balls." —SMS Vintage Contemporaries by Dan Kois I always love reading Dan Kois's criticism (if you haven't yet read him on Tár, please do yourself the favor—and prepare to have your mind blown) so I was thrilled to hear about his forthcoming novel, a coming-of-age set in New York City at the turn of the millennium that wrestles with art, friendship, and what it means to cultivate a creative life. Our very own Lydia Kiesling blurbed it and gave it what is in my book one of the ultimate compliments: "poignant without being treacly." A near-impossible literary feat—I can't wait to see (read?) Kois pull it off for myself. —SMS Your Driver Is Waiting by Priya Guns A retelling of the movie Taxi Driver featuring a ride-share driver? An incredible premise for a novel that explores work, class, and solidarity (or the lack thereof). Damani Krishanthan works for an Uber-like company, scraping by after her father dies during his shift at a fast-food restaurant. During a summer of uprising, she drives through throngs of protestors trying to make enough to cover rent. A relationship with a white wealthy protestor goes south, prompting a dramatic ending (considering its cinematic source material, I can only imagine). —Lydia Kiesling The Guest Lecture by Martin Riker Abby, a young economist, can't sleep the night before the talk she is scheduled to present tomorrow, optimism and John Maynard Keynes. A lapsed optimist struggling to support her family, she feels grossly unprepared to offer any insights into Keynes. With wry humor and true wisdom, Riker, co-founder and publisher of Dorothy, a Publishing Project, transforms one woman’s insomnia into an enchanting and playful exploration of literature, performance, and the life of the mind. —JQ After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz At the turn of the twentieth century, three queer women—Rina Faccio, Romaine Brooks, and Virginia Woolf among them—make the same decision: They take up their pens or paintbrushes to define their lives and their identities on their own terms. Taking cues from the Greek poet, After Sappho, Schwartz's Booker-longlisted debut novel, reimagines the intertwined voices of those pioneering women artists in the collective first-person, whose courage and struggles never cease to inspire and encourage those who come after. —JQ Hanging Out by Sheila Liming We’ve all heard the admonitions to slow down, drop out, resist the rush—but what does that actually look like? “Hanging out is about daring to do nothing much and, even more than that, about daring to do it in the company of others,” writes Liming in her treatise on the subject, the follow-up to her 2020 book What a Library Means to a Woman on Edith Wharton and book collections. Hanging Out, an endearing and revealing book, is well-timed, but as she notes, “we were having a hard time hanging out well before COVID-19 came along.” She makes a compelling case for us to get together. —Nick Ripatrazone Call and Response: Stories by Gothataone Moeng This debut story collection joins a chorus of literary voices rising out of contemporary Africa. Set in the author’s native village of Serowe, as well as in Gabarone, the thrumming capital of Botswana, these stories are spun from the struggles of women seeking to reconcile ancestral expectations with imported dreams—a girl who hides her sexual exploits from her family while her older brother flaunts his conquests; a young widow who ponders the custom of wearing mourning clothes for a year; a woman who returns from America, ashamed to have given up on the land of opportunity. The great Namwalli Serpell praised the collection for its "sharply observed vignettes," which together amount to a "beautiful" book full of "deep insight." —BM Black Empire by George S. Schuyler Originally published in serial form in the 1930s, Black Empire is the masterwork of George S. Schuyler, a journalist, Harlem Renaissance man, socialist-turned-arch-conservative, and creator of acid satires. This novel is the story of Dr. Henry Belsidus, a Black genius who sets out to cultivate a global network that will reclaim Africa from imperial powers and punish Europe and America for their crimes against the world’s Black population. Schuyler’s earlier novel, Black No More, is a satirical romp about a Black man who turns his skin white. In all his work, Schuyler work confronts an abiding and urgent moral quandary: How far should one go to bring justice to an unjust world? —BM February Where I'm Coming From by Barbara Brandon-Croft Drawn & Quarterly has never let me down, and its winning streak won’t be snapped by this collection from the first Black woman to have a nationally-syndicated comic strip. In the witty and groundbreaking "Where I’m Coming From," which ran from 1989 to 2005, nine Black girlfriends deliver insights and punchlines in equal measure, touching on politics, race, relationships, and everything in between. Tayari Jones says that Brandon-Croft’s work has “aged beautifully,” hailing the collection as “both ahead of its time and right on time.” —Evan Allgood Brutes by Dizz Tate This surreal and ambitious debut novel, written partially in first-person plural and billed as “The Virgin Suicides meets The Florida Project,” follows a clan of teenaged girls in Falls Landing, Florida, as they grapple with the disappearance of the local preacher's daughter. Brutes’s adolescent cast, time-jumping narrative, and promise of violence evoke the hit show Yellowjackets. Mariana Enríquez calls it “a beautiful and deeply strange novel, full of dread and longing.” —EA City of Blows by Tim Blake Nelson I love movies, but Hollywood—both the city and the industry that undergirds it—has never much interested me. Honestly, celebrity culture in America baffles me. But when a Hollywood insider and an accomplished playwright—and, not to mention, a fine actor—decides to satirize the toxic culture of Tinsel Town, I’m in. Nelson's debut novel follows four men fighting for control of a script and a place in a rapidly transforming Hollywood. There’s something sustaining in a story that shows how beautiful people can be just as petty—just as ugly—as the rest of us. —Il’ja Rákoš Couplets by Maggie Millner Lovers of horny, rhyming poetry rejoice: Millner’s “love story in poems,” arrives a week before Valentine’s Day, just in time to tie your brain to its bedposts. Kink and queerness, power and polyamory—this debut by the senior editor of the Yale Review has it all. Read an excerpt in BOMB to see why Elif Batuman, Garth Greenwell, and Leslie Jamison are all head over heels for this clever, seductive story of coming out and coming of age. —EA The Black Guy Dies First by Robin R. Means Coleman and Mark H. Harris This collaboration between Coleman, a scholar, and Harris, a journalist and film critic, explores the history of Black horror films since 1968. Named for the well-known cinematic trope, the book spans cult classics like Spider Baby up to commercial and critical successes like Get Out. According to Kirkus Reviews, the book is written with “keen observation, a satirical eye, and a genuine love for the subject.” —Edan Lepucki Big Swiss by Jen Beagin "A sex therapist's transcriptionist falls in love with a client while listening to her sessions"—that was all I needed to hear to get excited about Beagin's third novel. Throw in blurbs from Melissa Border and A Touch of Jen author Beth Morgan, and I was all but convinced that Big Swiss will be weird and horny and unfettered in all the best ways. "Pick it up because you like cheese," Morgan urges, "stay for the brilliant sentences." —SMS Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop by Martin Puchner So many books these days are described as being "sweeping histories"; Culture, which promises in its subtitle to take us from our most primitive artistic impulses all the way to the machinery of modern-day fandom. But what intrigues me most about Puchner's latest isn't its scope—it's its driving question: "What good are the arts?" In my more hopeless moments, this question bubbles up inside me, and I'm chomping at the bit to hear Puchner's answer, grounded in history and informed by cultures around the world. —SMS Dyscalculia by Camonghne Felix Following her poetry collection Build Yourself a Boat, which landed a spot on the National Book Award longlist, Camonghne Felix makes her nonfiction debut with this memoir, which charts a life-changing breakup and its many consequences for her life. When the author ends up in the hospital, she draws a parallel between her troubles as an adult and her childhood diagnosis of dyscalculia, a condition which makes it difficult to learn math or estimate place value. As she starts to tally her romantic miscalculations, she asks a wide-ranging question: who gets the right to freely express their own pain? —TB All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me by Patrick Bringley A former New Yorker staffer turned museum guard is a pretty compelling tagline, to be certain, and Bringley delivers in this intimate and philosophical debut memoir—he muses on the artworks, coworkers, and museumgoers that surround him. Adding poignancy to the memoir's conceit, his observations are all permeated with profound grief as he reels from the death of his older brother. Bringly brings the Met to life on a grand scale and granular level. —NR The Wife of Willesden by Zadie Smith For her first foray into playwriting, novelist and essayist Smith reimagines Chaucer’s Canterbury Tale about the Wife of Bath for twenty-first century, northwest London. Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her early fifties, tells her life story to strangers in a pub. In its review, The Guardian calls it “a celebration of community and local legends, of telling a good story and living a life worth telling. Not bad for an original text that’s 600 years old.” —EL Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World by Malcolm Harris I went to college in the Bay Area, where the allure of Silicon Valley was palpable. My classmates posted about their internships at Twitter and Microsoft, wore t-shirts with emblazoned with the logos of Google and Linkedin, and went on to get jobs with six-figure starting salaries. I remembered my dad's quaint stories of growing up in nearby Los Altos and struggled to reconcile that history with the present. Harris's comprehensive history of Silicon Valley, from railroad capitalism to free love to big tech, does just that. Palo Alto spans centuries in order to thoroughly demystifying the region's economics and unearth its enduring legacy of settler colonialism. Users by Colin Winnette I worked for years as a consultant at American-based IT companies with teams in Kyiv, and among those Ukrainians I knew who were handling the code, it was rare to find anyone who worshipped Steve Jobs, loved tech, or saw STEM work as anything particularly noble. No true believers in panaceas or "essential" tech. Here, in the fictional world of Winnette’s latest novel, we encounter a strong critique and timely caution that my Kyiv ITshnyks certainly understood well: the devastation that awaits when we entrust the mechanisms we’ve built to do our thinking, our feeling, and our living for us. —IR I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai In her follow-up to her 2018 novel The Great Believers, a Pulitzer and National Book Award finalist, Makkai brings us to a New Hampshire boarding school. Film professor Bodie Kane has been eager to forget her four awful years there, which included a murder of a classmate by the athletic trainer. But when she's brought back to campus to teach a two-week course, everything she thought she knew about the case is thrown into question. Makkai plays with true-crime tropes to deliver a literary exploration of friendship. —Marie Myung-Ok Lee Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears by Michael Schulman Michael Shulman is one of the great profile-writers of our time, and one of our best writers, period. (His New Yorker profiles of Jeremy Strong, Bo Burnahm, and Adam Driver long ago took up permanent residence in my brain.) What Schulman, a student of personality, could accomplish in a study of the Oscars—that most official of personality contests—is limitless. It's also just a perfect opportunity to spill so much celebrity gossip. I imagine devouring this book poolside, while sipping on a blue drink; a big umbrella overhead, a little umbrella in my glass. Slime by Susanne Wedlich, translated by Ayca Turkoglu Primordial slime has long been considered a cornerstone of life on Earth; without it, the natural world would be unrecognizable. Slimy substances like mucous and slobber are also common features of fictional monsters in popular culture from Lovecraft to Alien. Munich-based science and nature journalist Susanne Wedlich’s ode to the semi-liquids that hold our world together—and our minds in awe—reminds us “we are sticky beings living in a sticky place” (TLS), whether we like it or not. —JW March Monstrilio by Gerardo Sámano Córdova What lengths would you go to get back someone you've loved and lost? Just for a bit, to look in their eyes one more time, or tell them what needed to be told? But play that possibility out to its inevitable conclusion and it’s difficult to envision anything good coming from it. In Córdova’s horror debut, a grieving mother in Mexico City goes to unimaginable extremes to bring her late 11-year-old son back to life, only to discover that there are worse things than death. Grief, she learns, is not something to be trifled with, or worse, avoided. —IR Francisco by Alison Mills Newman Though it garnered plaudits from Toni Morrison when it was first published in 1974, Newman's autobiographical novel has long been out of print. Now, a reissue by New Directions—with a new foreword by Saidiya Hartman—promises to introduce a new generation of readers to Newman’s innovative and genre-bending story, which draws on the author’s experience as a young actress in 1960s Hollywood. —TB The Fifth Wound by Aurora Mattia In her new novel, the Mattia reinvents the roman à clef with a magical realist memoir that puts the dusty genre of autofiction to shame. Sifting from multiple narratives—and dimensions—The Fifth Wound is a romance, a meditation on transphobic violence, and a speculative tale of time travel, ecstatic visionaries, and mystical union. Transcending the limiting confines of not just society, but reality as well, and Mattia’s novel promises the reader an experience that recalibrates simplistic notions of truth and fiction, reality and illusion. —ES Saving Time by Jenny Odell I love books that force me to recognize or reconsider the structure of existence—and Odell’s book does just this, in a way that's both enlightening and generative. Her previous book, How to Do Nothing, was a runaway hit about what happens when we subvert the temporal expectations that are placed upon us: “Letting go of one overwhelming rhythm, you invite the presence of others. Perhaps more important, you remember that the arrangement is yours to make.” Odell demonstrates how it's never too late to save the time we have left. —NR The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe In 1958, at the age of 27, Rona Jaffe published her first novel, a revolutionary portrait of three young women employed at a New York publishing house. Renowned for its frankness and honesty, particularly in its depictions of sexual harassment, The Best of Everything is, per Michele Moses, “what you would get if you took Sex and the City and set it inside Mad Men’s universe.” Now, for its 65th anniversary, Penguin Classics is reissuing the novel, complete with a new introduction by New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme, who is the perfect voice to prime us for a retro romp through postwar New York and its attendant glitzy patina. —TB Raving by McKenzie Wark Wark's entry into Duke University Press's Practices series, which spotlights the activities that make us human, invites us into the underground queer and trans rave scene of New York City. A bombastic collision of sound and movement, raving is, to Wark, the ideal activity for "this era of diminishing futures." An avid raver herself, she blends academic analysis with her own first-hand accounts, all relayed with sensual, staccato prose. "Some come to serve looks; some come to leave their sweat on the dance floor," she writes. "I’m the latter kind. I want to be animate and animated on the floor." —SMS Still Life with Bones by Alexa Hagerty From 1960 to 1996, more than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, and tens of thousands more disappeared, after an American-backed coup gave rise to a steady march of genocidal dictators. Decades later, anthropologists like Alexa Hagerty are working to exhume and examine the dead, piecing together their bodies and their stories in an urgent but potentially quixotic quest for resolution, and attempting to bring a sense of humanity to the forensic sciences. —EA How to Think Like a Woman by Regan Penaluna In her first book, journalist Penaluna, who has a PhD in philosophy, explores the oft-forgotten and under-taught feminist philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Mary Astell, Damaris Masham, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Catherine Cockburn. Blending biography, criticism, and memoir, Penaluna explores the lives and beliefs of these thinkers, as well as the ways women—past and present—have been devalued within philosophy, academia, and history. How to Think Like a Woman serves as an alternate philosophical canon, where women and their intellect are deeply and rigorously examined. —Carolyn Quimby Y/N by Esther Yi “Y/N,” short for “[Your/Name],” refers to a type of fanfiction that allows readers to insert their own names into brackets in the story, so as to imagine themselves in romantic scenarios with popular idols. In Esther Yi’s debut novel, our narrator devotes herself to writing fanfic about a K-pop star named Moon. When Moon suddenly retires and retreats from the spotlight, the narrator embarks on a transnational search that unveils the absurd innards of a Korean entertainment company, as well as the loneliness of modern life and the various fantasies we enact to try to escape it. Yi, a Leipzig-based writer, has earned comparisons to Elif Batuman, Thomas Pynchon, Yoko Tawada, and Marie NDiaye. —JW How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of a Suicidal Mind by Clancy Martin Clancy Martin has tried to die by suicide more than 10 times. In How Not to Kill Yourself, he speaks frankly about these attempts and the thoughts that fueled them. In probing his own experiences, he inevitably comes to larger conclusions about the nature of the self-destructive mind and the philosophy of suicide. He also turns to other writers who have attempted suicide and written about it, from Yiyun Li to David Foster Wallace. Written with surprising tenderness and humor, this memoir-cum-critical-inquiry is a perspective-shifting study. Biography of X by Catherine Lacy With a title that recalls both Alex Haley’s biography of Malcolm X and Gertrude Stein’s consideration of her partner Alice B. Toklas, Lacey audaciously explores the contingencies of identity, memory, and history in her latest experimental novel. Lacey’s novel takes place in an alternative history where the American South separated from the United States and was governed as a fascist theocracy only recently being reabsorbed into the wider nation. Ostensibly The Biography of X is about the titular unknown, a celebrated but mysterious artist, and her widow’s account of that life as much as can be assembled. But with cameos by such twentieth-century luminaries as Sontag and Bowie, the novel is also a biography of American art and theory which understands that sometimes history is best understood at a slant. —ES The Last Catastrophe by Allegra Hyde This collection of 15 stories by the author of Eleutheria continues Hyde’s interest in humanity grappling with climate change. Alexandra Kleeman writes that these speculative stories are “dazzling, inventive, and glinting with dark humor.” Spaceships, AI, zombies, and body-switching abound. I, for one, am most excited to read the story about the girl growing a unicorn horn! —EL The New Earth by Jess Row A century which began with 9/11, and has so far seen economic collapse, a ground war in Europe, a global pandemic, and the rise of neo-fascism is painfully interesting. Jess Row’s latest novel interlays these interesting times on a family drama among the privileged Wilcoxes of the Upper East Side, from 2000 to 2018. The global perspective becomes synonymous with the vantage point of daughter Winter Wilcox, who on the eve of her wedding must grapple not just with her estranged family, but the ways in which her personal tragedies from years coincide with both parental secrets and historical injustices. “Disguising your origins is a deeply American impulse,” Row wrote in 2014, “but that doesn’t make it any less compromising,” a theme heartily interrogated in The New Earth. —ES Chlorine by Jade Song Song's debut novel revolves around high-schooler Ren Yu, a competitive swimmer who spends her days in the pool. Her immigrant parents expect her to train hard and secure a college scholarship, but she aspires to transform into a mermaid, freeing herself from the terrestrial world. A spiky, sapphic coming-of-age that embraces fantasy and horror to explore girlhood and its discontents. —JQ In Search of a Beautiful Freedom by Farah Jasmine Griffin A new volume of collected essays both new and previously published by Farah Jasmine Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia. Following her last book Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature, these new and previously unpublished essays range in topic from Covid to the efforts to ban Toni Morrison to the life work of Odetta. Griffin's insights into Black music, feminism, and literature are unparalleled. —LK Affinities by Brian Dillon When I read Dillon's previous books, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence, I considered them a diptych: two close looks at two literary forms (the essay and the sentence) that were driven by what Dillon himself calls his own "affinity." It turns out, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence were really the first two entries in a triptych! His latest book, Affinities, centers on images, from photographs to paintings to migraine auras. Why do images make us feel the way they do? Why are we drawn to certain images over other ones? Dillon is one of my favorite writers, thinkers, and close-readers, and I can't wait to read him on the pleasures of looking. —SMS Above Ground by Clint Smith I long for a literature—especially a poetry—of joy; life is too short and bland without it. Smith’s new poetry collection teems with images of love and fatherhood. Great poetry comes in many modes and subjects, but there’s something unique about a book of verse that makes me want to hold my own children a little tighter, as I think of his description of delivering a bear hug: “my arms are still / open like a universe / in need of a planet / to make it worth / something.” Juxtaposed with lines of grief and recognition—“men attempting / to unlearn the anger on their father’s / tongues, the heat in their hands”—Smith’s songs of joy are that much sweeter. —NR Ada's Room by Sharon Dodua Otoo, translated by Jon Cho-Polizzi Otoo's debut novel is about four women, all with the same name: Ada, a mother in fifteenth-century West Africa; Ada Lovelace, the real-life programmer in Victorian England; Ada, a prisoner in a concentration camp in 1945; and Ada, a young Ghanian woman in present day. As Otoo connects their narratives across centuries, the linear confines of history break down and a profound sorority comes into focus. R.O. Kwon calls this one "thrillingly, astonishingly original." —SMS April This Is Not Miami by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes Taking place in and around the Mexican city of Veracruz, this collection of crónicas—narrative nonfiction pieces that blend reportage with novelistic structures—explores the criminal underworld, shedding light on social problems that manifest in gory headlines. As in her novels Paradais and Hurricane Season, Melchor draws empathetic portraits of deeply unsympathetic figures, forcing her readers to understand the mindsets of monstrous characters. —TB Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Ever since the moment I finished Adjei-Brenyah’s surreal, satirical, and original debut story collection, Friday Black, I’ve been not-so-patiently waiting for whatever he wrote next. In his upcoming debut novel, two female gladiators fight to the death for their freedom on the hugely popular and controversial TV show, Chain-Gang All Stars, which airs on CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment). With his sharp eye for satire and reverence for humanity, Adjei-Brenyah’s latest explores the exploitation, violence, and false promises of the prison industrial complex, capitalism, and the country itself. —CQ Work-Life Balance by Aisha Franz, translated by Nicholas Houde This graphic novel, which was originally a comic series published by Colorama, concerns three friends who, disillusioned with their work lives, seek help from the same therapist. Franz, who lives in Berlin, was nominated for a Los Angeles Times book prize for her previous book, Shit is Real, which the Guardian called “a wise and funny journey through loneliness and confusion.” Her latest sounds just as promising. —EL Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe The latest book by scholar of English literature and Black Studies Christina Sharpe takes the form of a series of 248 notes on history, art, literature, and life whose meanings accumulate over the course of nearly 400 pages. At the center of the resulting polyphonic portrait of Black existence is the figure of Ida Wright Sharpe, the author’s mother. Saidiya Hartman calls Ordinary Notes "an exquisite text" that "demands everything of the reader and, in turn, offers us a vocabulary for living.” —JW A Living Remedy by Nicole Chung Chung's bestselling memoir All You Can Ever Know, published in 2018, cemented her as one of this generation's great chroniclers of family, both adoptive and biological: its limits and possibilities, what it means, how it shapes us. Her follow-up, which follows Chung as she mourns her parents and navigates the institutional inequities baked into American society, promises to be just as poignant. Blurbers Megha Majumdar, Julie Otsuka, Imani Perry, and Bryan Washington certainly think so. —SMS Second Star: And Other Reasons for Lingering by Philippe Delerm, translated by Jody Gladding A runaway hit in France, Second Star is a collection of vignettes about life's smallest and simplest moments, from washing your windows to peeling a clementine. With evocative descriptions of taste, touch, and sound, Delerm zeroes in on the sensations and pleasures that, while often overlooked or taken for granted, can make us feel most alive. Linger in the moment, he says, stay a while—be here, now. —SMS Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld I first encountered Curtis Sittenfeld in high school, when my dad's then-girlfriend gifted me a copy of Prep. It was smart and sexy and felt like a portal into womanhood, which I was on the precipice of. Sittenfeld knows how to write romantic comedy without ever slipping into the saccharine, the chivalrous, the cliche. (Also, Brandon Taylor is a fan!) So I can't wait for her new rom-com, about a comedy writer whose decision to swear off love is rocked when she falls for a pop star. —SMS Sea Change by Gina Chung Chung's debut centers on thirty-something Ro who feels stalled in her life—heartbroken after a breakup, father missing, mother remote, friends drifting away. She's also stagnating at her job at a mall aquarium, where one of her favorite sea creatures (and last remaining link to her father), an octopus named Dolores, is about to be sold to a wealthy investor intent on moving her to a private collection. Joseph Han called Ro one of his favorite Korean American characters of all time. —MML The One by Julia Argy Argy’s debut novel, about a woman who’s a contestant on a Bachelor-style dating reality show, has garnered some killer blurbs. Julie Buntin writes, “I could not stop reading Julia Argy’s smart, funny, and tender debut novel about falling in love and finding oneself on and offscreen,” and Claire Messud calls it “riveting, astute and darkly comic.” —EL Without Children by Peggy O'Donnell Heffington As a mother of three myself, I’m interested in why people become parents—or don’t. In Without Children, Heffington, a historian of gender, explores the long history of women who did not become mothers, for a variety of reasons. Situating what seems to some to be a modern phenomenon within a larger historical context, this one seems like an essential read. Ada Calhoun deems it a “timely, refreshingly open-hearted study.” —EL The Double Life of Benson Yu by Kevin Chong I hear the word “metafiction” and I usually figure I’m in for a cerebral workout and probably a headache. While Chong’s story of a graphic novelist focusing on his art in an attempt to process his difficult youth is indeed a workout, it’s also a hugely engaging, headache-free read about a world, Chinatown, and a creative outlet, graphic arts, that I know nothing about. Yes, there is a lot of darkness in this story, episodes that could present challenges to some readers, but ultimately the heft of this novel lies in its powerful reminder that unless we confront our demons, we’ll never exorcise them. —IR Arrangements in Blue by Amy Key An essay collection about unpartnered life set to the soundtrack of Joni Mitchell's Blue—so thoughtful of Amy Key to write a book specifically and exclusively for me! Looking back at her past romantic longings and collisions, Key considers the (inflated?) value of romantic love and finds her contradictory feelings on the matter reflected in Mitchell's lyrics. There's nothing poor-me about Arrangements in Blue; in Key's hands, solitary life becomes more capacious—and more complicated—than I ever thought possible. —SMS The Ugly History of Beautiful Things by Katy Kelleher In this deeply researched collection of essays, Paris Review contributor Katy Kelleher explores the hidden histories of our favorite luxury goods, revealing how even the most beautiful objects have dark, unsavory backgrounds. In a blend of historical, scientific and autobiographical writing, Kelleher explains why some red lipstick contains beetle shells, why certain perfumes include rodent musk, and why a fancy class of dishware is made with the ashes of cow bones. Along with helping us understand how these objects came to signify beauty, Kelleher reveals the price workers pay to bring them to us – and suggests a few ways we can ethically appreciate their products. —TB May Written on Water by Eileen Chang It is no exaggeration to say Eileen Chang has shaped our perceptions of modern cities in China. Before her, big cities were monstrous, with myriads of people often seen as sordid sinners. Chang portrayed Shanghai and Hong Kong as the intersections of tradition and modernity, of the East and the West. The pleasures of modernity embody new ways of life. The subtleties of everyday life signify people’s pursuit of happiness. Chang is sharp, rebellious, and unique. You will find even her examination of Shanghainese food eerily resonating. —JQ Homebodies by Tembe Denton-Hurst When Mickey Hayward loses her coveted media job, she pens a scathing letter about the racism and sexism she's encountered in the industry. It's met with silence and soon forgotten, until a media scandal catapults the letter—and Mickey—back into the spotlight. This witty take on fame, media, and the institutions that rule our lives, Homebodies already garnered blurbs from Danielle Evans, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, and Bryan Washington. —SMS Quietly Hostile by Samantha Irby If you’ve read Irby’s previous collections, or even skimmed her Instagram, you’re likely waiting for her next book of hilarious essays. This one sounds promising: it has a skunk on the front and covers everything from working in Hollywood, to getting a “deranged pandemic dog” (per the jacket copy), to being turned away from a restaurant for being dressed inappropriately. I can’t wait! —EL Dances by Nicole Cuffy At the age of 22, Cece Cordell is catapulted to fame when she becomes the first Black principal dancer in the history of the storied New York City Ballet. But her achievement doesn’t feel right, and she she soon embarks on a journey to find a missing older brother— and the pieces of herself that have been devoured by the voracious machinery of the highly competitive ballet world. This debut novel by the author of a decorated work of short fiction, 2018's Atlas of the Body, is an examination of the physical and spiritual costs all artists must pay in the pursuit of their art. —BM Monsters by Claire Dederer How to separate the art from the artist? A question I—and most cultural critics—have been wrestling with for a long time now. In Monsters, Claire Dederer takes a stab. Inspired by her Paris Review essay, "What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?," Dederer takes on Hemingway and Picasso, Miles Davis and Roman Polanski, to construct a deeply personal theory of art, genius, and cruelty, written from the perspective of both a critic and a fan. I've been counting down the days to this one for a while. —SMS Dykette by Jenny Fran Davis In her blurb for Davis's debut novel, the writer Samantha Hunt tells me everything I needed to know: "Like a tightly rolled spliff passed around the room," she writes, "you will inhale Dykette." Following three queer couples on a 10-day country getaway, Dykette takes on desire, debauchery, and destruction through a distinctly queer—and propulsively entertaining—lens. —SMS Avidly Reads Screen Time by Phillip Maciak Phillip Maciak is one of the best TV critics alive right now, full stop. Whether he's writing about Girls or Station Eleven or Bluey, his criticism is always characterized by wit, insight, and a remarkable propensity for close-reading. So yes, I was over the moon to learn about his new book of cultural criticism and history, Avidly Reads Screen Time, about how we define screens and how they define us. There are three Mad Men screen caps within the book's first 30 pages, so, yeah, it's gonna be ridiculously good. —SMS Thinning Blood by Leah Myers Leah Myers is likely the last official member of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe as a consequence of blood quantum laws. In a work of memoir and family excavation of her ancestors lives' in the Pacific Northwest, Myers explores the meaning of legacy, documentation, belonging, and weaves between and together her own life, the lives of her ancestors, and the hypotheticals of future generations. —LK King: A Life by Jonathan Eig Martin Luther King Jr. has, at this point, been flattened into an icon. The Selma to Montgomery march, "I Have a Dream," his assassination—this is what his life has been boiled down for many of us, and in the American imagination as a whole. King the leader, the orator, the pastor, the martyr—what about King the man? Eig's forthcoming tome on King, the first full biography in decades, contains new research and shines a fresh light on King's life, relationships, and interiority. —SMS A Life of One's Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again by Joanna Biggs I've recently realized that I will read just about any book of nonfiction that has the word "women" in the title. A Life of One's Own is no exception, though the draw certainly does not end at its title. Biggs's latest combine memoir, criticism, and biography (my favorite literary concoction) to study how women writers across the centuries—Plath, Woolf, Morrison, et al.— have carved out freedom for themselves in their lives and work. (I suspect this one will be a great companion to the aforementioned How to Think Like a Woman.) —SMS The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor Everyone’s favorite Booker Prize shortlister, national bestseller, Story Prize winner, Henry James prefacer, litcrit-newsletter purveyor, tweet-sender, and sweater-enjoyer Brandon Taylor, returns in May 2023 with The Late Americans. Like his acclaimed 2020 novel Real Life, The Late Americans is set in a small midwestern college town; also like Real Life, it is more accurately set in its young characters’ exquisitely sensitive and private psyches. Its three protagonists, and a larger constellation of midwestern eccentrics, artists, and academics, confront and provoke one another in a volatile year of self-discovery leading to a trip to a cabin where they bid goodbye to their former lives—a moment of reckoning that leaves each of them irrevocably altered. —Adam O'Fallon Price The Lost Journals of Sacajewea by Debra Magpie Earling Earling reimagines the well-trodden tale of Sacajewea and her role in the fateful expedition of Lewis and Clark in this historical novel. Endowed agency, authority, and interiority, Earling's Sacajewea rewrites the version of herself handed down through American history. Her life before the expedition comes into vivid focus, as do her complicated feelings about her role in charting the course for American imperialism. Night of the Living Rez author Morgan Talty praises this "transcendental work of literature" as "striking" and "elegant." —SMS On Women by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff Susan Sontag, Merve Emre—the collab of the century? I'll read anything by either writer, so I will of course be reading this. Sontag's takes on feminism, sexuality, beauty, fascism, aging, and more are the focus of this seven-essay collection, introduced by Emre and edited by Sontag's son David Rieff. Always drawn to the grey, the murky, the complicated, here Sontag considers the ubiquitous, amorphous forces that shape women's lives with her characteristic curiosity and authority. —SMS Lesbian Love Story by Amelia Possanza In her debut memoir, Brooklynite Possanza dives into the archives to recover the stories of twentieth-century New York lesbians. Sifting through records she finds role models and cautionary tales, juicy gossip and heart-wrenching regret. Writing with empathy, wit, and imagination, Possanza constructs a personal, political, and romantic history of lesbian life and love. —SMS June Where Are Your Boys Tonight?: The Oral History of Emo's Mainstream Explosion 1999-2008 by Chris Payne Emo exploded just as I gained consciousness as a human being with aesthetic tastes. For me, and many of my peers, emo music was a formative force in our lives, enunciating the frustration and darkness that many of us found ourselves newly harboring as adolescents. So I can't wait to read Chris Payne's oral history of the genre, which uses interviews with My Chemical Romance, Paramore, Panic! at the Disco, Fall Out Boy, and more to reconstruct emo's meteoric ascent and profound cultural footprint. —SMS Wannabe: Reckoning with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me by Aisha Harris Harris, host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, always has a take. Movies, TV, music—she's got an opinion and she's excited to tell you about it. Adapting her radio presence into book form, Wannabe sees Harris turning her talents for critique and criticism inward, looking at the media that has shaped her life and examining its effects. From Clueless to the Spice Girls, New Girl to Chance the Rapper, Harris teases out the connections between her identity and her love of pop culture with wit and elan. —SMS Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration by Alejandra Oliva Oliva is a writer, translator and immigration activist who has translated for people seeking asylum along the US-Mexico border since 2016. In this work of memoir and journalism, which won a 2022 Whiting Nonfiction Award, Oliva describes her experiences of translation, describes her own Mexican-American family's relationship to the border, and interrogates notions of citizenship and belonging. —LK I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home by Lorrie Moore Moore's first novel since 2009's A Gate at the Stairs, I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home (that title!) is a ghost story set in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries about grief, devotion, and narrative. I'll be honest, I have no idea what this book is actually going to be about (the descriptive copy sums up the plot thusly: "A teacher visiting his dying brother in the Bronx. A mysterious journal from the nineteenth century stolen from a boarding house. A therapy clown and an assassin, both presumed dead, but perhaps not dead at all . . .") but the intrigue makes it all the more anticipated. —SMS Directions to Myself: A Memoir of Four Years by Heidi Julavits My first introduction to Julavits was 2015's The Folded Clock, which I read the week after I first moved to New York, back in 2020. I've been waiting for her next book ever since. It's finally here—Directions to Myself sees Julavits studying what she calls "the end times of childhood." She writes about her son's upbringing as well as her own to find answers about motherhood, family life, and growing up. George Saunders calls it "an absolute stunner." I predict I'll feel the same. —SMS [millions_email]
A Flash Fiction Roundtable: Short but Never Small
What’s the state of flash fiction today? Seems there’s no short answer. But I asked a handful of author/editors who write and review flash fiction day in, day out (see some of their favorites published at The Millions earlier this month). Their responses are expansive, touching on the difference between adapted fragments and “a real flash piece;” transitioning from nonfiction and poetry; erotic gapes; Carver, Sarraute, Oulipo, and Joseph Cornell; fast-food literature; guerilla literacy; readers as co-creators, and the future of flash’s evolving aesthetics. Nancy Stohlman is the author of three books of flash fiction, editor of three anthologies of flash fiction, and a prominent instructor of flash fiction techniques; Tara Lynn Masih is the founding editor of Best Small Fictions anthology series and the Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction; Lynn Mundell is a co-founder of 100 Word Story whose flash fiction has been published in numerous journals and anthologies; and Grant Faulkner is the author of Pep Talks for Writers and the flash collection Fissures. Jon Roemer: What was the first flash fiction you read? Were you writing it before you knew it as a practice, and then realized it's a thing? Or did you have model practitioners before you first started? Tara Lynn Masih: Yes, I was taught to write in what some call "vignettes," brief scenes that my high school writing teacher encouraged her students to explore… It wasn't till someone gave me Shapard and Thomas's Sudden Fiction that I knew, years later, that what we had been doing in that classroom years earlier was becoming "a thing." Nancy Stohlman: Flash fiction arrived for me in 2007 as I was writing my third novel, agonizing over it like a relationship you really really want to work out, dammit! It was during my MFA at Naropa University—I took a flash fiction class with Barbara Henning, and after so many years of writing more—talk more about this, give more description here, more backstory here, explain this more—it was such a relief to write less. I feel like flash fiction saved me from writing all those novels. Because I never really wanted to say all that other stuff anyway. Six months later I co-founded Fast Forward Press...I read hundreds of submissions and I started to lean into flash with my body, listening for my own voice to emerge. Lynn Mundell: Apparently, I was reading flash fiction long before it was called that since I read Hemingway in high school and then Chekhov, Raymond Carver, and Kate Chopin, among others, in college. During this time I wrote poetry, and much later turned to creative nonfiction. It wasn't until we opened up shop at 100 Word Story that I really started reading flash in earnest, then expanding to include writing my first flashes—a trio of "scary tales" for an early Halloween issue...That said, I really love a good, fat novel! Grant Faulkner: I began writing short shorts before I truly knew flash fiction as a genre. I’m a ragpicker by nature, so I’ve always collected odd things that I find on the streets or in flea markets, and I view a lot of my flash pieces in such a way. Life isn’t a round, complete circle—it’s shaped by fragments, shards, and pinpricks. It’s a collage of snapshots, a collection of the unspoken, an attic full of situations you can’t quite get rid of. The brevity of flash is perfect for capturing the small but telling moments when life pivots almost unnoticeably, yet profoundly. JR: When do you turn to it now? As a writing exercise, or as something that just happens, or with the forethought of achieving something specifically flash? Has your approached evolved or changed? TLM: Flash is a creative respite for me. It's been there through some very stressful times, both personally and professionally. I can sit down at my desk without pressure. I can simply enjoy creating something I know won't take months or years, yet get the same feeling of fulfillment after I've completed a flash piece that satisfies me. Sometimes within the hour. NS: When I first started writing flash fiction I was just pretending to write it—I was basically a flash fraud. My “flash” stories were just cannibalized from my novels and other longer projects and given new titles. And this sort of worked, for a minute, but it felt like cheating (and it was). I think many writers spend some transitional time as flash frauds while learning the form. Eventually you run out of excerpts or longer stories to butcher and you’re forced to do what you should be doing from the beginning—seeing through the flash fiction lens. The switch flips. I knew when I finally wrote a real flash piece and not something passed off as one. It felt different. These days my work keeps getting shorter and shorter. I’m afraid one day an entire story will be distilled down to the letter P. And it will be perfect. LM: I am intentional when I write flash, although my "failed" flashes are probably just exercises or warmups for the better writing. For me flash writing is very challenging but also understandable, because there is a crossover with poetry writing as far as length, use of metaphor, dramatic leaps, and inventive forms in order to deliver a finished piece. I have also returned to creative nonfiction by writing some in flash form. I write anything between six-word stories and those around 1,000 words. It's just lately that I find myself writing longer pieces, although I will probably keep writing flash because I love it and I still have so much to learn within the form. GF: When I get an idea for a story, I always know immediately whether it’s a short short, a short story, or a novel. It’s just an intuitive sense of what form the story needs. The change in my approach over the years comes from my rag-picker aesthetic. I collect words and stray phrases and snippets in notebooks, and often one of those starts to flow into a story. Writing flash has influenced my longer writing. My novels now often move with a flash aesthetic—I like imagining stories in a fragmented, elliptical way—so I think there’s a little flash in all of my writing. I think often of Roland Barthes’s question in Pleasure of the Text: "Is not the most erotic portion of the body where the garment gapes?" It’s an apt metaphor for flash fiction because these tiny stories flow from tantalizing glimpses that lure the reader forward. Writing flash has taught me how to move a story along by implications, through escalating hints, and that what’s left out of a story is often more important than what’s included. JR: What do you think about working with limits, like 100 words? French Oulipo writers felt constraints could be freeing, that overtly imposing them is a way to acknowledge the constraints on writing everywhere. Do you find limits freeing? TLM: I love working with word count limits because it is more of a challenge. It's double enforcement of the rule of concision. Not only do you have to be concise, you have to find ways to tell your story in an even smaller box. I personally don't feel it's freeing, it's just fun and rewarding if it works. NS: We’re working within limits all the time—publishers define a novel as 60,000 words, for instance, so writers write to that finish line. I love the Oulipo movement, it’s a big inspiration to me. Interesting things bulge against a boundary: you can only paint with the color green; you must finish a film in 48 hours; you have to write a story without using the letter E. Beethoven wrote his most important symphony when he was deaf. I think the magic of flash fiction happens because of the constraint. But flash fiction is influenced by other artistic movements, too—the Impressionists suggested entire scenes with just dots and splashes, for instance. Of course people didn’t consider it “art” for a long time, and that’s where politics comes in. Remember that the novel was once considered a vulgar, lesser art form mostly written by (yikes!) women! I’ll quote Yoda here: We must unlearn what we have learned. LM: It's sort of like pruning a bonsai, trying to make this perfect, unique item that can be viewed and absorbed in a sitting or returned to and admired with a longer look. That said, the stakes are high because you can really screw it up if you don't accomplish a complete story within that allotted word count, and there sure isn't anywhere to hide from the failure. GF: The constraints of different forms spark different types of creativity, whether it's a sonnet, a villanelle, or a 100-word story. These "boxes" make the creative act more difficult, yet the requirements of the form force the writer to look beyond obvious associations. Imaginative leaps don't necessarily happen by thinking "outside the box" as the popular saying goes, but within the box. I learned this when I started writing 100-word stories after years of writing novels. A novel is like a Southwestern city. You have so much land to build on that you can just keep building further outwards. Writing a story in exactly 100 words is more like building a tiny town hemmed in by mountains and the sea. You have to be very careful with each element you add. You have to eliminate excess. I like to think of my miniatures as one of the artist Joseph Cornell’s box collages—a poetry of assemblages confined in a frame that is its own expansive world. The condensation of a 100-word story can open up the irreducible mystery of a single intense moment. JR: Most people who haven't read flash fiction presume it's like poetry—like an old-fashioned tone poem, impressionistic and without characters and plot. That style of flash certainly exists and delivers in lots of beautiful ways. But flash fiction can also achieve solid narratives, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. When you read flash fiction, what do you like best? TLM: I like the best of every form. In Best Small Fictions, we've drawn attention to the haibun story. I love its mix of prose and haibun, another challenge. Form doesn't sway me one way or another, it's voice, subject matter, setting, details, etc. The same for any short story. NS: People who think flash fiction is like prose poetry have not read enough flash fiction. Just because a piece of writing is small doesn’t mean it’s flash fiction. For me the difference is a sense of urgency: Flash fiction is always telling a story. A woman at a cafe watching the way the fall leaves shimmer in the sun could be a prose poem or a vignette or even a character study. But a woman at a café watching the way the fall leaves shimmer in the sun—as a man in overalls is sawing through the trunk—has urgency. Obviously there’s crossover. Can’t poetry tell a story? Of course. Can’t flash fiction be poetic? Absolutely. But the answer lies in the driving force of a piece: prose poetry and vignettes are driven by imagery and emotion whereas flash fiction has an almost desperate need to tell a story before it’s too late. LM: I like a wide range of styles, from the impressionistic to the "traditional" stories that are very plot-driven, but for me a successful flash has to have a thrust or denouement, even within flash that is more of a hybrid between poetry and fiction. A favorite impressionistic piece is called "Candlelight," by Christina Sanders, in which the daughters witness their mother glow and then dim over the years as she is thwarted at work, men, and just life. It has characters and moves through time, but this very short flash is told through this one really gorgeous image carried throughout. GF: Although a good short short has a beginning, a middle, and an end, flash stories are built through gaps as much as the connective tissue of words. They end, as Jayne Anne Phillips said, in a breath that takes the reader in and beyond the story. The most haunting stories are those that don't provide answers, but open up questions. I like to think of the writer Ku Ling’s words: "A good short-short is short but not small, light but not slight." In many ways, short shorts are the prose version of haiku. Like a haiku, a 100-word story is an imagist's medium. Every word, every detail matters, but it moves through caesuras and crevices, and like poetry, tone, diction, and timbre can guide a story as much as a rising narrative trajectory of actions. [millions_ad] JR: When people talk about flash, they often mention the modern short attention span. But reading well-crafted flash is a long, long way from clicking on, say, a simple blog post. What do you think about the attention-span angle? Can you make more demands on the reader in flash, compared to longer forms? Can flash fiction be too dense? TLM: They've been discussing the shrinking of the American attention span since the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s. Periodicals back then were publishing many "short short stories," which was the term most of the journals used. So I don't quite buy that theory. Especially since many readers still prefer reading novels. But I do think it lends itself well to online journals and social media, which has helped spread it around the world. NS: I think there should be a special level of Dante’s Inferno reserved for the people who make the short-attention span comment. Is the bonsai tree proof that its creator didn’t have the attention span for a full-sized tree? Basically the logic in the short attention span argument is that flash fiction is the fast food of literature, served up for increasingly dumb and/or distracted readers. I believe just the opposite: not only is flash fiction cultivating a new kind of writer but also a new kind of reader. The reader become a co-creator in the process rather than just a passive consumer. The writer throws clues, the reader lines them up. What the author omits, the reader intuits. I think it requires more intelligence from the reader. And anyone who has tried writing flash thinking it will be easy has usually had a very shocking revelation. Like painting the Mona Lisa on a grain of rice. LM: We have so much thrown at us these days, from work emails that grind through the evening and weekends to a news cycle that brings tragedy right to us even as it is unfolding. That has to impact our ability to focus on the present and to commit to things that take longer to do. But I am overjoyed to report that I still see people reading and even writing during my weekday train commute, and my youngest son, who is 15, read War and Peace over the summer, which he thoroughly enjoyed. Flash is another form to read, not a replacement for people who are distracted. That said, I suppose flash is very well-suited for social media, since you can read a flash on your phone from the many, many online literary journals out there, or even tweet the shortest flashes. I like to think that flash is doing a form of guerilla literacy to all of the people glued to their devices! GF: In this world of more—more emails, more social media, etc.—people’s reading styles have changed. People scan and read in nuggets, and online platforms are largely designed for that type of storytelling. When we started 100 Word Story, we thought 100 words was the perfect length of story to read online because 100 words is essentially a Facebook post. That said, most flash stories shouldn’t be read in such a breezy fashion. In fact, because they speak to what’s left out, because they often border on prose poetry, the reader needs to pause, reflect, and fill in the gaps—to be a co-creator, essentially. JR: Should flash fiction be considered and judged in a category separate from the conventional short story and its traditions? Readers and writers bring different expectations to short stories than to novels, and its traditions have shaped those expectations. Is it helpful to construct a separate category for flash? Does that fit with the spirit of flash fiction? Or should I quit poking at it? TLM: When I dream of the future, I see flash being taught side by side with the longer form. I know some academics still think of it either as a gimmick or as just a really short story. I do believe that there are differences in practice and execution, and just as there are different forms in poetry, there are different forms in prose. Separate it if you wish, but don't disregard it. NS: Absolutely, especially when we start looking towards flash books. And absolutely there are politics involved—for starters who has the power of naming and defining? Don’t forget the term “flash fiction” has only recently, in the last 25 years, given legitimacy to the form—until then all these stories were “marooned in a wasteland” as Susan Sontag would say, forced to compete with much different stories. In 2011, an anthology of flash fiction I co-edited, Fast Forward: The Mix Tape, was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award—but they didn’t have a category for flash fiction, so it had to go in “literary fiction” and compete against two novels! Apples versus oranges. Flash fiction writers are using a different set of skills and writing a different kind of story. A word of caution: Flash fiction is still emerging, still soft in the hands, still pliable, still wonderfully gooey and fresh. And while this stage of emergence and convergence is desirable, it also leaves the art form vulnerable to others who will want to define it, start to put rules on it. It’s exciting to envision flash as mainstream, but there is also the very real possibility that we will lose some of the elasticity we currently enjoy. LM: Flash may be a sister or cousin to short story and to poetry, but it is its own form with its own challenges and expectations, and now standards. As such, we see contests and "best of" nominations and anthologies dedicated to the form, which seems appropriate to me. I tend to read those because it is a sort of curating of the best writers and stories out there, which I might not be able to find on my own. What might be more debatable is what to call flash. Some like to call it short-short stories because that signals that it is not something trendy, which is sort of what flash sort of sounds like, but rather part of the family of storytelling as old as man. GF: I find it interesting that some keep defining the word count of flash upward—from 1,000 words to 1,500 words to 2,000 words. At the same time, the conventional short story seems to be shrinking in length. Journals that used to accept stories that were 8,000 or 10,000 words long now ask for stories that are less than 5,000 words. Maybe the forms will meet in the middle, but a novelistic short story by Alice Munro is obviously quite different than a one-sentence story by Lydia Davis, so I think of flash as a distinct aesthetic, one that lives on the border of prose and poetry, one that requires a different sensibility, so I turn to it as a writer and a reader with different expectations and needs. JR: Who are your favorite flash fiction writers? Who has been influential for you? TLM: There are too many to list. But I'd have to put Yasunari Kawabata at the very top of mine. His Palm-of-the-Hand Stories should be required reading in every English class. NS: This is a hard question to answer, because what is happening in the flash world right now is a full-on literary movement: every flash fiction writer I know is kicking some serious butt. Literature is changing. It’s an exciting time to throw rocks into the status quo and watch the ripples. The anthology Flash Fiction Forward by James Thomas and Robert Shapard was influential in my flash education but the book that finally did it for me was Lydia Davis’s The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories. I was in Puerto Rico by myself and I read that book and I was like—yeah. I get it.) LM: This may be the hardest question of all, since there are so many excellent flash writers out there! I am going to skirt around any hard feelings by not naming a friend or 100 Word Story writer. I am a Lydia Davis groupie, and an Etgar Keret admirer. I love Jenson Beach, who wrote one of my favorite flashes, "Family." I am a big fan of a California writer named Kara Vernor, whose work takes risks and is memorable and sophisticated. I just discovered Helen McClory after reading her incredible flash called "Pretty Dead Girl Takes a Break." I couldn't find the story again online so I bought her book in order to reread that one story! That's the best kind of flash, that you just really crave and want to read over and over again. GF: Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropisms is landmark collection of short-shorts for me. “Tropism” is a biological term that Sarraute described as the “interior movements that precede and prepare our words and actions, at the limits of our consciousness.” Sarraute sees these subconscious pulses as fleeting and often indecipherable, so we are unable to comprehend them when they happen. I love short shorts because they’re perfectly equipped to capture the nuanced turnings, the tropisms, of life. Image Credit: pixabay.
Recommended Flash Fiction from the Editors of 100 Word Story
As writers and editors of flash fiction, we love stories that are structured around a story’s gaps, the nuanced caesuras of what’s left out. In fact, the promise of a good flash story—a genre usually defined as being less than 1,000 words—is the way a narrative moves through an escalating series of hints. There’s no expectation of comprehensiveness, and often little room for connective tissue; rather, flash fiction invites the reader to live in the spaces of a story and imagine what’s left out. As list-makers, however, we wish we could have been more comprehensive. One list begets other lists, and in making this list, we realized how many more lists are needed for flash fiction as it continues to emerge and become ever more popular. As a concession to the lack of comprehensiveness, we’ve broken this list into three categories: some of our favorite classics, a few go-to anthologies, and then a sprinkling of recent collections. Please, though, consider this list to be a piece of flash fiction itself—a series of hints toward other wonderful flash collections in the world, including ours, Nothing Short of 100, a collection of the best 100-word stories from 100 Word Story magazine. Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata Yasunari Kawabata, the 2oth-century Japanese writer and Nobel Prize Winner, wrote short shorts before the category of flash fiction existed. He called his stories “palm-of-the-hand” stories because they were so small they could essentially fit in one’s palm. This collection includes a total of 70 stories drawn from 1922 until Kawabata's death in 1972 (he died in a gas-filled room, a probable suicide). He started writing the stories as his way to write poetry. Each one of his miniatures is molded by a spare understatement, a suggestiveness that comes from his painterly eye for detail, a focus on the telling perception. Kawabata was so dedicated to an aesthetics of concision that he even condensed his most famous novel, Snow Country, into an 11-page story, “Gleanings from Snow Country,” which appears in this collection. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis Lydia Davis is as close as you'll get to royalty in the flash fiction genre. Sometimes it can seem as if she invented brevity. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis includes 200 pieces, amounting to just 700 pages (an average of approximately three pages per story), 30 years' worth of work. Davis’s distinctive voice pulls stories from our everyday concerns, misunderstandings, and mishaps to fashion short shorts that are wry and wise. Her best stories explore the chasm of love, with narrators obsessively going through lists and chronologies of events to try to understand what happened. Davis's stories have very little in the way of plot. Some stories, in fact, are just a single sentence or two. As Jonathan Franzen said, “She has the sensitivity to track the stuff that is so evanescent it flies right by the rest of us.” Clarice Lispector: The Complete Stories If Elena Ferrante met Lydia Davis, they might write somewhat like the late Clarice Lispector. Dark, sharp, moody, yet sometimes focused on prosaic themes and occurrences, these stories represent the beloved Brazilian writer’s work from adolescence to the end of her life. Lispector’s stories, sometimes a little bit mad, certainly delirious, decenter the reader in exhilarating and exhausting ways. “Coherence, I don’t want it anymore,” a character in one of her stories thinks. “Coherence is mutilation. I want disorder.” Brevity plus disorder makes for fascinating aesthetic. Ecstatic Cahoots by Stuart Dybek Ecstatic Cahoots starts with two lines of dialogue — "You're going to leave your watch on?" / "You're leaving on your cross?" — that recur throughout the collection in different situations, like the refrain of a song or poem that changes meaning through repetition. The collection includes 50 stories that range in length from two lines to 13 pages. Many of Dybek’s quirky miniature masterpieces are a type of prose poem, and you might even say some read as prayers. In an interview with 100 Word Story, he said that one target to aim for in flash fiction is a “profound suggestiveness,” and with such a technique in hand he makes the small moments in his stories have big meanings. 99 Stories of God by Joy Williams 99 Stories of God is a collection of radically compressed stories, many barely a page long, some just a single paragraph, with a quirky and jabbing whimsy that is reminiscent of Lydia Davis. Not all of the stories are written about God, but they are all written with a sacred adherence to Emily Dickinson’s guide to writing: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Williams plays with deep questions in her stories, such as the existence and invisibility of God. Her disjointed connections, piercing details, and brutal humor jar one’s notions of the world, and often leave one baffled, but in the best of ways. Flash Fiction Anthologies The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field If you want a mentor text to guide you into writing flash fiction, there’s no better book than this one. The book is a true field guide, with probing essays on the art of flash fiction by such masters as Steve Almond, Pamela Painter, Robert Olen Butler, Deb Olin Unferth, Ron Carlson, and Jayne Anne Phillips. The book is designed as a teaching resource, but its essays, prompts, and exercises equip any flash writer to explore how constraints can open up a different kind of creativity and invite in unconventional approaches. Best Small Fictions Anthologies Publisher Braddock Avenue Books describes Best Small Fictions as “the first contemporary anthology solely devoted to honoring the best short hybrid fiction published in a calendar year.” Founded by Tara L. Masih in 2015 and annually staffed with the genre’s most respected writers and editors, the annual series is eagerly awaited by nominated writers while also serving as a sort of primer for those wanting to understand the evolution of the short-short form. The 2018 Best Small Fictions will showcase 53 stories that first appeared in a range of literary publications—from a 50-word short in the tiny hand-stapled Blink-Ink to a longer piece from The New Yorker—and highlight another 101 finalists. New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction Micro fiction is defined as a story that is less than 300 words. This anthology, coming out in August, includes newcomers and established writers alike: Amy Hempel, Kim Addonizio, Richard Brautigan, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Stuart Dybek, Joyce Carol Oates, and James Tate among them. The anthology is the latest from James Thomas, who along with Robert Shapard, helped put flash fiction on the writing map with their series of flash fiction anthologies (Sudden Fiction, Flash Fiction Forward, Flash Fiction International) that began decades ago. This time, Thomas teamed with microfiction author Robert Scotellaro (who wrote a notable collection of 100-word stories, Bad Motel, and has work in 100 Word Story as well). Recent Flash We’re Excited By Every Kiss a War by Leesa Cross-Smith Cross-Smith’s stories are Southern with a capital S, steeped in cigarette smoke, whiskey, and sex. In this collection, lovers cheat and regret, embrace and fight, make out and make up. Evocative and written in a warm, confident style, the stories in this collection make you feel like you’re sitting with an old friend on a porch in summer, talking about life, sipping something so good it burns. Dictionary Stories by Jez Burrows Flash fiction invites unconventional approaches to telling stories in such a small space, as exemplified by Jez Burrows’s Dictionary Stories. Burrows became obsessed with the italicized example sentences in dictionaries and began playing with them, remixing them into idiosyncratic pieces of short fiction. It all started when Burrows looked up the word “study,” and saw this dramatic story starter: “He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery.” The collection, which includes 150 stories, was spawned by a popular Tumblr blog, and each story is categorized by topic, whether it’s “dating” or “the occult.” [millions_ad] Other Household Toxins by Christopher Allen A respected editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, Allen collected his own stories for seven years before publishing his book with Matter Press. He moves smoothly between the everyday and the surreal, with a focus on fathers and sons, lovers, and taboo, moving easily between hard and gentle tales. Pretty by Kim Chinquee Sophisticated, restrained, and even slightly aloof, Chinquee’s stories often focus on love lost, found, and squandered. This collection is for studying and re-reading, with images and characters sometimes appearing teasingly just on the edge of our field of vision. Damn Sure Right by Meg Pokrass When you read Meg Pokrass, you know she was once a poet. In fact, she’s taken many of her poems and transformed them into stories—perhaps the perfect activity for any flash fiction author. But to present her fiction as guided mainly by lyricism is misleading. There are few authors out there as daring and honest and real as Meg Pokrass. She possesses that rare gift of a writer, knowing how to poetically tell a tale while not flinching from the uncomfortable truths she discovers along the way. Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song by Kara Vernor Kara Vernor’s work is world weary yet hopeful, her characters inhabiting malls, amusement parks, video stories, blue collar neighborhoods. With an unflinching voice, Vernor tells stories largely about girls and women who are trying to figure out life and find their place in it. Read “Ferris Wheel,” a remarkable micro about a blind date with the hopes of the narrator lifting up and dropping like an old, creaky ride. On the Edges of Vision by Helen McClory Dark and disturbing, these stories don’t shy away from violence and grit. If nothing else, read “Pretty Dead Girl Takes a Break” to see just how masterfully McClory mingles the surreal ramblings of the victim with our everyday obsession with crime. This flash alone is a downright harrowing social commentary on women as victims—and entertainment. Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Tin House, The Southwest Review, and The Gettysburg Review. His essays on creativity have been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. He recently published a book of essays on creativity with Chronicle Books, Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo. He's also published a collection of 100-word stories, Fissures, which have been included in The Best Small Fictions 2016 and the new W.W. Norton Anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories. Lynn Mundell is co-founder and co-editor of 100 Word Story and co-editor of its anthology, Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story, as well as a managing editor at a large health care organization. Her short-short stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in many U.S. and U.K. literary journals, including Tin House online, Booth, Superstition Review, Portland Review, Permafrost, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, The Sun, and Five Points, as well as in anthologies including New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (W.W. Norton & Company, August 2018). Lynn earned her MFA in Creative Writing from American University and is an advisory board member of the U.C. Berkeley Extension Post-Baccalaureate Certificate Program in Writing. Beret Olsen is a writer, photographer, teacher, and long-time proponent of the Oxford comma. Currently, Beret teaches black and white film photography in the Bay Area, where she lives with her husband and two pre-tweens. She writes two blogs: Bad Parenting 101 and LobeStir, and you can find her photography at www.beretolsen.com. Jon Roemer is publisher/senior editor of Outpost19, an award-winning publishing house based in San Francisco. His writing has appeared at The Writer, OZY, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, 3:AM and elsewhere. Jon studied literature and fiction writing at Northwestern and Arizona and has developed creative projects for a handful of Fortune 100 companies. Image Credit: Pexels.