"A SENTENCE SHOULD contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts," says William Strunk Jr. in his definitive guidebook on writing, The Elements of Style. By the same measure, a story or essay should contain no unnecessary action, dialogue, or characters; and only by offering the minimal and most essential details will a writer lead his reader to revelation.
David Shields and Elizabeth Cooperman further illustrate this point with Life Is Short—Art Is Shorter, their jointly edited and co-curated argument for brevity from Portland's Hawthorne Books. It's an anthology of very short stories, not-as-short short stories, mini essays, and prose poems by some of the best practitioners of the craft. Rick Moody, George Saunders, Donald Barthelme, and Anne Lamott are included, as are less-household names and authors not typically famous for this format. The anthology's divided into 13 sections, each meant to correspond to a stop on life's course, from birth to final mortal contemplation. After their introduction—a meta-modern statement of intent, or literary call to arms—Shields and Cooperman introduce each of the sections, provide commentary on the stories to follow, and offer writing assignments that correspond to each section. They aim to make this anthology more than an anthology, like a writing course in the art of concision.
In one of the stories in the collection, "Riding the Whip," Robin Hemley offers a perfect example of how a very short story, no longer than a few pages, can still have the emotional weight of a novel. And in demonstrating how a story no longer than even a few paragraphs can move and transform the reader, there's no one better than Amy Hempel, who thankfully has four stories in this anthology—more than any other contributor.
Some entries work better than others, and a few pieces, such as Lee Siegel's critique of the television adaptation of Angels in America, feel out of place—and indeed too lengthy—to include in this collection. The introductions to each section, too, are overlong and unnecessarily expository, and the writing assignments are an unfortunate distraction from what's an otherwise excellent anthology. And, of course, David Shields, with 16 (and rapidly counting) books to his credit, seems an odd champion of brevity. But the man knows what he likes.
In his short story, "Adultery," Tim Parks writes, "One lives such a short time, yet wishes to do everything, and then to recapture everything." Read this collection for the stories, and then read them again and again, taking great care to capture everything.