Stuart Dybek, Guest Editor
Tara L. Masih, Series Editor
Queens Ferry Press, 2016
Like many “Best of” style anthologies, the strength of The Best Small Fiction 2016 lies in its incredible variation. It is a hugely diverse collection, drawing some of the best short fiction from the past year of publications. This is neither a strictly flash or micro fiction collection – the pieces range from a few sentences to one thousand words – and so the reader never knows whether the next page flip will be the end of the story. On more than one occasion, the author’s bio is longer than the story itself. This wide variation gives the collection an undulating and unexpected variation, like a train ride through a new landscape, where it is never entirely clear what will be around the sharp bend in the track.
Now in its second year, the editors of the anthology collect a range of pieces, which is narrowed down and final selection by the guest editor, Stuart Dybek. In fact, this is a revival of a similar anthology from 1952-1960, brought back to life last year as the micro and flash fiction explosion continues. It has garnered a lot of attention already – with its 45 authors presenting a nice selection of new and household names.
BSF 2016 is a tome of myriad treasures. It’s striking how different all the stories were, not only in length but in terms content and tone. Perhaps because of the needed precision of the small fiction form, the strength and care that has gone into these stories is always evident. Grant Faulkner’s “The Toad” manages to make road kill profound and human in one hundred words. “Carnivores” by Jane Skinner, told from the perspective of a plant, unfolds like a puzzle, sad but so witty; I’ll never look at spider plants the same way again. And of course, there are many language focused pieces. The translated “A Thousand and One Tongues” by Toh EnJoe is an image rich rendering of Scheherazade’s telling of tales. Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan also both appear in this anthology (all the more reason to go back and read Rift, if you haven’t already), as do some household names like Amelia Gray and Michael Martone. I could go on, describing every piece in this book. These little stories are all so unique that it feels unfair to have left so many unmentioned.
As Dybek notes in editor’s note, these works are not “cubicles,” but rather they exist on a spectrum – from lyric to narrative, from fiction to poetry. Despite the variation of the pieces in tone and content, there is a sense of unity and even overlap between pieces. There are a number of stories set in the wilderness, in the west, in nature. The opening “Bless This Home” by Rosie Forrest is bleak and welcoming at the same time, like a lone cabin set on a treeless hill. The book includes other stories that feel like cousins of this one, such as Caitlin Scarano’s “Pitcher of Cream,” which reads like a riddle.
Perhaps because of this, the book feels somehow rural in its tone. This isn’t to say it doesn’t have splashes of urban humanity. Still, when I first read the book in one sitting, the pieces felt spread out from each other, yet connected. It read like a map with no highways, but only thin roads winding between small towns that both similar and wildly different. On the second read through, the connections became more clear, and the book felt as if it were a series of places, all seen along the same meandering trip. A trip not soon forgotten.