Cut to the Chase!

It’s what short stories do best.

Cut to the Chase!

Lately, my literary world has been all about short stories. This is more coincidence than any intentional response to the crisis dominating our news, but it’s a welcome coincidence.

As much as I’d love to disappear into the pages of a novel, a short story offers a quick escape into a different world, often with small, intense situations that are nowhere near the glut of distress the world is currently facing.

Like I said, this has been because of circumstance. Two of my favorite short-story writers (Amber Sparks and Art Taylor) published new collections recently, and they participated in a panel moderated by another star of short fiction, Tara Laskowski. And Sarah M. Chen and I co-edited a novel-in-stories that was published by Down and Out Books earlier this week called The Swamp Killers.

So I wanted to write about short stories and, as I started putting this column together, I kept thinking about my favorites. And I decided to ask the writers named above to name and discuss their favorites.

Turns out…it’s a fun question! And we need some fun right now. Leave a comment below with your favorite story today or tomorrow, or put the answer on social media, and I’ll pick one random replier and send you a gift box of (sanitized) books by all the authors below.

Sarah M. Chen, contributor to Murder-a-Go-Go’s: I don’t have a favorite short story so much as a favorite short-story writer. Patricia Abbott is a master of the format, and it’s no wonder — she has over 150 of them available in print or online. Her writing is razor sharp, lean, and bold. Some of my favorite flash fiction over at Shotgun Honey is penned by her, and I’m always amazed by what she can deliver in terms of mood and character in 700 words or less.

If I had to pick my favorite Patricia Abbott story, I’d choose “Ten Things I Hate About My Wife,” in Betty Fedora, Issue One. It’s about a man laid up, recovering from knee-replacement surgery, who lists the 10 things he hates about his maddeningly perfect wife, Kerri. He’s not the most assertive husband, and his resentment and bitterness toward her has built up over the years. It’s wickedly funny, and the ending is topnotch. 

Tara Laskowski, author of Bystanders: The first short story I remember loving to bits is “A&P” by John Updike. I remember reading it in high school and thinking that I could do that — I could write a story about people I understood and situations that seemed familiar. That something profound could be teased out of an interaction at a grocery store checkout lane.

The thing I love about short stories is the challenge of making the story feel complete and whole and resonant in as little words as possible. It’s why I love flash fiction, because really wonderful short-short stories can feel so real and complete, even if they are only a few hundred words. One of my favorite stories I ever published as editor of SmokeLong Quarterly is “Belly of a Fish” by Rachel Mangini. It takes about 45 seconds to read it. We published it nearly 10 years ago, and I still think about it all the time. That’s the power of a great short story.

Art Taylor, author of The Boy Detective & the Summer of ’74: While it’s tough to choose just one story — and I’m regularly discovering new stories I love, like David Dean’s “The Duelist” last year — Stanley Ellin’s “The Moment of Decision” stands out as both a masterpiece and a personal favorite. Two men — each strong-willed, each firm in his philosophy about life — end up in a battle over an estate and its future, and over those competing worldviews, too. Ellin has a classical prose style — graceful and unhurried — and he escalates the tensions between the two men at a pace that’s both deliberate and relentless.

The story is at once a trenchant character study and a nail-biting thriller, and the ending proves daringly bold — balancing absolute resolution on the question of character against a bit of ambiguity (more than a bit!) about what actually happens beyond the final lines of the story. Unforgettable. 

E.A. Aymar’s latest novel is The Unrepentant.

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