A new anthology expands the vistas of the condensed essay

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A new anthology expands the vistas of the condensed essay

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Life Is Short—Art Is Shorter: In Praise Of Brevity

Author: David Shields and Elizabeth Cooperman, eds.
Publisher: Hawthorne Books

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There’s something comforting about stumping for literature that matches the era. In a world of clicks and swipes, in which “TL;DR” is more a societal motto than a statement of fact, writing that condenses itself down to the smallest possible size feels appropriate. Certainly, David Shields and Elizabeth Cooperman have taken up arms in favor of the short-short and mini-essay. Their new collection, Life Is Short—Art Is Shorter: In Praise Of Brevity, culls a potent sampling of some of the best representations of this abbreviated style. Half meditation on the nature of the form, half textbook for the instruction of the same, the anthology mostly succeeds on both fronts, remaining highly readable and full of erudite commentary.

The book takes its title to heart, progressing in chapters matched to stages of life. Chapter one carries the subhead “Welcome to the world. You are a baby. You are an object,” and successive chapters proceed through toddlerhood, preadolescence, the teenage years, and so on, until finally approaching decrepitude and death. Corresponding to this cheerfully honest march through life are essays and fiction that exemplify a particular point of view or style. Chapter six (“Decades”), for instance, provides brilliant story essays from Leonard Michaels, Wayne Kostenbaum, and others that reflect on the fleeting nature of time—how our personal experiences dictate the speed at which it moves and the emotions that color its passing. Chapter nine, “Criticism As Autobiography,” illuminates how criticism can function as an interrogation of both self and object simultaneously. It advocates for the implication of the writer in any critique, the better to maintain the necessity of the “compact between writer and reader—namely, that we’re all Bozos on this bus.” The Bozos that the editors have gathered here largely make great acts, wonderful readings for any clown college.

Many readers will be familiar with the essays contained herein, but as with any compendium, context is everything. George Orwell’s “Shooting An Elephant” is now the leadoff narrative in a chapter on intentionally exposing weakness and contradiction in order to engage in the collusive work of “complicity” between writer and subject. Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” is one of five representatives of the prose poem, that paradoxical fusion that the editors have interestingly shelved under chapter two’s theme of being a toddler, just learning to walk. The style arguably fits that uneasy middle ground, a writing technique bipedal and crawling, prone and vertical. “Lover’s Quarrels” are, quite appropriately, set in the teenage years, where Tim Park’s deconstruction of adultery and Amy Hempel’s half-page-long substitutions of animals for humanity can make similar inferences about the brutal and desperate immaturity of any age. Annie Dillard’s breathtaking rumination on the entropy of all existence, “This Is The Life,” makes for a gut punch of a closing essay, a piece that could stand alone in any format but caps off this collection with the force of a concrete lid sliding over its sarcophagus.

But no anthology can be all things to all people, and Life Is Short—Art Is Shorter inevitably falls—apologies to respectable wordplay—short in some areas. The editors do their best to make the commentaries pull double duty as educational instructions and insightful summaries, but at points the tactic strains. A two-sentence analysis of a three-paragraph story can be done, but its fecundity for the average reader’s benefit is questionable. Similarly, not all entries here will feel vital: Elizabeth Cooperman’s “Creation,” made up entirely of word bubbles linked via collage, is certainly interesting, but likely won’t connect with those not already enamored of experimental structures. Nonetheless, for people new to the nature of the short-short format, or who have limited experience with the pieces contained within, this is an insightful and valuable collection.