short fiction

twinkling transgressions, and not.

I’ve found quite a few authors who have allowed eyes to twinkle, though none have resorted to exploding with merriment. Most of what I found was not good.

I’ve decided not to give you citations, because in one case the author is dead, and I have no urge to beat anybody up.

“He eyed them with a twinkling eye. “

“He laughed, his green eyes twinkling impishly.”

“…Paul said, grinning and narrowing his eyes, which were the twinkling blue of a boy’s, though he was fifty-five years old”

And then I came across Tim O’Brien, who shook things up, as he always does. O’Brien is best known for his collection of short stories about his experiences in Vietnam, The Things They Carried. In the story in question, there’s a dead American soldier in the road.

“The one eye did a funny twinkling trick, red to yellow. His head was wrenched sideways, as if loose at the neck, and the dead yong man seemed to be staring at some distant object beyond the bell-shaped flowers along the trail.”

There’s cliche, and then there’s what you can do to turn cliche on its ear and make it work again. This is one of the many things O’Brien does so well. The right detail, the right twist, and you’re on that road in Vietnam looking at this unfortunate young man and seeing him clearly, as painful as that must be.

PS I haven’t listed The Night Before Christmas (which somebody mentioned yesterday in a comment) as a good or bad example. That one you’ll have to deal with on your own terms.

frequently questioned answers

Since this blog has been up, I’ve been getting quite a lot of email from various people, 99.9 percent of it fine and good and interesting. I often hear from people who are struggling with their own writing, and they’ve usually got one of two questions: 1) who is my agent and will I introduce them; 2) will I have a look at their work.

My agent is a matter of public record (I dedicated Lake in the Clouds to her). Like all agents she gets a lot of inquiries from potential clients. Over the years I have sent a few people her way (by this I mean, I’ve mentioned their names and said they might be in touch). Of all those names, only one is now her client. So getting an introduction from me really doesn’t help one way or the other. If your work is something she feels she can represent, you may work something out with her, but that’s between the two of you.

As far as getting people to read your work, I’m not the right person for that. I’ve got a longer answer about that on my FAQ page but I’m going to reproduce it here:

I get mail now and then from readers who are working very hard on their own stories. These are people who are struggling with the very issues and questions and doubts I faced some years ago, and that I still face, in a different way, today. I understand very well what they are experiencing but the help I can offer is limited….

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short stories

I’m pretty exacting when it comes to short stories. Either they please me quick, or I bail out.

I want a plot. I want characters whose voices are loud and clear. They don’t have to be likable, but they’ve got to engage my interest somehow. I want to be enchanted or amused or shocked or furious, all those things at once, if possible. Many classic short stories leave me cold, so don’t be surprised that you won’t find James Joyce on this list or (cough) Hemingway. Don’t misunderstand: subtle is just fine and dandy, as long as it still comes with a plot attached. The list is in the Extended Body below.

Of those stories I’ve mentioned, I would have to say that Bambara’s “My Man Bovanne” is as close as it comes to perfect, in my view of things. This short story has been filmed as a part of the Issues of Aging Curated Video Collection (actors Theresa Merritt as Hazel and Bill Cobbs as Bovanne).

I’d be interested to hear from you if you know any of these stories and have an opinion. Oh, and: I’ve given you more than one place to find the story, if I have that information available.

ALLEN, WOODY. The Kugelmass Episode
New Yorker May 2 1977
Worlds of Fiction ed. Roberta Rubenstein & Charles R. Larson, MacMillan College Division 1993

ATWOOD, MARGARET. Rape Fantasies
The Harper Anthology of Fiction ed. Sylvan Barnet, Longman 1991
Fiction: A Longman Pocket Anthology ed. R. S. Gwynn, Addison-Wesley Pub Co. 1998

We Are the Stories We Tell: The Best Short Stories by North American Women Since 1945 ed. Wendy Martin, Pantheon Books 1990
The Harper Anthology of Fiction ed. Sylvan Barnet, Longman 1991

Epoch 1985
American Short Stories (6th edition) ed. Eugene Current-Garcia & Bert Hitchcock, Addison-Wesley Pub Co. 1966

BLOOM, AMY The Story
The Best American Short Stories 2000, ed. E. L. Doctorow, Houghton Mifflin 2000

GODWIN, GAIL Dream Children
The Harper Anthology of Fiction, ed. Sylvan Barnet, Longman 1991

JACOBS, W. W. The Monkey’s Paw
Harper’s Monthly Sep 1902
Olden Tales ed. Bradford M. Day, Hillsville, VA: DayStar Press 1996

KING, STEPHEN The Reach AKA “Do the Dead Sing”
Yankee Nov 1981
American Short Stories (7th edition) ed. Eugene Current-Garcia & Bert Hitchcock, Longman 2001

OATES, JOYCE CAROL Extenuating Circumstances
Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque
New York: Dutton 1994

O’BRIEN, TIM The Things They Carried
Esquire Aug 1986
American Short Stories (6th edition) ed. Eugene Current-Garcia & Bert Hitchcock, Addison-Wesley Pub Co. 1966

MUNRO, ALICE Friend of My Youth
New Yorker Jan 22 1990
Short Fiction ed. Charles H. Bohner & Dean Dougherty, Prentice Hall 1999

ROSENFELD, STEPHANIE Grasp Special Comb and
in her collection of short stories: What About the Love Part Ballantine 2002

head lice. no really.


When I was fiction editor at the Bellingham Review (short stay; long story), I got a submission called “How I Went: (A Recipe for Lime Curd)”. I did something very unusual: I called the author immediately to accept it, for fear that somebody else would take it first. The author is Stephanie Rosenfeld, and she was struggling to get started at that point.

That was 1999. Now she’s got a collection of short stories out there and a new novel (Massachusetts, California, Timbuktu), both of which are on the top of one of my to-be-read piles. The one closest to the bed.
Stephanie’s stories are very good, but one of them has always stayed with me. It’s called “Grasp Special Comb” and it’s about a mother’s reaction to her daughter’s head lice.
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