Monday, September 6, 2010

In Brief: Brevity's Brilliance

I don’t know that much about literary journals. I subscribe to one, read a few others sporadically, make myself feel involved in the field. A few professors and friends unknowingly shame me in my secret, referencing the works of the largest literary journals as though I should be friendly with not just the articles but the evolution of the artists. I nod, complacent in my lie because of shame or something akin to apathy. Probably both.

I say all this to prove that I am an unstudied eye.

The most recent issue of Brevity does make me think, with a flutter of hope, that perhaps I can commit myself to something as formal as reading an issue of a lit rag cover to cover (figuratively speaking, of course). With what little hands-on experience I have regarding editorial decisions for a magazine, I still can’t help but give mad props to Brevity for its fantastic composition. The journal, complete with its 14 essays ranging from topics of memory to craft, does an excellent job of revealing to an astute reader (or one assigned the opportunity to review a literary journal) the range of the form. Using texts as short as 188 words (that’s less than a third of the requisite cap for entry, FYI), "Issue 33" finds a way to pair themes, styles, methods, and approaches for nearly every essay in the journal. This ability to seamlessly braid the journal’s text using so many considerations not only gives Brevity a cohesive structure, but a jump-off-the-screen substance that compensates for any sans-technology protests one might make about this online literary journal.

Let’s examine a few examples that illuminate my point, shall we? “Lag Time” by Steven Church uses experiences of lightning to analyze the nanosecond split between hearing and understanding about the death of his brother; Marcia Aldrich’s “The Back Stroke” analyzes how returning to swimming in a pond (an activity her now-dead sister taught her) allowed Aldrich to dismiss the control loss had had over her. Their two nature-renders-memory essays contrast starkly with Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s puzzling “The Soils I have Eaten.” But all three fit. Nature essays? Memoirs? Relationships between space and people? I would have a hard time sealing any of these essays inside their boxes. Yet, by their juxtaposition—by their resonance—I may fall into a deeper dialogue with each of them.

Alright, so Church’s piece: Over the course of its 411 words, “Lag Time” evolves from a piece comparing storms in California with those in Kansas into a piece comparing the space between lightning and thunder with the uncertainty before you realize you do recognize that thing that went bump in the night. Fine. Now watch for the back flip. With a thesis that is continuously revealing itself, we move into discussions of the irreconcilable fracture of a family once death enters. The reader can see how this well-executed essay takes us from California to loss, from storms in the atmosphere to storms within a household. But when we began, we didn’t predict we’d get there.

Contrast that with Aldrich’s “The Back Stroke.” From the very first our title clues us into what we may encounter; Aldrich then expands the foreshadowing with her use of imagery rendering death. She’s floating face down at first, passive; then she’s striving, moving towards her destination; then she’s releasing, finding her own form. We are told, both metaphorically and rather bluntly about the author’s intention (“Dead now, she couldn’t say, ‘Let go, Marcia. I’m holding you.’ I had to do this for myself.”). But even then, Brevity capitalizes on its editorial capacity: Aldrich follows Church in the journal, allowing the reader to consider Church’s essay and the way he still dwells on the first moment of learning to live after a death. The two stories meet one another in the journal, and we discover something altogether unexpected in their encounter.

So why, then, include “The Soils I have Eaten”? I think Brevity is flashing a bit of an artistic reminder with this piece. A descriptive narration, “The Soils I have Eaten” acquaints readers with various places-become-personalities. Sure, there’s nature writing here. But beyond that there’s interaction, there’s encounter. The essay begins in the distant third-person, moves to the close third, then the second, then the plural first, then singular first. Nezhukumatathil is drawing the reader into the text (as Church did) but with a completely different method than we’ve seen elsewhere in the journal. It’s Brevity’s “Don’t forget: we rejoice in the dynamics of the essay too!” moment.

To expand, another fantastic example of how Brevity engages readers of essays appears within the pairing of “I can’t Stop Thinking of That New York Skirt, Turquoise Sequins Glued onto Sea-Colored Cotton” by Diane Seuss and “The Watch” by Lisa Groen Braner. Thematically, these two essays share a very similar bent: the ability of objects to return us to experience. But Brevity’s genius begins to show through here when the two pieces take vastly different forms. The latter, a more traditional chronological memoir focused around a watch, contrasts starkly with Seuss’s not-quite-stream-of-consciousness digression using objects that ground the reader in the narrator’s personality/experience. Certainly they are memoir, certainly they showcase objects (look no further than the title if you want to argue the point). Yet, they’re on opposing seas of style. Which is, quite frankly, a brilliant editorial choice.

Perhaps there is room for a bit more editorial discernment in the journal (I had no taste for “The Moment,” and the two craft essays touched on tangential topics as compared to the rest of the material in this issue. But you can’t control submissions can you?). There were too many essays dwelling on death—a commentary on our culture?—but with such light-hearted editorial delight in form and method, I would never accuse the journal of focusing on the dark. Too much here shows craft in and between the words. So for writers who read literary magazines (or lie that they do), I would bring forward Brevity. It’s worth the time, however brief.


  1. Nice post, Shelley. I keep thinking about Brevity in terms of form, probably because the title of their journal asks me to. And I think, so what? What can the limitation of 750 words give us that an essay can't? The journal is online, so there's that (attention spans, and all). And it's certainly an interesting exercise in economy of language, but shouldn't we do that anyway in our writing (use only the words that matter)? In wondering what the equivalent might be in visual art, I think of timed gestural drawings. These are exercises, still, in strengthening the way a mark is laid on the paper, in better forming curves of hips...things like that; practice, nonetheless. Anyway, while acknowledging (longwindedly) that the form of the writing is beautiful in its attempt (clarity, precision, necessary), and the work therein rather lovely, I wonder what the limitation accomplishes. Maybe it's just a portrait of who the collective we is (are?), now.

  2. Interesting idea. Seems like Brevity is, in part, an attempt to codify or coalesce a subgenre of essay out of just "shorter essays," perhaps as a response to the ideas of "short-short" fiction, or "microfiction" (both of which--plus many more I am sure--have spawned anthologies and contests, and are taught fairly often in cw classes). I do wonder also about the goal of shortness in essay. At least with my essays, they tend to sprawl. They could really use a bit of constraint, I am thinking. Or perhaps there's an idea here about attention span and the internet...

  3. People often bring up the idea that short-writing has something to do with attention span, with the difficulty of reading a lot of text on the screen, but I don't necessarily buy that argument.

    For me, short writing as a form does work best as a constraint: in many ways I see it as prose. writers borrowing some tools prom the poetry toolbox. Sure the word count is arbitrary, but by setting a maximum length (750, I think?) it makes the writer value every word more than they would otherwise.

    My only experience with this is from a previous submission to the journal that had me cutting out 300 or so words to get it down to 750. Of course the essay was all right at 1100-ish words, but the fact that it still functioned (possibly moreso) at 75% says something about the usefulness of the exercise

  4. I like the idea, too, that if the essay's primarily mode of composition is one of sprawl, pasting, inclusion-- then the introduction of constraint might be a way of working against that grain.