We cowrote and coedited Life Is Short — Art Is Shorter: In Praise of Brevity
. We're interested in brief prose (short-shorts and mini-essays), but we're also (and even more) devoted to book-length works of literary collage, built out of brief shards. Here are some of our favorite examples of such works.
– David Shields and Elizabeth Cooperman
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Speedboat by Renata Adler
David learned how to write by reading this book until the spine broke. He typed the entire book twice.
OR: The feeling of being caught between floors of a difficult-to-define department store. You keep turning pages and reading scenes until, finally, you understand what, for Adler, constitutes a scene: a toxic and intoxicating mix of velocity, violence, sex, money, power, travel, technology, miscommunication; when you get it, the book's over.
A Certain World by W. H. Auden
S/Z by Roland Barthes
Writing Home by Alan Bennett
The Balloonists by Eula Biss
I Remember by Joe Brainard
Ostensibly, a series of random memories; in fact, beautifully organized around themes of conformity and rebellion.
Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan
Here, too, the book is thought to be a random gathering, but it has real power and momentum, derived from the pressure Brautigan puts on the relation between pleasure and commerce.
Plainwater by Anne Carson
We love in particular "Just for the Thrill: An Essay on the Difference between Women and Men," ranging everywhere from songs on the radio to ancient Chinese history in order to get very deeply at the war between men and women.
The Journals of John Cheever by John Cheever
Consciously and scrupulously sculpted: the journals are clearly written to be read and published; they dwarf anything else Cheever wrote.
Maps to Anywhere by Bernard Cooper
Content tests form: there is formal innovation and then there is formal innovation; there are stories and essays that are merely tricky and then there are stories and essays whose structural and stylistic tricks are crucial tools to mine the material.
The Unquiet Grave by Cyril Connolly
A cry of mourning about dissolution — of society (WWII), the body (aging), love (divorce), and literature.
About a Mountain by John D'Agata
In the Land of Pain by Alphonse Daudet
A contemplation of dying, rendered in dozens of pre-obituaries for himself.
For the Time Being by Annie Dillard
Literary mosaic is an alluring and difficult form: you gather a bowl full of jagged fragments, and you want each one to take you somewhere slightly new or hurt in a slightly different way.
The Lover by Marguerite Duras
In both animals and humans, the brain releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter that controls reward and pleasure, when the animal/human is in the act of seeking — searching for something, being curious, solving a problem; once the animal/human finds what he is looking for, the release of dopamine shuts off.
Things Seen by Annie Ernaux
The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Commonplace Book by E. M. Forster
The Pharmacist's Mate by Amy Fusselman
The book fluctuates wildly and unpredictably from Fusselman's attempt to get pregnant through artificial means, her conversations with her dying father, and his WWII diary entries. You don't know what the next paragraph will be, where Fusselman is going, until — in the final few paragraphs — she lands on the gossamer-thin difference between life and death, which is where the book has been focused all along, if you could only have seen it.
The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano
Galeano marries himself to the larger warp-and-woof by allowing different voices and different degrees of magnitude of information to play against one another.
The Smoking Diaries by Simon Gray
A man, whose friends are dying and who by the final book of the tetralogy is dying himself, stands before us utterly naked and takes account: Rembrandt's late self-portraits, in prose. An entire life, a way of thinking, comes to life as he dies; having read the book, I feel less lonely.
Morning, Noon, and Night by Spalding Gray
Boomerang by Barry Hannah
The stakes, shifting from "character" to "author," get raised.
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick
Modularity mirroring and measuring sleeplessness.
The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison
Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy
Juxtaposes photographs and historical documents from turn-of-the-20th-century Jackson County, Wisconsin, to create what he calls "an experiment in both history and alchemy" — the alchemy being Lesy's transformation of American pastoral into a Munch nightmare.
A History of Bombing by Sven Lindqvist
Numbered sections gesture toward rationality of order; the material empties out any such promise.
The Guardians by Sarah Manguso
This book majors in bone-on-bone rawness, exposed nerve endings. It goes to hell and back, just barely back, and ends with a tiny glimmer of uptick — not too much but not too little, either. It's the only affirmation that anyone can offer: astonishingly, we're here.
This Is Not a Novel by David Markson
A book built almost entirely out of other writers' lines (some attributed, most not). One of the pleasures of reading the book is recognizing so many of the passages. A bibliophile's wet dream, but it's no mere collection of quotes. It's a sustained meditation on this single question: Against death, what consolation, if any, is art?
The Art Lover by Carole Maso
In this quotation-crazy book, Carole Maso can't stop thinking; she can't stop thinking about what other people are thinking; she can't stop thinking via what other people are thinking.
Shuffle by Leonard Michaels
Several years ago, when Michaels died, the encomia focused entirely on his stories, but for me his "legacy" rests, or should rest, on his essays and journals, especially Shuffle, which Anatole Broyard called "a shockingly bad book"; also, according to same, "Journal" — the most electrifying and influential thing Michaels ever wrote — is "much the worst" section of the book.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
A brief meditation, 240 discrete paragraphs, on the color blue that is also a cri de Coeur about Nelson's inability to get over the end of a love affair and a grievous contemplation of a close friend's paralysis. The book keeps getting larger and larger until it winds up being about nothing less than the melancholy of the human animal. Why are we so sad? How do we deal with loss? How do we deal with the ultimate loss?
Pensées by Blaise Pascal
Best Thought, Worst Thought by Don Paterson
Aphorisms sent through radiation.
The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
Aphorisms attached to a suicide pact.
Dialogues of Socrates by Plato
We don't see the world; we make it up. The perceiver, by his very presence, alters what's perceived.
Vectors by James Richardson
Ghosts in the Mirror by Alain Robbe-Grillet
Maxims by François Le Rochefoucauld
The World as Will and Representation by Arthur Schnopenhauer
Maus by Art Spiegelman
On Love by Stendahl
Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
Edie by Jean Stein
The Dead Girl by Melanie Thernstrom
The title refers to Thernstrom's best friend, who is murdered, and also to Thernstrom, who can't seem to live.
Cane by Jean Toomer
Within the Context of No Context by George W. S. Trow
An assemblage of disconnected paragraphs, narrated in a tone of exquisitely controlled archness, and perhaps best understood as what Trow calls "cultural autobiography." In other words, its ostensible accomplishment — a brilliantly original analysis of the underlying grammar of mass culture — is a way for Trow to get at what is in one sense his ultimate subject: the difference between the world he inhabits (no context) and the world his father, a newspaperman, inhabited (context).
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
The expository first chapter, essentially a prologue, renders quite secondary the rest of the book and everything else he ever wrote.
Holy Land by D. J. Waldie
Letters to Wendy's by Joe Wenderoth