John Edgar Wideman, author of Briefs, made news as an O’Henry award-winner, recipient of two Pen/Faulkner awards, and a MacArthur Genius grant winner, who moved from traditional to self-publishing after a successful career as a traditionally published author. Wideman is quoted as seeking an open publishing environment for a “better sense of control over his work and a more direct connection with readers.” His experiment with the self-publishing process is working well.
Some of the pieces included in Briefs: Stories for the Palm of the Mind are already O. Henry prize winners for 2010 and Best African American Fiction 2010. Briefs is a rich collection of microstories, some just a single page, and even one consisting of a single sentence. These thoughtful pieces convey powerful meaning beyond their brief presence on the page.
In “The Quiet Car,” Wideman deals with a person who won’t stop talking on her cell phone, on a train. You have to read it twice for the humor and a subtle pun.
It is difficult to dissect just what makes each story compelling or to get a sense of how much work the author spent in writing and revising these hip-hop style pieces. Although the stories are tiny, the writing is deliberate, colorful and honest.
Some stories in Briefs are touching, others feel too personal, revealing too much of the story narrator’s thoughts. There is a nostalgic feel to the book, telling of hard times, and as Wideman says: “The years not written do not wait to be written. An unwritten story is one that never happens."
The range of stories in this small book includes a love letter to Madonna, a black man’s assessment of racial issues in America, and a few pieces where sexual issues and struggles reveal personal truths. To my surprise, one story was meant for me, instructing the reader on how to write a book review. “You don’t have to be very smart to write a review of a book of short stories. All you need to say is that some stories in the book are better than others.”
So I will at least point out that Briefs contains a very silly story of a man walking in the rain, eating a banana. The story only questions where he is going and the author suggests a sadness to his curiosity about the man.
Wideman’s publishing experience offers him great flexibility and he’s inviting writers to submit their own microstory for possible inclusion in future copies of Briefs.