Short Fiction Appreciation by Alethea Kontis

by on Nov 2, 2015 in Blog | 1 comment

My senior year of high school, I made a very important decision: not to take AP English. None of my parents, teachers, or classmates seemed to understand this, but to me it made perfect sense. Every single one of my classes senior year was AP. Why would I try to exempt out of the easiest 4.0s in college by taking the hardest class in high school?

It wasn’t like I was that good in English anyway. To this day I’m still not sure why. I’d been a writer since I could hold a pen, and an avid reader since before that. But grammar didn’t stick until I took French and Spanish. Vocabulary didn’t stick until I reached a certain age when I realized I knew ALL THE WORDS. I made straight As in Calculus with my eyes closed, but fought to get Bs in English. My papers were terrible. I had to purchase the Cliff Notes for most of the books we read so that I could write what the teachers wanted me to write. Apparently, no teacher cared about how the book made me feel. Or they said what I felt was wrong. Whatever. I survived.

And then I demoted myself to college-prep senior English. The kids in my class could barely read out loud. This brought me great joy, but not for the reasons you think. I was excited at the prospect of sitting in the back of the class and having an hour to work on my Calculus homework. At which point, my oh-so-clever teacher decided to assign me a seat in the front row, right beside her desk.

My mini-rebellion against Mrs. Smith could fill an entire blog post itself. But for the purpose of this essay I will tell you about the habit I picked up while patiently waiting for yet another classmate to mispronounce a word I’d learned in ninth grade.

My secret: I read ahead in the book.

To you, this probably sounds ridiculous. To an exceptionally bored nerd, having an entire volume of short stories and poetry at one’s disposal was like manna from heaven. LEGAL MANNA. After all, Mrs. Smith would look pretty silly if she put me in detention for reading the textbook.

I discovered one of my favorite poems in that book—T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”—while the rest of the class was struggling through Chaucer. While Mrs. Smith droned on about Beowulf, I read Roald Dahl’s “The Landlady.” And I don’t even remember what was being discussed when I stumbled upon “Harrison Bergeron” because I fell in love with that story so hard I read it three times before the bell rang.

I fell in love so hard I stole that Literature book. Yup. Sure did.

Remember, long before I was Princess, I was the Queen of Thieves.

Now, imagine my exquisite joy when I ended up in English 101 the following year with a GIANT NORTON ANTHOLOGY to peruse, and a term paper about Othello that I could crib from a 10th grade assignment.

The story I fell in love with then was “Space,” by Mark Strand. I didn’t know then that it fell into a category that would later be called “flash fiction,” I just knew that I loved it. It was not about SF, as you might imagine, but about a man on a balcony in a city that watches a beautiful woman step out onto a ledge with the intention of committing suicide. He tries to convince her back to reality but to no avail—the last thing he recalls is the space between her feet and the ledge, much like the space she must have always felt between herself and the world.

“Space” was the perfect amalgam of short story and poetry. My summary doesn’t do it justice, of course. I urge you to hunt it down and spend five whole minutes reading it for yourself.

You know…I’ve never sat down and listed all my guilty secret short story indulgences before. Now that I do, I realize one thing: it seems I have a penchant for those tales where almost everyone dies in the end.

But then, my optimistic creative joy was born from a primordial soup of Grimm & Andersen fairy tales and Poe. (Oh, Poe…Leanna Renee Hieber and I will fight over you until our dying day.)

I urge you all to sneak in a short story today while waiting in line at the post office. While waiting for the movie to start. While in the bathroom during your lunch break. There’s just something about doing it in secret—something that makes the story especially yours in that moment and no one else’s.


 

Our readers appreciated Alethea’s short story “Blood from Stone” from issue 43 and selected it as co-winner of the 2012 Apex Magazine Story of the Year award.

Check out the Apex Magazine subscription drive running through November 13th.

Visit Alethea Kontis online at http://aletheakontis.com/

1 Comment

  1. I used your technique in AP American History.
    I’d copy down the outline the teacher projected on the wall, then read ahead in the textbook and wait for Mr. Haar to ask a question about what I had just read.

    I took AP American English, but we only used the textbook for about a month, everything else was a novel. But in that time, I discovered “Usher II” by Ray Bradbury. Senior year, I eschewed AP British English for a regular class where we read Brave New World, 1984, Huck Finn, Gulliver’s Travels, The Loved One, Fahrenheit 451. No textbook.

    Then, the summer after I graduated, I hunted down everything I could find by Harlan Ellison, and slowly rebuilt my psyche.

    People who die at the end? Try:
    Perchance to Dream: SELECTED STORIES
    By CHARLES BEAUMONT
    Foreword by Ray Bradbury
    Afterword by William Shatner
    Paperback
    Published by Penguin Classics
    Oct 13, 2015 | 336 Pages | 5-1/16 x 7-3/4 | ISBN 9780143107651

    P.S. A friend had a professor who placed this single question on the final:
    “At the end of Hamlet, who survives?”

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