The Glory of One Story: A Lit Mag With a Singular Focus
At a time when super-size reigned and big-box was becoming the norm, a small Brooklyn outfit called One Story ushered in its first whisper-thin issue to fewer than 500 subscribers. The idea was simple: every three weeks, one story, typeset between a pastel coversheet secured by two staples.
Fast forward nine years and the model holds fast - One Story has proven that not everything follows the law of “bigger is better”. By offering just one story each issue, One Story has quickly stepped to the forefront of the literary ‘zine world, modeling a new way for readers and writers to introduce themselves – in an empty room where only one conversation is taking place. It is satisfyingly simple and it works.
Do I love every story, every time? No. But that hasn’t prevented me from tearing into each issue the day I get it. One Story has managed to make the short story both cute and sacred in each pocket-sized edition. Their commitment to publishing one story at a time is, for the reader, somewhat like being handed a personal recommendation from a friend. And to quote the journal’s website, “…there is always time to read one story.”
A sampler of eight recent issues reveals a diverse cast and egalitarian approach to literature. Stories by emerging writers and MFA graduates such as Caitlin Horrocks and Miroslav Penkov are given exactly the same presentation and honor as Israel’s literary powerhouse Etgar Keret, and decorated young American writer Josh Weil.
From Bulgaria to Biodomes, Tel Aviv and Pennsylvania Dutch country, each story is a thoroughly imagined world to be savored by couch or commuter rail:
“If I were a better mother…If I were a better daughter…”
Sometimes too much guilt can make a story sour, but Megan Mayhew Bergman provides a special ironic twist in her tale of strained mother-daughter relations.“Housewifely Arts” follows a single mother as she travels with her young son to her childhood home in Florida, hungry to hear her mother’s voice one last time from the only place it still exists –her beloved parrot’s call. For anyone who has ever been jealous of an aging parent’s easy love for a pet, this story will surely strike a chord.
“If Igor eats me, I hope I taste like beets.”
In NovaTerra, time is marked by events such as the “Great Kitchen Fire” and the “Regrettable Fertilizer Spill”, and residents subsist on beets and sorghum while they hope to get their payoff check before cannibalism sets in. For the engineer narrator, life in the biosphere is an escape from her fundamentalist parents, until she realizes the “seductiveness of certainty” is inherently human, and life in the biosphere begins to have eerie parallels to fringe religion.
“All beautiful things go away. Everyone knows this is true.”
L. Annette Binder’s story “Nephilim” is written in the plain language of pain. Freda is a giantess whose only wish for love is to feel small beside a man. Given the chance for love when a mysterious and nymph-like boy moves into the neighborhood and never flinches in her presence, Freda slowly comes to accept the fact that her body will degenerate and fail as his grows strong and sure. Binder’s exquisite descriptions of Freda’s growth only reinforce the torture that she has come to accept as her fate: “Somebody tied Freda’s feet to the ground and her hands to the wooden wheel. Somebody else worked the wheel and pulled her upwards, stretching all the muscles around her sockets. It was her companion, this feeling.”
“…so many lights, so wondrous, bright, new.”
“No Flies, No Folly” is Josh Weil’s heartwarming blush of a historical tale, with hearts igniting over the advent of electricity. A Russian Jew peddler in rural Amish PA attracts the affections of a farm wife with his unusual wares and lust for progress. Their affair takes place over the occasion of several visits, growing in anticipation as he presents her with bulb, generator, and battery:
“I hold the Edison Lamp in my lap…Beneath my fingers I feel hers curve around the bulb. She slides them first one way along the glass, then back the other, discovering its smoothness, its roundness…My own hand on her breast moves to match hers, my fingers feeling the nipple hard between them, hard as the spike that rises off the top of the bulb. When she touches that her hand stops. Mine does too.”
Weil expertly merges the two worlds, and in doing so, reveals a uniquely American love story.
“Fifth grade ends and here’s how the boys talk to each other: What do you like? What do you like? Is that something we should like?”
Sensual and spiked with prepubescent male sexuality is Ethan Rutherford’s “Summer, Boys”. The point of view is an amorphous, shared, intimate, and shape-shifting thing, appropriate for the fuzzy boundaries that traverse a summer of innocent candy and sports hero worship haircuts: “They are tender, precise with one another. They take turns.”-- to basement sexual experimentation: “milky, hairless skin…a flaccid taste…a strange tongueless kiss…” Rutherford leaves the reader dangling at a point of discovery and exposure, daring us to look without flinching.
“Three people are waiting at an intercom. A weird moment. More precisely an awkward moment, uncomfortable.”
Etgar Keret teases out this awkward moment in his story “Surprise Party”, introducing us to Mustache, Band-aid, and Eyebrows. The three men, never further named, show up to a party out of professional politeness and find themselves waiting for a punch line that never occurs; the trio suddenly and intricately bound up in the couple’s personal life. The third person omniscient point of view carries us through each of their insular judgments of each other and the situation at hand. The result is comic as they hunt down the guest of honor and then find themselves thrown – still without resolution - back into their everyday lives at an odd angle that leaves them wondering – what just happened?
For those wondering about the crazy ideas and people behind these pint-sized plots, One Story’s online blog offers an author interview to accompany each story. Humor, advice, sarcasm, and ah-ha moments are lovingly extracted by the staff of One Story for your additional reading pleasure and envy.
One Story accepts online submissions September 1 through May 31. They are looking for ‘good’ literary fiction 3,000- 8,000 words in length.