IN AN age in which people just can’t seem to find or make the time to sit down and revel in literature, James Lough and Alex Stein have the perfect solution.
Through Short Flights: Thirty-Two Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration, and Wit, Lough and Stein have woven a striking ode to the aphorism: a quick memorable, pithy observation that flirts with language, humor, and style.
For those of you dusting off your English textbooks, you already know many an aphorism—you just might not realize it.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
“Once bitten, twice shy.”
“You made your bed, now lie in it.” Aphorisms spill off of pages from years and years of writing, adorn decorative pillows, are inked into human skin; they sting, elicit laughter, and, above all, are deeply memorable.
But, for some reason, a collection of writings by living aphorists just hasn’t existed, until now.
With quick contributions from from prize-winning poets Charles Simic and Stephen Dobyns and bestselling authors like David Shields and James Geary, Short Flights is sure to appeal to both lit nerds and Twitter obsessees alike.
Savannah locals can celebrate the book’s release with a reading and Q-and-A session with Lough, Stein, and writer Eric Nelson on November 4 at SCAD Museum of Art.
We chatted with Lough about the growth of a concept and the art of the aphorism.
You give some backstory in the book’s introduction, but in your words, how did this idea come about?
My friend Alex from Boulder went to this conference, and there was a panel of aphorists, and he wondered, wasn’t there an anthology of aphorisms?
Apparently people didn’t think there was an audience for it; they didn’t think people cared about aphorisms. There’s poetry, there’s fiction, there’s nonfiction, but who reads aphorisms?
We thought, ‘That’s gotta be wrong.’ Especially with social media and things like that, with Twitter, it’s a perfect time for aphorisms! People are too busy to read; at least they can read short.
We got it together, found as many aphorists as we could find through friends, and we found there were a lot of us. But publishers weren’t interested, and we had an agent at the time, and I think she submitted it to about 40 publishing houses and imprints and we got no positive responses. We got a lot of people saying, ‘We don’t do anthologies because anthologies don’t sell.’
And so finally, it took me approaching my own publisher of my other book and saying, ‘Would you be interested in a book of aphorisms?’ and he jumped on it. He saw an opportunity to get big names and are taken seriously and critically. He loved the idea, and I didn’t even have to sell it to him; he wanted it right away.
It took a long time, like it did with the other book [This Ain’t No Holiday Inn]. We started in ’09 doing all this...it’s been six years from that point until now. It’s already been on Amazon and is doing quite well.
Do the contributors identify as aphorists?
Most of them don’t. It’s like a dirty little secret they have—aphorisms on the side. About 85% are poets.
It’s not fashionable to make definitive statements, which aphorisms often do. Like Voltaire: ‘If God didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him.’ It’s very unfashionable to make, in this postmodern age, statements that are supposed to apply to everyone, so I know we’re going to meet some resistance from people who say, ‘Who are you to say these pithy statements and calling them true?’
Especially in academia and postmodern circles, no one’s right, there is no truth, it’s all relative. You can’t say anything without quote marks around it or without saying ‘like’ in front of it, or almost apologizing for making a definitive statement.
You have to cushion it.
Yes, pretend you don’t really know anything, and I think that’s ridiculous. But there are also a lot of aphorisms that are not definitive statements, like Charles Simic—‘I don’t believe in God, but I won’t open an umbrella inside my house.’ That’s not a definitive statement about reality; it’s basically a joke. And I love that aphorisms are just this side of jokes, there’s all to of overlap between them.
Hart Pomerantz used to work with Lorne Michaels, so he’s a comedy writer. He wrote his as jokes for stand up. We have a real-life comedian, as well as aphorisms that find themselves funny. Most of them don’t consider themselves aphorists first and foremost, but they do it on the side.
Structure-wise, is an aphorism defined by, for lack of a better word, a punchline?
I think it’s close. Not a punchline, but a surprise. It has to be a twist. Like Oscar Wilde: ‘I can resist anything but temptation.’ There’s the twist.
It can be an interesting metaphor, or it can be just that what is said is so scandalous that it surprises people, which I also love about this.
I’m a counterculture kind of guy, and half of aphorisms aren’t wisdom; they’re digging a screwdriver into what we think is the truth, what we assume is the truth, and showing no, the opposite is true. So some kind of surprise is what makes it an aphorism rather than a proverb or maxim or just a sentence. It has to have something that’s startling.
Do you think a lot of the construction and editing of aphorisms is in the trimming of fat to get to the essence?
Probably, and that’s what I love about it. I use aphorisms to teach writing students how to parch sentences down to essence; ironically, it gives the sentence so much energy.
I have a handout I give to students that shows eight drafts of an aphorism—crossed out that word, went for rhythm, image and ended up with an aphorism that barely ressembles the one above but is far more striking.
I would love for this book to kind of become a textbook for how to teach writing in a condensed way, which seems more important now than ever.
That’s really interesting that you had trouble shopping it; I feel like this format could almost reclaim language in the speedy time we live in.
That’s a great observation. I know that some people are probably going to say, “Aren’t you contributing to the lack of attention span, to readers not being able to sit for long periods of time?’
And a lot of really educated people are saying this: ‘I can’t sit for two hours and read a book anymore. My brain’s too distracted from living on screens.’
And I know people are going to say, ‘Aren’t you contributing by doing short bits?’
My view is no. It’s already been done. We’re not making this happen; we’re just adjusting. I bemoan the lack of attention span—I think it’s a problem—but at the same time, you can deliver wisdom or wit in a big fat book, or you can deliver it in a one-liner, and there’s real wisdom and wit in this book, and I don’t see that there’s anything wrong in keeping it short.
It’d be great if we can reclaim language and get people to pay attention to stuff like this and to ideas, because what I love about aphorisms is they have some sort of idea in them. It introduces people to ideas, to thinking abstractly, to big topics. I love that. It’s in its brevity; it’s not something you just read and move on.