Michael Hingston & Natalie Olsen, The 2017 Short Story Advent Calendar, Hingston & Olsen, 2017
- I'm not religious but I like ritual, and I like small things and regular surprises, so it's no surprise that I am very fond of Advent Calendars.
- I also strongly prefer the short story form to that of the novel, in part because of its bite-sizeability and periodical quality, so discovering Hingston & Olsen's 2017 Short Story Advent Calendar this last December was a very nice surprise.
- The third in their series (which began in 2015), the 2017 Advent Calendar consists of 24 short stories, individually packaged as stapled, sealed booklets, tucked in a slipcased box, all to be opened and read slowly, one per day, beginning on December 1. Each day they also revealed an interview with the author of the day's story on their website.
- You may notice that their calendar does not follow the Christian Advent schedule, which began this year on December 3rd. The stories themselves are also not religious (a fact that the website also mentions, lest you turn to it for religious instruction). Unlike the previous calendars, by my count, only two of the set echo Christmas.
- I don't want to spoil its surprises, since surprise is one of the main weapons of an advent calendar, so I won't speak in too much depth about the stories, except to say several are by very well-known writers, about half are by writers I'd heard of, if not read, with a balance between the realist and fabulist. There are more stories by women than
- Of the set six are excellent, and roughly evenly spaced out over the length of the calendar, indicating that perhaps the editor, Michael Hingston, also shares my enthusiasm for these six stories and has strategically spaced them out. Of the remainder, 11 are pretty good. Six I found underwhelming or they just didn't interest me. One I am sad to report I couldn't finish because its conceit was just too dumb for me to get past. And for no good reason I have not yet read one of them, December 22nd's story.
- In pursuit of honesty without spoileration, I'll white out my (rough) ratings/sortings for the stories just following the next sentence. (You may highlight over the text if you want to see them.)
Excellent: 1, 5, 9, 12, 20, 24
Solid: 2, 3, 6, 8, 11, 16, 17, 18, 19, 23, 25
Eh: 4, 7, 10, 14, 15, 21
Haven't read yet: 22
- Since I discovered the project on the evening of December 4th, and by the time I got my calendar (why do they ship only via Media Mail, I wonder, especially since shipping is not cheap?) it was the 10th, I was aware that I was not operating it in the prescribed way. Instead, I read one to three stories a day until I got caught up. That worked well, though it also allowed me to bail on stories that bored me in a way that may have minimized some of the pleasure of discovery, in only having the one story per day to devote myself to and thus letting the daily story operate on me long enough to reveal its hidden pleasures.
- So I feel like I did violate the contract of the calendar slightly, but then I wasn't planning on reviewing it, and there was no way, once I discovered it late, to do it exactly as prescribed. I suppose I could have just read one a day, finishing late, but part of the project of a calendar like this is social, to know that you're subject to the same revelations as everyone else, that you're reading the same stories the same days as everyone else, and tweeting and hashtagging about them too. It felt a little like that moment when we all read (or talked about reading) "Cat Person." You liked that experience of reading about and talking about a story at the same time, right? If so, you'll want to get on this train next year for sure.
- The Hingston & Olsen website also published an interview with each author when their day of revelation arrived. These interviews aren't particularly essential—the same questions were asked of everyone, with predictable variation in payoff, and I found myself largely ignoring them after my first couple attempts.
- And then I also haven't read story 22. Should I read story 22? What does my hesitation do to the reading experience (or the reviewing one; what if story 22 is the one that unlocks the hidden structure in the series)? What if I choose to never read story 22? Could I ever lay claim to the entirety of the reading experience the the 2017 Short Story Advent Calendar offers? Or could it be that by not completing the quest I'm amplifying some of its cohesive forces by my refusal to fully cooperate with the object as presented? Peter Ho Davies, in an essay on the erotics of the collection as a way of talking about the short story collection, says: "The completion of a collection speaks of passion spent, of death (remember how many collections end with death or at least its anticipation)." Perhaps in this way by not finishing it I was holding my passion close and/or refusing death.
- One of the stories I was most looking forward to, by a writer whose work I love, I found to be among the weakest in the bunch. With that thought in hand I began to wonder: What does it matter how good each individual story is? I realize that this is an odd question to pose in a review, but still: how important is my assessment (I mean my subjective experience, which, while brilliantly trained and finely fucking tuned, I can tell you, is still a subjective experience) of each individual story? In reviewing one asserts one's taste: that is to some extent what the space demands. But one of the oddities of reading a box of stories is how my reading of each story felt predicted—with great (though not absolute) accuracy by my feelings about the first page of the story. I suppose really all I am responding to in that is prose style and a sense of control or arrangement. I mean, I know a good story should contain its eventual shape in the first sentence—or page at least—but how often does that really happen? How depressing is it to know that if I liked the feel of the story based on its sentences that I rarely ended up not liking the story? The inverse was less true: In a couple cases I felt bored early but soldiered on, in part by virtue of the task assigned to me by the form of the Advent Calendar itself, and found myself enthralled. Good, I thought, I'm not impermeable.
- To that end, one strong possibility of the Advent Calendar seems to me that it invites—demands, really—a longer engagement with things that you might not be apparently interested in. Call it completism, but you're going to open and read each one by virtue of the physical appeal of the box and each individual story. This is good design: not flashy or obtrusive but tantalizing. Hingston & Olsen is obviously invested in the physical object as a thing, so this is not incidental. Each story is a folded and saddle-stitched (well, stapled: it's not that arty) booklet, each with a slightly different cover scheme applied to its pattern:
It's a good balance of similarity and variance to suggest a kind of collectibility or completist response: as Bert Lahr (of Cowardly Lion fame) said in his seminal commercial for Lay's Potato Chips, "No One Can Eat Just One." And that not-just-one-consumability is key to the experience of the set.
- I would also like to mention the power of the little plastic circular seals that you can see in the image above: they're breakable with a strategic finger slipped into the booklet. When you do so they emit a satisfying snap. This is a physical experience—as it ought to be. This is, after all, the ethos of the press ("In a world where print material is rapidly losing ground to all things digital, we remain stubborn, true believers in the power of the physical book"). We can attribute this success largely to the Calendar's designer, Natalie Olsen.
- What I love about the advent calendar as a form is how it makes use of time: not literary time but actual time, how letting the experience unfold daily for 24 days creates a reading rhythm that soundtracks a season that most of us probably remember as largely anticipatory. As adults, I don't think it's anticipation that we're after anymore, except vicariously if we have kids or nieces, etc, but there's a way in which the Calendar calls back some of that. For some of us now, the holidays are a time that's probably filled with disappointment or existential dread. (These are psychological experiences you may have as a result of the short stories in the calendar.)
- Because of how it structures time, the Calendar might just be the closest literary experience I can think of to what a mixtape does to soundtrack and structure life-time.
- Is it weird that this interaction with time is so rare as a literary experience? I can't think of a book that asks you to consume it in roughly equal parts over x days, though one could choose to do so reading many books. There's a difference, however, in having that operation of time author- (or editor-and-designer-) curated.
- There are also books that use time explicitly as a narrative or a compositional tool. I'm thinking here of books composed on some iteration of a daily schedule, or that are otherwise structured by days. I'm thinking of Christa Wolf's One Day a Year here (in which for fifty years, she chronicled what happened on September 27th each year) or Nicholson Baker's "What Happened on April 29, 1994," part of a French magazine's call for a bunch of writers all to write about what happened on that one date. I'm thinking too of Joe Wenderoth's Letters to Wendys, roughly chronological, though not quite daily, or David Lehman's poem-a-day project, or, I suppose, NANOWRIMO or some Oulipean thing. I'm thinking about books that use time and iteration of process
as a practice, though perhaps not as a reading experience.
- In these days in which the value of the codex form that we've been using, often without thinking about what it is when we publish a book, meaning what does the form of it mean, or what could it be made to mean, is under assault, I appreciate (and you should too) a book that uses its form and its qualities as an object to make some meaning happen. (This linkage between content and design/thingness is also echoed nicely by how unobtrusively Hingston & Olsen's names are disambiguated. Only on the bottom of the box does it read that the project was edited by Michael Hingston and designed by Natalie Olsen.)
- Could that meaning that the Calendar is making happen better? Sure. These are mostly contemporary stories previously published in various places and otherwise available, foregrounding the act of curation and sequencing. One wonders what sparks a calendar of original stories, in which the writers knew which date was theirs and could make use of that or not, might generate.
- Or maybe more variance between the sorts of stories would amp that element of surprise and delight. The 2017 Calendar has some variation, but the stories are mostly on the same spectrum (or one of two—a realist one and a fabulist one). Only one of the stories is particularly transgressive (and while it's not exactly Kathy Acker, it felt more successful, perhaps in part by how it stood out from the others; I felt similarly about the Kelly Link story, which was by some measure weirder and more satisfying than the other "weird" stories). Almost all are pretty relentlessly narrative. A few bring formal conceits, but none are particularly formalist. The fabulist elements aren't too off-putting: they're not that fabulist. I mean that things are largely pretty much toward the center of our present literary landscape. That's not a problem, exactly, inasmuch as in it we can read a relatively conservative editorial taste. When we get to the one non-contemporary story, I felt a palpable rush of difference, too. More of that would deepen the experience.
- Another option for the form: I can imagine (and in fact have personally begun) a story in the form of an advent calendar. If it comes off and is eventually published, we can see how well I took my own advice (probably not well: it's easier to dish it out than take it, as all of us probably know).
- From the evidence of this highly enjoyable December reading experience, though, I would be pleased to see it published with as much care as Michael Hingston & Natalie Olsen have given this project. It's nicely throwbacky and also rather radical, to double down in this way (for three years running, and one imagines there will be a fourth) on one of the loveliest Advent Calendars I have yet to encounter. And because there's a little hit of nostalgia that comes with the form, the throwbacky and physical qualities of this project feel exactly right.
- Since you will be reading this post-Advent 2017, it's worth saying that yes, you should absolutely pick it up before the limited run of them is sold out. Its magic is largedly unrelated to Advent (or to 2017), though there are some satisfying echoes that you may pick up on, reading it in its prescribed way, during its prescribed time. Mostly, though, because it is a reading experience regimented (at least in intention) by time and by the passing of days, it's a hell of a proof of concept. They can sign me up for a preorder for next year's calendar, for sure, and I hope that you'll join me in that and we can talk about it next December.
- And it's maybe no surprise that though each Calendar officially only offers 24 stories, you may well find a present each year on Christmas morning.