The Mighty Morphing Short Shorts

On: October 10, 2009
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Literature has been shrinking. No, I’m not referring to the decrease in readership demographics, but about “new” literary forms that sprang up in the 1990s. What will be referred to here collectively as short shorts are narrative works characterized by low word counts and having as many sub-genres as modern electronic music. First came flash fiction, which was designed to fit on two standard paperback pages. In other words, a complete story within one turn of a page. Then came microfiction, which was designed to be read in one click of the mouse: stories in the microfiction genre must be under 500 words, which allows them to fit on a single web page that requires no scrolling. Along the way, forms such as the drabble (exactly 100 words), 55 words (exactly 55 words), and the 69er (you guessed it, exactly 69 words) appeared. Now the newest and shortest form has appeared: hint fiction (25 words or less).

There is a long precedence of short fiction, of course. The penultimate example is Ernest Hemingway’s infamous story “Baby Shoes”

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Reputedly written to satisfy a bet that he could write a complete story in less than 10 words, these 6 small words hint at a story much larger than its diminutive length. It is this kind of compressed yet expansive text that Robert Swartwood has been collecting for an as-yet-unpublished anthology. In Swartwood’s opinion, a story is defined by fulfilling the following goals:

  1. It should obviously tell a story.
  2. It should be entertaining
  3. It should be thought provoking
  4. And, if done just right, it should evoke some kind of emotional response from the reader

Whither Voice?

“If a story of 2,500 words or more can do all that, why can’t a story 25 words or less?” Swartwood asks in the thesis of the anthology. Though there is disagreement in literary circles (by Swartswood’s own admission), it has been difficult to find much academic discourse that attempts to invalidate the “short short.” One such available example is from 2004, a piece called “Who Wears Short Shorts? Micro Stories and MFA Disgust” by Jason Sanford. While Sanford does not completely disregard the merit of the short short (a phrase I will use as an umbrella term for the competing sub-forms), he sees a large deal of the problem lying with Masters of Fine Arts programs and their focus on word candy (“writing that passes through the system with no effect but tooth decay.”) In fact Sanford cynically pairs the popularity of short shorts with the ease of publishing both for the editors (easier to wade through submitted short shorts than longer forms) and writers (easier to write short shorts than longer forms, though this is likely a point of contention for Swartwood).

The problem with most short shorts is not the genre—it is that they are being written by writers who are not committed to the true exploration of voice that’s at the heart of great literature. Too often short shorts are written by writers emerging fully deformed from MFA workshops and programs around the country, writers churning out page after page of bland academic writing that has as little style, voice, and vision as George Bush on ritalin.

The question of literary voice, the truly defining factor that separates great literature from the rest, concerns Sanford greatly. In his mind, it is much more difficult to inject a unique voice into short shorts. This alone does not detract from the form(s), because the best writers will still be able to shape voice within the short short. Hemingway’s tersely short writing style, for instance, is perfectly embedded in “Baby Shoes.” Rather the problem is that the brevity of short shorts can provide a masking layer that hides a lack of literary voice by relying on word candy.

Writing before the advent of the hint fiction form, it is curious to wonder what Sanford’s reaction might be. Does the following story, the first place winner in a hint fiction contest, contain a literary voice?

HOUSE HUNTING

The fence is tall. Good. The mother is typical white-trash, too loud. But the kids … they seem frightened and quiet. Good. Easier that way.

Perhaps the largest drawback of the short short forms in general, and the hint fiction form in particular, is the fact that they are generally too short to be able to determine, from inside one piece, whether the author has a distinctive voice or is simply good at arranging short sequences of words.

The Attention Factor

Regardless of their merits and pitfalls, short shorts are seemingly everywhere. Is it a result of the internet’s effect on attention span, or as Nicholas Carr put it in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”: “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”? In that piece Carr points out evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, that the browsing of text on the internet has a negative effect on our ability to concentrate while reading longer works. Yet flash fiction came into prominence as a printed form, and, as Swartwood points out, flash fiction dates back at least to the days of Aesop. Like all human-machine interaction, I suspect that it is a dynamic interplay. The internet does indeed seem to foster the shortening of short shorts: from flash fiction to microfiction to hint fiction, for instance.

Microfiction is often intimately tied to the web. As Craig Snyder states in his introduction to microfiction,

Another difference might be that a Micro Fiction is more strictly a web phenomena, is more suited by it’s very nature to the screen environment. A story that can fit on the screen without scrolling can be manipulated in many ways via CSS. For example, through font-styling, letter and word spacing, and adding borders and images. Javascript may be added to make sections of text appear or disappear—to fade in and out, change color, etc. Flash Fiction at a thousand words or more must be scrolled.

Some examples of this interplay include In Your Monkey Suit, Snyder’s own Microdot, and Ellen Kennedy’s “novel” yesterday I was talking to myself…. However, it goes further. The-phone-book.com, for instance, was “a digital publishing project that commissions international new works of ultra-short fiction for quarterly distribution by wireless and traditional internet” that ran from 2000-2003. Twitter itself has come to host authors who publish their work in tweets, which is not to mention the gimmicky If Homer’s Odyssey Was Written On Twitter. (Grammar-minded people here no doubt shudder at the use of “was” here, rather than “were”). At 25 words or less, hint fiction itself seems like a perfect fit for Twitter. In Japan, serialized SMS novels have been popular for years and have recently made it to the bestseller lists when published in paper form. The capacity for mass distribution and quick consumption are highlighted by Daniel Heath as prime benefits for writers in his defense of scratch fiction (another short short form, this one characterized by a focus on publishing the process over releasing an already refined piece). Unfortunately so far the communities of short short fans seem to also be composed mainly of those who also enjoy writing short shorts, leading to a “genetic bottleneck” effect that Sanford sees as a problem for both short shorts and Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs alike.

Epilogue

Personally I think there is a lot of potential for short short forms. Like Sanford, I do notice a general tendency toward absurdism and a lack of a distinct voice. Countering such trends, however, is a journal called Brevity. By focusing solely on nonfiction short shorts (of 750 words or less, per their submission guidelines), they erase the potential for nonsensical absurdity, as for instance in “In Your Monkey Suit.” And 750 words is more than enough space for a good writer to express a unique voice, for instance Sherman Alexie’s Somebody Else’s Genocide. These differ from short blog posts in the same ways that creative nonfiction works differ from journalism articles.

If Carr is correct and the internet does literally reduce our attention spans, the emerging prevalence of short shorts is not only an effect of a decaying capacity for concentration but also one of the most coherent responses to it. If someone will read 750 words where they would not read 2,500, an author does well to attempt to compress the point to that number of words.

At the same time, such capitulation to an inability to concentrate feels cynical. To not even be able to process a longer piece of writing should be seen as a problem by all. So catering to such tendencies could be seen as a cynical act. Yet an artist who neglects their audience finds themselves without.

Regardless, and as librarians well know, anything that gets them reading is a good thing. Short shorts can serve as inspiration to further reading. The interplay between author, screen, and concentration will remain a space of controversy for years to come. Apart from a potentially cynical catering to attention deficit disorder, short shorts take on liberating forms for both writers and readers. Rejecting or criticizing the various forms for containing examples of poor writing misses the point entirely. Literature has never been about the mediocre. To expect serendipity from every short short is as ludicrous as expecting every published book to be captivating.

The short short forms, especially micro and hint fiction, leave a lot for the readers to imagine themselves. Their small size nevertheless contains a distinct expansiveness. The need to say more with less is ever present, intensified by the world today but stretching back as a tradition to Chuang Tzu, not to mention the Tao te ching. Fully harnessed, the short short forms contain the power to convey Truth, that is to say, the power to be art.

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