The incredible shrinking short story

When Joyce Carol Oates writes a 25-word story, you know ‘hint’ fiction has arrived

The incredible shrinking short story

Corbis; Photo Illustration by Lauren Cattermole

At some point, if you work them right, words eventually become stories. Fragments and sentences turn into paragraphs, and paragraphs, if you’re lucky, become something whole. But the exact moment that change takes place can be hard to pinpoint. It’s not always clear what’s a narrative and what’s something less. That’s especially true in the field of very short fiction, which is enjoying a moment right now.

Writers have long played with prose forms that are shorter than traditional short stories. Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges wrote slices and sketches that don’t fit the typical model. Hemingway once supposedly penned a story in six words to settle a bet. That piece—“For sale: baby shoes, never worn”—has never been definitively tied to “Papa.” But fans of what’s sometimes known as flash fiction, or very-short prose, often cite it as the ur-text of their form.

Until recently, though, that form was a pretty lonely place to operate. Just a few years ago, there weren’t more than a handful of places publishing exciting work in the field. But that’s beginning to change. Fuelled partly by a surge in venues, many of them online, the world of very-short fiction is booming. (In a relative sense. A “boom” in experimental fiction is still a blip anywhere else.)

Flash, an international journal of short-short stories, was founded at the University of Chester in England in 2008. The editors limit submissions to 360 words, including titles. It’s a cap that’s both symbolic and arbitrary. In an email, co-editors Peter Blair and Ashley Chantler explained that at that length, a story is “long enough to be complex and interesting, but short enough to be distinct from the longer short story.” (They chose 360 because it “alludes to the 360 degrees of the circle and compass.”)

Other venues have both longer and shorter caps. An anthology of “hint” fiction released last year had hundreds of stories, including one by Joyce Carol Oates, all 25 words or less. The book’s editor, Robert Swartwood, says he coined the title term in a tongue-in-cheek essay. A book publisher read the piece and offered him a contract. Part of the deal was that Swartwood had to convince at least a few big-name writers to contribute. Not all of those he approached were entirely thrilled. A writer he would not name told Swartwood, through an agent: “Thank you, but I would prefer not to participate in the downfall of literature.”

That’s a not-uncommon reaction. Very-short fiction can seem tacky. For a form that relies on brevity it has no shortage of brands, many of which have painfully grating names. In addition to hint fiction, there is micro-fiction, flash fiction and sudden fiction. Swartwood says he’s heard the term dribbles used for 100-word stories and drabbles for those 50 or less. The editors at Gigantic, an American magazine started by former classmates at Columbia University, prefer the loose term “short prose.” It just feels more “accurate and free of “catchphrase-y language,” says James Yeh, one of the editors. “A piece of “flash fiction” feels almost like a marketing trick, some gimmick, focus-group approved to move units,” Yeh wrote in an email. “Of course, the irony being nobody’s ever going to make [money] on some 50-word story, nothing significant anyway.”

Big money, maybe not. But people are publishing. The writer and visual artist Lou Beach put out a collection last year called 420 Characters. Each of the more than 150 pieces inside started as an update on Beach’s Facebook page. Lydia Davis, a translator and writer whom many consider the master of the short-short form, came out with a widely praised collection in 2009. In Canada, meanwhile, the Giller-nominated John Gould is at work on his third book of short prose.

Gould started out as a conventional short story writer. He says his move to much briefer work was inspired in part by his love of haiku. It’s an apt comparison. Like a good haiku, a great piece of short prose highlights what it doesn’t say as much as what it does. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. By saying so little, many writers of very-short fiction end up saying nothing at all.

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