Writers Try Short Shorts!
Some years ago, on sabbatical from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I became interested in the short short story. Or perhaps my interest goes back forty-five years to an American lit course at the College of Wooster in which I first read Hemingway’s In Our Time, a series of stories about Nick Adams with curious “inter-chapters” between the longer stories, little one- and two-page pieces that don’t exactly resolve themselves or even forward the action, but that intrigued me. Or perhaps my interest goes back fifty-five years to the Uncle Scrooge comic books I collected, or the Li’l Abner or Mandrake the Magician comic strips I read in the Sunday newspapers, when I was ten. Or perhaps it goes back sixty years to the bedtime stories my parents read me in childhood.
At any rate, many years ago I started writing and then teaching the short short story. I wanted to move from writing poetry and scholarship to fiction, and this seemed a good way to do it. I quickly learned that I wasn’t the only one suddenly discovering the short short; the whole country seemed to be discovering, or re-discovering, it as evidenced by a number of new anthologies on the market, the most important of which was perhaps James Thomas’ and Robert Shapard’s Sudden Fiction, which was followed by Sudden Fiction: International, Sudden Fiction Continued, Flash Fiction and Microfiction. In addition, Florida State University’s “World’s Best Short Short Story Contest,” the prize for which is a hundred dollars and a crate of Florida oranges and publication in Sundog magazine, provided incentive for writers to try short shorts. I tried to win that contest for a decade, and several of my efforts subsequently appeared in my first story collection, Quick Bright Things (Mid-List Press, 2000). This year I did finally win the “World’s Best” contest, which must qualify me (for fifteen minutes at least) as something of an authority on the form.
So, what exactly is the short short story, and where did it come from? Its history and its definition remain somewhat contested. “The World’s Best Short Short Story” competition defines the short short as a story under 250 words; that is, basically a one-page story. And over the years the competition seems to have preferred stories that cover whole lifetimes, what one of the winners, Stephen Dunning, called a “one-page novel.” The anthology Sudden Fiction, which includes an appendix with definitions and short short essays about the short short form by various writers, expands the length to 1,500 words, or about five pages. The Handbook to Literature edited by Thrall, Hibbard, and Holman, defines it as: “A brief short story, usually between 500 and 2,000 words with a ‘twist’ or surprise ending.”
Thus, most people would agree that the short short story is a story, and that it is shorter than the average story. But is the short short just a regular story made shorter, or perhaps an unlineated poem, a kind of prose poem (Donald Finkel, on reading my short short stories in Worry, a chapbook published by Mark Sanders, jovially referred to them as “those poems in which you dropped the line breaks and called them stories”), and does it require a trick ending, or is there more to it than that?
To answer that question writers and critics have looked to its history. Where does the short short story come from? Perhaps the same place the short story is thought to come from: originally the oral tradition, cave men and women in their caves trying to keep warm and ward off the terrors of the night; Egyptian papyri in 3,000–4,000 BC; the Old and New Testaments with their histories and parables; the myths in the Iliad and Odyssey; the tales and fables of the Middle Ages; the bawdy and erotic pieces in Boccaccio’s Decameron; Malory’s episodes of Camelot in Le Morte D’Arthur.
But it was really in the nineteenth century that the short story and the short short story got established as art forms. Americans like to claim that the short story is an American invention. If that’s chauvinistic, since it ignores the work of Balzac and De Maupassant in France, and Chekhov in Russia, among others, it does bear a grain of truth in that Americans were the first to theorize about it and take it seriously, critically. Both Poe and Hawthorne wrote about it, set down rules, and perfected it as a literary construct. Poe, particularly, in his review of Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales in Graham’s Magazine in May 1842, applied the insights of criticism of lyric poetry to the writing of fiction, and the serious literary short story was born. Poe observed that the short story must have a “unity of effect or impression,” and should be able to be read in one-half to one hour (“at one sitting”). In emphasizing the notion of a “single effect,” and of a unity of plot, character, mood, and language, and in connecting the story to the lyric poem, Poe was also, unintentionally, setting down the dicta that would be crucial to the short short story, which can easily be read in one sitting–often in just a few minutes–and which owes much to the intensity and unity of the lyric poem.
If Poe can be credited with first critically describing the short story, O. Henry and De Maupassant might be credited with contributing examples of the short short before it was named as a separate literary form. Most readers are familiar with the famous O. Henry short short (written while he was in prison for three years for embezzling bank funds), “The Gift of the Magi,” in which a poor couple wants to give each other Christmas gifts but lacks the money. The husband wants to buy a set of combs for his wife’s beautiful long hair, and the wife wants to buy a fob for her husband’s pocket watch. The husband pawns his watch to buy the combs and the wife sells her hair to buy the fob, which provides the “trick ending” that O. Henry was famous for and that became identified with the short short form. De Maupassant’s “The Necklace” is structured similarly. A poor woman, invited to attend a party at the palace of the Ministry, and determined to dress elegantly beyond her means, borrows what she thinks is a diamond necklace from a rich friend. Too proud to admit it when she subsequently loses the necklace, the poor woman purchases an identical one (at an impossible expense to herself and her husband) and returns it to the rich woman without telling her anything, and then works as a cleaning lady for ten years to pay for it. When she’s finally paid off the necklace, and ruined her life, she tells the rich woman the whole story and the rich woman throws her hands up and reveals that the necklace she loaned her friend was worthless paste. Again, the story seems defined, in part, by its twist ending.
O. Henry or De Maupassant could thus be credited with inventing the short short story, but another source claims credit for actually naming and fostering the form. An engaging little book by Mildred I. Reid and Delmar E. Bordeaux, published by the Trust Building in Rockford, Illinois in 1947, called Writers Try Short Shorts! (All Known Types with Examples), traces the origination of the modern short short to Collier’s Weekly, an American popular magazine that in 1925 claimed to have invented it. In the Sept. 12, 1925 issue, Collier’s Weekly announced: “Beginning with ‘To Love and to Honor,’ Collier’s presents the greatest innovation in short-story publishing since the work of O. Henry appeared. Each week one of the four authors listed above will contribute a very short story–half pages–from the book of life.” The four participating authors were Octavus Roy Cohen, Rupert Hughes, Sophie Kerr, and Zona Gale.
The stories in the Collier’s series, and particularly the more recent short shorts in Sudden Fiction and after, have tended to downplay the notion of a trick ending and instead focus on a lyric intensity of language, a structure that moves to an epiphany, a sense of a richer and more complex character–what H.E. Francis in Sudden Fiction calls “O. Henry without the cheating.” A quick glance at what other short short writers have said about the form further begins to clarify its definition. Fred Chappell observes that it must be “troubling,” must provide a sense of “unease.” John L’Heureux agrees that it should “disturb” us. Irving Howe, in the “Introduction” to his own anthology entitled Short Shorts, says “It is fiercely condensed, almost like a lyric poem; it explodes in a burst of revelation or illumination; it confines itself to a single overpowering incident; it bears symbolic weight.” According to Howe it is like most ordinary short stories “only more so.”
Many of these writers seek to define the short short by suggesting what it’s not: it’s not a parable, which implies a message; it’s not a tale, which is artless, often just an episodic action narrative; it’s not a sketch, which is fragmentary, static. It’s not, as Russell Banks affirms, just a short story made shorter. It’s a form in and of itself (Banks calls short short stories “poes” suggesting their connection to “prose” and “poesy” and perhaps to Edgar Allen Poe’s). Robert Kelly, finally, puts his finger on what I think best describes the short short: “neither poetic prose nor prosy verse, but the energy and clarity typical of prose coincident in the scope and rhythm of the poem.” Of course, Kelly’s definition might apply equally well to the prose poem, and because short short stories and prose poems may seem interchangeable (Russell Edson, for example, has published a piece in the Wesleyan poetry series as poetry, and the same piece in Sudden Fiction as a short short) it might be useful to try to contrast the two.
A comparison of the world’s best prose poem of the last twenty-five years (according to me) with the world’s best short short story (according to Florida State University in 1996) serves further to distinguish the short short as a literary form. The prose poem is Carolyn Forché’s poem, “The Colonel.” Forché, I recall from a visit she made to Wisconsin some years ago, commented that “The Colonel” wasn’t originally meant to be a poem at all; it was a scrap of notes that got accidentally wedged in the manuscript of The Country Between Us. When her publisher found the “notes” and praised the “poem,” she decided to retain it in the book. At any rate, I’ve designated it the world’s best prose poem, at least for purposes of comparison. It’s dated May, 1978, and it was written in response to Forché’s visit to El Salvador.
What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.
Perhaps the first question to ask is whether this is a poem at all. Forché said that, originally at least, it wasn’t. It’s written in sentences, not lines, and seems to be a piece of prose. How is it a poem? One might start with the language: it’s in blunt, declarative sentences, relentless, unvarying, as if trapped in its own grammar, reflecting the sense of entrapment in the situation and theme. But the language is also beautiful, lyrical and musical. The sound of the words is important in and of itself. There’s considerable internal rhyme, assonance, alliteration: “The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house;” “Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace.” This is the kind of language one finds more readily in lyric poems than in short stories or essays. The vivid evocative imagery is also typical of poetry–the pattern of food imagery, for example, coffee, sugar, lamb, wine, mangoes, salt, bread, ears like dried peach halves. The poem is structured on a juxtaposition of the normal and everyday, the beautiful and savory–food, TV, family–with the inhuman and horrifying, the grotesque and unsavory–violence, murder, death. The juxtaposition creates a sense of unreality, a surrealism in what is a very casually described and realistic scene: daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol, and a man’s scooped-out kneecaps. The fact that the cop show is in English suggests America’s complicity in the scene. The tone, the author’s attitude toward the subject, further underlines the horror–it’s all reported in an almost neutral, factual way; the restraint, the enforced objectivity, intensifies the emotion. It’s a bleak world in which the dead ears are still “alive” in a way, still bearing witness to atrocities. Thus, the piece has many of the elements of a poem–lyrical language important for itself; vivid evocative imagery; an attention to subtleties of tone; surprising metaphors.
It does, of course, also tell a story, but not in the way a typical short story would. Rather than a character in the story, or a narrator, or the author, telling the story, this piece evokes a story. It’s an evocation of a world, a mood, a theme. Forché is talking more to herself than to us; we overhear her. If a narrator were to tell this story it would have a very different feel and tone: “I went to this colonel’s house in El Salvador. We had dinner and I met his daughter and son. At the end of the dinner he spilled some ears onto the floor.” Of course, what this version would also lack is the rhythm of poetry. The word “verse” comes from the Latin “verso” meaning a turning. Forché’s poem is characterized by a turning and returning, a rhythm of repetition, a recurrence of grammatical and syntactical structures: “I was;” “His daughter filed;” “There were;” “the moon swung;” “Some of the ears;” “Some of the ears.” This rhythm of repetition, as opposed to a rhythm of continuity, is typical of poetry.
Although such simplistic distinctions between poetry and prose are always suspect, they seem useful in distinguishing Forché’s poem from Brian Hinshaw’s short short story that follows. Forché’s piece isn’t, of course, a lyric poem; although its lyrical elements ensure its status as poetry, it would lose a great deal by being broken up into lines. It would lose some of the starkness of the prose, some of the impact of the juxtapositions, and some of the neutrality of the tone. It is, I would argue, a prose poem: the language and rhythm and voice of poetry in the shape and tone of prose.
Brian Hinshaw’s “The Custodian,” the World’s Best Short Short Story for 1996 according to Sundog Magazine, is, by contrast, more clearly prose.
The job would get boring if you didn’t mix it up a little. Like this woman in 14-A, the nurses called her the mockingbird, start any song and this old lady would sing it through. Couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat a lick of solid food, but she sang like a house on fire. So for a kick, I would go in there with my mop and such, prop the door open with the bucket, and set her going. She was best at the songs you’d sing with a group–“Oh Susanna,” campfire stuff. Any kind of Christmas song worked good too, and it always cracked the nurses if I could get her into “Let It Snow” during a heat spell. We’d try to make her to take up a song from the radio or some of the old songs with cursing in them, but she would never go for those. Although once I had her do “How Dry I Am” while Nurse Winchell fussed with the catheter.
Yesterday, her daughter or maybe granddaughter comes in while 14-A and I were partways into “Auld Lang Syne” and the daughter says “oh oh oh” like she had interrupted scintillating conversation and then she takes a long look at 14-A lying there in the gurney with her eyes shut and her curled-up hands, taking a cup of kindness yet. And the daughter looks at me the way a girl does at the end of an old movie and she says “my god,” says “you’re an angel,” and now I can’t do it anymore, can hardly step into her room.
The question I initially posed about “The Colonel” was whether it was really a poem. Maybe it was a short short story. The question one might ask about “The Custodian” is whether it is really a story. Perhaps it’s a prose poem. “The Custodian” seems, however, even more clearly a story than “The Colonel” does a poem. The language, for example, which in “The Colonel” is lyrical and dense and important for itself, in “The Custodian” is more idiomatic, conversational, prosy–not lyrical at all. The story is told, not evoked, and the whole is structured on a variant of the classic story form, which moves from a beginning in the middle of things, through some exposition and a rising action, to a turning point, climax, and resolution. The short short story is too short to follow that whole curve, so it often follows a variant (and this may be one major distinction between the short short and the regular short story). Structured more like the joke, the short short often begins in the middle of things, skips the exposition or summary, proceeds with the rising action to, if not a turning point or climax, an epiphany or revelation, which is often like the punch line of a joke.
“The Custodian,” for example, starts in the middle of things by introducing the main character and the job that defines him, and how it might get boring unless he “mixed it up a bit.” Examples of “mixing it up” follow–how he can make his patient sing any song, how he makes fun of her, how her daughter misinterprets what he’s doing as loving care and so unintentionally shames him that he’ll never do it again. The custodian has an epiphany (a punch line that suggests the joke’s on him), a spiritual revelation that changes him. This narrative curve distinguishes Hinshaw’s short short story from both Forché’s prose poem, and from a regular short story.
Further, character is important to Hinshaw, in ways it isn’t to Forché. Forché, the author herself, is the speaker of her poem, and she’s talking as much to herself as to us; a character in the story is the speaker of “The Custodian” and he’s talking to us, the audience. In Forché’s prose poem, the colonel is a type, and the speaker is our eyes and ears–there’s no real growth or change or development on the part of anyone in the poem. In Hinshaw’s short short story, the narrator is an individual–the reader gets a clear sense of him through his idiomatic speech, his attitude to his job, and his sense of humor. And the narrator learns something about himself and life in general, and changes as a result. The daughter’s misinterpretation of his actions makes him see his patient’s humanity and his own crassness, and he feels he will never be the same again.
So, to summarize the differences between Forché’s prose poem and Hinshaw’s short short story: Language is used differently: in Forché, it’s an end in itself; in Hinshaw, it’s a means to an end. The narrative mode is different: in Forché, the narrative is evoked through a rhythm of repetition–we overhear the narrator; in Hinshaw, the story is told through a rhythm of continuity–the narrator talks more directly to us. The concern for character is different: in Forché, the characters are types and less important for themselves than for the emotions they evoke; in Hinshaw, the characters are more important as individuals. The structure is different: Forché moves by repetition and juxtaposition; Hinshaw uses a variant of the classic story form, moving from the middle of an action, through several scenes, to a revelation or epiphany for the central character.
Of course, it might be argued that these distinctions may just be true of Forché and Hinshaw; they may not characterize prose poems and short short stories in general. In fact, my students at Wisconsin and I test them every time we read a new short piece or write one of our own. We also test distinctions between the short short story and the regular story, noting differences of character, style, narrative mode, tone, pacing, and dialogue, in a semester-long course I teach annually. What began as an experiment ten years ago–a one-time-only “special topics” course–has now become a permanent part of the undergraduate creative writing curriculum. Mildred I. Reid and Delmar E. Bordeaux, in Writers Try Short-Shorts! (All Known Types with Examples) long ago argued the virtues of such a course.
It is, however, to the beginning writer that the short short story has especially endeared itself. He finds this brief form a valuable proving ground for assimilating fiction techniques in a most economical manner. Here he gets the opportunity to try his wings on brief flights in preparation for the longer soarings necessary for the short story or the novel.
With the short short story, the beginning writer finds also a ready market for his work. An established name is not needed to sell a short short even to the best of markets. All that is required is that the story itself be good, and all markets are wide open to the most obscure unknown.
For these reasons the short short story recommends itself highly also to high school and college classes in creative writing. In addition, the teacher of such a class finds the short short story, once he understands its principles, simple to explain. Assignments in this form are easy to correct and criticize, and the enthusiasm which students show for the short short makes the teaching of it a pleasure.
There are other reasons for teaching and writing the short short. Over the years I have found that many beginning fiction writers, unable to sustain a narrative for more than eight to ten pages, try, nevertheless, to do in those pages what Flannery O’Connor, or John Updike, or Joyce Carol Oates, or William Faulkner did in thirty to forty pages. The result is often a truncated, unfinished piece. The short short form encourages a young writer to match more appropriately his or her subject matter to the space available. Using published short shorts as models for beginning students is perhaps more realistic than expecting the students to emulate the longer masterpieces that appear in most of the college fiction anthologies.
But even for more advanced writers, the short short can prove salutary. Not only does it promote economy and precision of language; it can open up rich new areas of subject matter and mode. The length of the short short, I have found, encourages young writers to experiment more, to explore wild and often bizarre territory. Without the sometimes daunting pressure of having to sustain a narrative for twenty or more pages, students are more likely to pursue odd premises and take risky chances, moving outside the known and autobiographical to the unknown and fanciful. The range and variety of theme and subject matter I find in my short short classes far exceeds that of my regular fiction workshops in which the same kinds of stories tend to show up semester after semester. Short short classes always seem to promote the surprising and unusual.
Of course, it is not only students who remain intrigued with the possibilities of the short short. Many established fiction writers today have tried their hand at the short short, and many poets have used the form, as I have, to segue into fiction. Short shorts provide important links in the sequence of stories I recently published as Quick Bright Things, and I currently find myself writing a novel. And not a one-page novel, either.
Short short stories have been around at least as long as people have had the language to make them, and they will probably survive as far into the future as one can imagine. Their special popularity today may, in part, be due to the speed at which we live, in which the attention span of “one sitting” by which Poe defined the short story, has become shorter and shorter. But the great short short story expands well beyond its minimalist limitations.
Jerome Stern, who administered the World’s Best Short Short Story competition for years before his untimely death, once described what, for him, a winning short short must do. He compared reading it to entering, on a sunny day, a dark room in which a party was going on. At first his eyes, unaccustomed to the dark, would see almost nothing, just movement and shape. Gradually, as his eyes adjusted, he would begin to see people, and then details of furnishing and decor. Every time he left the room for a breath of air, and then returned, he would see new things–the party and the contents of the room would in some ways be familiar, but would also have changed. He could go back again and again, and always find something new; it would never be quite the same. Invite him to that party, that room, he said, and he’d be happy. You might even end up with a hundred dollars and a crate of Florida oranges.
- Fles, Barthold, ed. The Best Short Short Stories from Collier’s. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company, 1948.
- Forché, Carolyn. The Country Between Us. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.
- Hinshaw, Brian. “The Custodian,” Sundog (Fall, 1996).
- Howe, Irving, and Ilana Wiener Howe, eds. Short Shorts: An Anthology of the Shortest Stories. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.
- Reid, Mildred I., and Delmar E. Bordeaux. Writers Try Short Shorts! (All Known Types With Examples). Rockford, Illinois: The Trust Building, 1947.
- Shapard, Robert, and James Thomas, eds. Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories. Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith, Inc., 1986.
- Shapard, Robert, and James Thomas, eds. Sudden Fiction (Continued). New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1996.
- Shapard, Robert, and James Thomas, eds. Sudden Fiction International. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989.
- Stern, Jerome, ed. Microfiction. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1996.
- Thomas, James, and Denise Thomas and Tom Hazuka, eds. Flash Fiction. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1992.
- Wallace, Ron. Quick Bright Things. Minneapolis: Mid-List Press, 2000.
- Wilson, Robley Jr., ed. Four-Minute Fictions. Flagstaff, Arizona: Wordbeat Press, 1987.
by Ron Wallace
She worried about people; he worried about things. And between them, that about covered it.
“What would you think of our daughter sleeping around?” she said. “The porch steps are rotting,” he replied. “Someone’s going to fall through.”
They were lying in bed together, talking. They had been lying in bed together talking these twenty-five years: first, about whether to have children–she wanted to (although there was Down’s Syndrome, leukemia, microcephaly, mumps); he didn’t (the siding was warped; the roof was going fast)–and then, after their daughter was born, a healthy seven pounds eleven ounces (“She’s not eating enough;” “The furnace is failing”), about family matters, mostly (“Her friends are hoodlums, her room is a disaster;” “The brakes are squealing, the water heater’s rusting out.”)
Worry grew between them like a son, with his own small insistencies and then more pressing demands. They stroked and coddled him; they set a place for him at the table; they sent him to kindergarten, private school, and college. Because he failed at nearly everything and always returned home, they loved him. After all, he was their son.
“I’ve been reading her diary. She does drugs. She sleeps around.” “I just don’t think I can fix them myself. Where will we find a carpenter?”
And so it went. Their daughter married her high school sweetheart, had a family, and started a health food store in a distant town. Although she recalled her childhood as fondly as anyone–how good her parents had been and how they worried for her, how old and infirm they must be growing, their house going to ruin–she rarely called or visited. She had worries of her own.
–from Quick Bright Things (Mid-List Press)
“Writers Try Short Shorts!” was originally published in the AWP Chronicle.
For information on ordering Wallace’s Quick Bright Things, please select Publisher Information.