The Shortest Stories – How Hemingway Started it All
The new short shortest stories began with Hemingway. Indeed, one might even go so far as to classify the evolution of the short story in terms of pre-Hemingway and post-Hemingway. Unsurprisingly, Hemingway is also responsible for writing some of the world’s shortest stories. For a bet, Hemingway was challenged by a friend with writing the shortest story he possibly could, and as a result wrote his infamous, six-word “Baby shoes” story: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” Hemingway’s predilection for exclusion over inclusion became his trademark. In doing so, he set a whole new standard for what the short story could (as well as should) accomplish. After Hemingway, excessive description gave way to stylistic conservatism, expository revelations to implicit recognitions, externalized drama to chronically internalized and repressed turmoil. Accordingly, concision and brevity grew to embody what we now consider to be the key attributes of short stories: short, digestible, clear.
A renaissance of the American short story ensued. The tradition of brutal quality over florid quantity overcame the literary consciousness. Many American writers (especially male writers) took from Hemingway the conviction to write honestly, without worrying about disguising their insecurities or secrets with false prose. Following Hemingway’s advice to “write the truest sentence you know,” writers such as Raymond Carver and Charles Bukowski carried on the tradition of brevity over beauty, infusing their work instead with the bleak misery of the banal.
Carver, perhaps moreso than Bukowski, was one of the first direct male inheritors of the tradition begun by Hemingway. Thanks to the added influence of his trigger-happy editor Gordon Lish, Carver’s stories are as revelatory in their content as they are pared-down and reticent in their form. In stories such as “Viewfinder” (a mere three pages) and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” Carver situates the reader within scenes of strife and discord. However, the added tension of his stories comes from a tightness of form: each sentence stands on its own. When one reads Carver, one can imagine a dramatic pause after each resonant, declarative clause.
Since Hemingway and Carver, many contemporary writers have appropriated this new way of writing short fiction in order to heighten tension and change our conceptions of what motivates us to keep reading. Literary chameleon Joyce Carol Oates released two collections of stories, The Assignation (1988) and Where Is Here? (1992), which both feature some of her shortest stories. In these works, Oates condenses highly dramatic situations into concise, rapid-fire paragraphs. The opening story of The Assignation, entitled “One Flesh,” is so heavily focused on atmosphere that barely anything actually takes place in the story itself. Perhaps disregarding Hemingway’s simple prescription of writing what is personally truthful, it is rather Oates’ attention to the immaculate details of her miniature scenes that builds up the emotional intensity of the narrative.
Richard Ford, famous chronicler of the life of fictional real estate agent Frank Bascombe, first rose to fame with his short stories, many of which were collected in Rock Springs. Widely anthologized, Ford’s stories explore the world of working class America. Like the Carver of the late 70’s and early 80’s, Ford wrote in crisp, clear sentences, marking the desperation of his characters with short bursts of heart-wrenching intensity.
Enfant terrible Bret Easton Ellis, most infamous for his transgressive opus American Psycho, adopted early on in his career his own breed of minimalism. Focusing on the yuppies of New York and the disillusioned teenagers of L.A., Ellis’ stories are more interested in 80’s ennui than a universal sense of desperation, as seen in his collection The Informers. Ellis unsettles the reader with the striking irony of his form. While his sentences lack the extreme brevity of Carver and Hemingway, Ellis’ sentence structures are deceptively simple and straightforward. The events that transpire in an Ellis story are anything but simple and straightforward; however, Ellis takes advantage of the disorienting effect of describing mutilation, death and destruction with painfully unaffected language.
Raymond Carver was once quoted as saying he preferred writing stories and poems to longer projects because he could sit down and write a story or poem through to the end in one sitting. In much the same way, short stories have grown to be favored by the general public due to their condensed form and content. At the same time, the short story has become an arena for experimentation, both in what the writer creates for himself/herself as well as how the writer asserts his/her influence over the reader. The short story is now seen as one of the highest forms of literary art, as a result of its progression towards outwardly embracing concision. While the genre still boasts a wide variety of styles, what upholds the intensity of a short story nowadays is not necessarily what is written; reading between the lines is requisite for decoding a short story’s many mysteries.
(Featured image: “136” by Earl R Schumacher)