Hint Fiction: Brevity is the Soul of What?

November 15, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 9 4 min read

coverHint Fiction is an anthology of very, very short stories, edited by Robert Swartwood. The maximum length has been set at twenty-five words. Swartwood was inspired, he writes in the introduction, by the famous and probably apocryphal six-word Hemingway story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Swartwood eventually came up with “the thesis that a story of twenty-five words or fewer can have as much impact as a story of twenty five hundred words or longer.”

The premise raises some interesting questions. How short can a story be and still be a complete story, as opposed to, say, a fragment of something that probably should have been longer? Where’s the line between suggestion and execution? It’s difficult to say, and I doubt that it’s in anyone’s best interest to establish hard-and-fast rules about this sort of thing. But the line’s very fine indeed, and Hint Fiction walks it.

Most stories in the book come in two pieces: there’s the story itself, all twenty-five or eighteen or seven words of it, and then there’s the title, which usually provides a clue or at least some sort of context. It’s an interesting concept, but an issue immediately arises: these are hints of stories, mere suggestions, and the problem with hints is that they’re by nature imprecise. Let’s consider the entirety of Stephen Dunn’s Midnight in the Everglades:

“You dumb fuck. You pathetic, dumb fuck.”

That’s it. Okay, I thought, I can do this. There’s definitely a story here, between the title and the seven words of text. I can imagine the scene:

  • It’s midnight in the Everglades. An in-way-over-his-head protagonist, let’s call him Bill, is standing on the boat. There are gangsters. One of the gangsters is holding a gun to Bill’s head. There is an ominous swishing of alligators in the water around them, and the air is thick with humidity. We hear frogs. “You dumb fuck,” the gangster says softly. Probably Bill tried to cheat him or something but wasn’t smart enough to pull it off. Probably Bill still lives in his parents’ basement. “You pathetic, dumb fuck.”
  • Unless, of course, it’s midnight in the Alligator Suite at the Everglades Motel on Route 67. Susie’s boyfriend has announced that he’s going back to his wife. He looks particularly stupid in the lamplight, and also it’s just dawned on her that since she’s the one with the job she’s going to be stuck with the motel bill. “You dumb fuck,” she says, exasperated. “You pathetic, dumb fuck.”
  • Or it’s midnight in the Everglades, and Tanya and Bob are lost. It’s 1930, so neither of them has a cell phone. They’re in a rowboat. Bob dropped the sandwiches overboard six hours ago, and Tanya has low blood sugar so she’s a little less forgiving than normal when Bob accidentally drops their only oar into the dark waters too. They listen to the alligators crunching the oar into toothpicks. “You dumb fuck,” Tanya murmurs under her breath. She doesn’t usually use this kind of language, but she’s really getting kind of lightheaded by this point. “You pathetic, dumb fuck.”

Which is the story? All of these, or none of them.

The imprecision of the form is dazzling, but that’s partly the point. In his introduction, Swartwood writes about his theory that “the very best storytelling [is] the kind where the writer and reader meet halfway, the writer only painting fifty percent of the picture and forcing the reader to fill in the rest.” But very short stories, he notes, “do not meet the writer halfway. In fact, they rarely meet the reader a tenth of the way. A reader would be lucky if he or she were to get one percent of the story. And that’s why I called it Hint Fiction—because the reader is only given a hint of a much larger, more complex story.”

I found this a bit puzzling, because that equation suggests that the stories in Swartwood’s collection aren’t what he considers to be the very best storytelling, but let’s move on directly to one of the blurbs: “Some of these stories suggest entire novels in just a few words,” writes Robert Shapard, editor of Sudden Fiction and Flash Fiction. “So, in this small book, you have a whole library. It’s reading at the speed of light.”

I read that blurb over a few times. I wrote and then deleted several passionate and probably uncalled for paragraphs. In the end I decided it would probably be best to just ignore the obvious problems with comparing an anthology of 25-word stories to an entire library, or comparing a 25-word story to a novel—you know, those things that weigh in at several hundred pages and take months if not years of blood, sweat, tears, and day jobs to write—and focus on the matter at hand.

Whether or not you enjoy Hint Fiction will depend mostly, I think, on your willingness for doing the heavy lifting when presented with a cryptic twenty-five words or less plus a title, and on your fondness for piecing together clues. The writer Stewart Nan called these stories “fun and addictive, like puzzles or haiku or candy.”

There are jewels in the collection, a handful of stories that are utterly perfect in their brevity. Joyce Carol OatesThe Widow’s First Year is devastating; Jason Rice’s Philip is a wonderfully sharp little piece of work; Donora Hillard’s Departure is mysterious and lovely and somehow evocative of the dreamlike work of Shaun Tan. A great many of the stories in this book are interesting. Some of them are good, and a few are remarkable. But far too many of the stories in this book are not. Too many are merely creepy in a cheap way, because creepy is easily conveyed in twenty-five words or less, and in the final analysis I found Hint Fiction to be a strangely uneven collection. The highs are very high, and the lows are depressingly flat.

I’ve always admired the likely-not-written-by-Hemingway story about the baby shoes, its strange sad power, the way it comes out of nowhere like a blast of cold air. “There’s a reason,” Swartwood writes, “why Hemingway’s story has survived so long and become so popular. It seems very, very, very short stories speak to something deep inside readers.”

I respectfully disagree. I think it’s more that very, very, very good stories speak to something deep inside readers. We’re constantly told that our attention spans are ever-shortening, that we’re increasingly incapable of appreciating length. But as my Millions colleague Garth Risk Hallberg recently pointed out, big novels are as popular as they’ve ever been; Roberto Bolano’s 900-page-plus 2666, for instance, has been somewhat of a phenomenon. What matters in fiction is quality, not length.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn. www.emilymandel.com.


  1. Do enjoy reading – and writing – short stories, including flash fiction. Love reading novels, too. It’s as you’ve said so well here: readers get captured by very good stories, whether writer hints at them or bares it all.

  2. Interesting article. Well done. Can’t believe Lydia Davis is not mentioned here! I just picked up her Collected Short Stories (out in pb) and some of them are one paragraph, some even one sentence, but they are funny, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking.

  3. Thanks Will — I hadn’t seen that NPR piece.

    Dan — thanks. I need to read more Lydia Davis; I’ve come across her every so often, but I don’t really know her work.

  4. Just got my copy last night. Started reading, (Sorry “Chuck” had to pass up our usual date, will catch you next week) and it’s like potato chips. Just can’t stop with just one, and then the next thing you know, you’ve eaten the whole bag!
    Don’t skip the titles, they are an integral part of the stories!
    If you are looking for something with everything spelled out for you, from the color of his eyes to the length of her hair and the age of the oak tree in the front yard, then you will hate this.
    Well, raspberries to you!
    But, if you like a good conversation, where you need to stretch a little and have your imagination triggered, you will really enjoy this book!
    Some of these come at you straight on, and some will blind side you.

  5. A review of the Hint Fiction Anthology in 25 words, including a 3.5 word summary:

    ‘Twas a series of crude or creepy punchlines interspersed with a few gems. Even Dybek’s was a macabre joke! Summation: Dead. Baby. Fetus. Walka-Walka!!!

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.