1. Hint 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. 2. 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 Oates’ The 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. 3. 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.
The creative writing department at Florida International University has released the ninth issue of their on-campus literary magazine, Gulf Stream. The issue features the publication’s first inaugural Author Roundtable – a discussion between agents and writers from the Miami Writers Institute and novelists Cathy Day and Marc Fitten.
When I was 16 or 17, it felt like Ernest Hemingway and Willa Cather were my own personal discoveries. I had read through all of Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, and T.C. Boyle after discovering their books and then working steadily through their bodies of work until there was nothing left to read. (And it's amazing to think about how much time I had to read - time that I set aside for reading - back in those days.)Empty-handed, a self-taught reader as yet unaware of many literary greats, I turned to anthologies. They were plentiful at used bookstores and I was already enamored of the form thanks to the New Yorkers lying around the house and to my adolescent thoughts of becoming a writer. What I quickly realized is that these books could open me up to a new world (almost the whole world, really) of literature. Delightful little tomes like A Pocket Book of Short Stories packed an incredible punch, introducing me to the likes of Balzac, Chekhov, Ring Lardner, Somerset Maugham, Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, and Cather - the table of contents is a chronicle of the weight of my discoveries. These discoveries would be made to seem mundane in college when I was instructed in the importance and context of these writers' bodies of work, but discovering them first, in these beat up, little pocket paperbacks, bought for a dollar or two, was a revelation. Looking through all the tables of contents at the amazing, no frills "Miscellaneous Anthologies" site is like a walk down memory lane, not to mention an unparalleled catalog of the highlights of the form.I ended up collecting quite a few of these anthologies, which I suspect are still ferreted around my parents house, as I can't seem to find any on my bookshelves now. As my reading horizons broadened, I saw that these anthologies were nearing extinction, brought on by the combined declining market fortunes of both short stories and the declining prevalence of pocket-sized (or mass market) editions of literary fiction.Nowadays, most short fiction anthologies you'll see fall into three categories: academic (Norton, et al), yearly series (e.g. Best American and O. Henry Prize), and thematic. The latter two categories more and more have become known for the involvement of "celebrity" editors, typically big name authors who can grab a little press for the books. For example, Best American was edited by Stephen King in 2007 and Ann Patchett in 2006.Likewise, celebrity editors are at the helm of a pair of themed anthologies already released this year. Jeffrey Eugenides has put together My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro. Of course, who's ever seen a contemporary short story that plays out like a fairy tale? As Eugenides told NPR, "I started to realize that not only the love stories that I liked, but actually the love stories that everybody liked, had a certain bittersweet quality to them. The stories in this collection are by no means tragic, but in order to even get to a measure of happiness, the characters usually have to go through a lot of difficulty." That sounds about right.The Book of Other People, Zadie Smith's anthology effort, is even more "low concept" (not necessarily a bad thing) than Eugenides's. We are told her only instruction to her contributors - which include the likes of David Mitchell, Jonathan Lethem, and a generous sampling of the McSweeney's set - was to "make somebody up." USA Today quips "just when you're ready to howl in frustration at the anthologification of the book world - I've seen the best minds of my generation, live blogging about recipes that inspire them - along comes The Book of Other People," but ultimately the verdict is that the book has flashes of goodness, as is echoed by the Washington Post: "Variety -- in approach, style and, in some cases, quality -- is certainly on display here."At the very least, there's much to applaud in the creativity of Eugenides and Smith in compiling these books, and, for that matter, in the yearly anthologies for insisting by their very existence that the year's "best" short story is something that matters. However, the idea of carrying a varied compendium of literary goodness in one's pocket appears to have gone by the wayside, consigned to the dusty shelves of second-hand shops. For those in the know, a treasure trove of short fiction is there for the taking.
After word got out last week that J.K. Rowling regrets bringing Ron and Hermione together, many people responded with interesting takes on the news. The hubbub missed the full context of Rowling’s quotes, however, as they leaked from an interview in Wonderland magazine that hadn’t yet been released. Now the new issue of the the magazine is out, and the context changes things a bit: Rowling actually said the two “will be alright with a bit of counseling.”