Because It’s Summer, I’m Defending Shorts

by Nathan Long

I love the short short form for various reasons, but particularly because, like poetry, it emphasizes more powerfully than longer fiction how every word in your story counts. It sets out a challenge, How much can you do in this small space? or How much can you do without? It’s true, certain elements of a longer story are curtailed, but I see the short short as a genre unto itself and don’t feel the need to compare it to longer stories so much as evaluate each example within the confines of the form. And, naturally, as with any genre, there are good and bad examples.

I agree with many of the claims Jason Sanford makes in “Who Wears Short Shorts? Micro Stories and MFA Disgust” particularly concerning MFA programs and the drab writing they produce. As an MFA participant and a fiction editor of over five years, I have come across a plentitude of bland writing in workshops and in submission piles. But I would not say that such blandness is any more prevalent in shorts than it is in longer stories. As Sanford states in his blog, “While I’m a firm believer in Sturgeon’s Law that 90% of everything is crap, the remaining 10% can be an amazing thing to behold . . .” This is true of short shorts as it is with novels.

Sanford also claims that “no matter how excellent and mind-blowing a regular-size short story might be, it still takes an author several days to write it. In this same time an author can write any number of mediocre short shorts.” Likewise, one might only write one good short short in the time it takes someone to write a mediocre regular-size short story. I’m not sure the point: bad is bad, good is good. It seems unproductive to compare apples and oranges–or perhaps in this case, apples and grapes.

As fiction editor of RFD, I received story after story–generally 10 to 20 pages long–from authors who were proficient in terms of grammar and paragraphing, but consistently sent predictable, boring stories. At another journal, my co-editor and I read many traditional-length stories which we could tell within a page was a product of an MFA.

The worst writers, it seemed, were so set on following the traditional story form, they wouldn’t think of writing a two-page story. And so, by contrast, more of the short shorts I received as submissions or read in workshops were not only a faster read, but more a interesting one.

Short short writers I’ve encountered have generally been more experimental and more imaginative. They have many ideas they want to explore, and only so much time to get to all of them. Often, I’ve found, they like to test the edge of form. In fact, Charles Baxter, one of those MFA teacher/writers who writes short shorts, regular length fiction, and novels, claims, “With the noise of the contemporary world increasing . . . and people trying to drown you with words alone, [short shorts] have managed a neat trick: they put up and shut up.”

I think this is true even for Amy Hempel. As much as I initially disliked her story, “Housewife,” which Sanford discusses in his essay, it is one of three stories of hers that I remember vividly.

“Housewife” has a poetic, incantatory quality. Before it was reprinted and frequently discussed, several writer friends and I discovered we all had that last line, “French film, French film,” stuck in our heads. It’s a funny line, but it also captures a nostalgia for existential romance that those raised on Camus, Sartre, and even Sagan hold dear.

Of course the story irks me, as it does Sanford and others, partially because it asks the question, What constitutes a story? But this is the type of question all experimental art asks, from pointillism to postmodern architecture. In fact, its value, its purpose, is extended by being included in Sanford’s, and now my, essays. Over time, Hempel’s story may prove unimportant, like some claim of e.e.cummings’ work, but for its time it served (and serves) an important function. It provokes, which all good literature does.

Sanford claims that short shorts are enjoyed by a literary audience alone, and asks, “How many anthologies of short shorts ever make it to a second printing (let alone a bestseller list)?”

Well, I can think of three right off the bat. While I couldn’t get a number of reprints from Norton, I know that Flash Fiction (ed by James and Denise Thomas), which was published in 1992, is still in print and has sold 54,000 copies as of 2007. In fact, Norton has deemed it successful enough to publish a sequel: Flash Fiction Forward. Sudden Fiction International (1989), which sold 61,000 copies, and Sudden Fiction (Cont.) (1996), which sold 26,000 copies, are also both in print. Norton now has a new addition to this line, New Sudden Fiction.

I went through an MFA program and now teach creative writing at the undergraduate level at Richard Stockton College of NJ. In my three year MFA program (1996-99, the heyday of short shorts), I was never taught the genre or encouraged to write in it. In fact, it was still seen as a step child of literature, something you did for fun. The idea that stories had to be long to be serious prevailed, as if this form were some trick pony instead of a viable genre, which Sanford seems to reluctantly acknowledge.

Yet I often teach from the above anthologies in my undergraduate courses. Assigning such short stories allows us to compare a number of stories for plot, point of view, character, or conflict, etc. in a single class period. I also find young writers tend to learn more by writing new stories than by revising, something they are not yet prepared to do. Therefore, I assign them to write a number of short short stories, which allows them to take on different challenges and generally demonstrates their progression as writers over the semester.

Sanford starts his essay by making a rather bold claim: “Poetic vision rarely shows up[in short shorts]. After all, how can you express vision in 100 words?” I wonder then if he was excluding poems in his claim? One of the most powerful short pieces I’ve read–sometimes identified as prose poem, sometimes as flash fiction–is Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel,” which clocks in at under 350 words. The point is, I would hate to ever play the numbers game with literature. Ask students to write a 10,000 word essay and see if the result is better than a 5,000 word one.

I strongly believe that short shorts are a genre unto themselves. It should be noted that it is not a form exclusive of this generation: One of my favorite stories of all time, “The Story of the Hour” by Kate Chopin, was written two centuries ago. It is scarcely over 1000 words. As Sanford claims, MFA programs have glutted the market with good writing full of bland content, but it’s true for all genres, not just the short short. While a few writers these days may try to get more publishing credits by writing shorter stories, in the end, editors must weed out the mediocre no matter how long or short the piece is.

What I like about this genre though, as Antonya Nelson once pointed out, is that it challenges the best poets to give up some of the ethereal qualities of poetry, and it requires prose writers to give up some of the bulky, large canvas qualities of traditional stories. The best writers will rise to the many challenges of the short short; the worst, as with any form, won’t.

Nathan Long grew up in a log cabin in rural Maryland. He earned a MA in cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon and an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. Nathan has work in Tin House, Glimmer Train, Indiana Review, Story Quarterly, and other journals, and has won a Truman Capote Fellowship, scholarships to Bread Loaf, and a Pushcart Prize nomination. He is currently working on a collection of short stories, Conveyance, and teaches creative writing at Richard Stockton College in NJ.