April 08, 2015
Bobs, tempers, college rejection letters, kinds of love, postcards, nicknames, baby carrots, myopia, life flashing before eyes, gummy bears, the loser’s straw, Capri pants, charge on this phone battery, a moment on the lips (forever on the hips), caprice, velvet chokers, six months to live, penne, some dog tails, how long I’ve known you though it feels like a lifetime, even a complicated dive, tree stumps, a shot of tequila, breaking a bone, a temp job, bobby socks, when you’re having fun, a sucker punch, going straight to video, outgrown shoes, a travel toothbrush, just missing the basket, quickies, some penises, lard-based desserts, catnaps, staccato tonguing, a sugar rush, timeouts, Tom Cruise, a stint, brusque people, stubble, the “I’m sorry” in proportion to the offense, fig season, grammatical contractions, bunny hills, ice cream headaches, dachshunds, –ribs, –stops, –hands, –changed, … but sweet.
Failing the Test of Literature
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of …1
Imagine, for a moment, that you have fallen asleep while reading a great book. Suppose that the book is War and Peace or Crime and Punishment or Moby-Dick; it doesn’t matter, so long as the book carries with it a crushing weight of cultural prestige. But somehow, toward the middle, your attention flags, or you’re not up to the challenge, or you’re tired and irritable. Whatever the cause,you’ve fallen asleep. The huge book you’ve been reading falls to the floor. Because it’s a big book, it makes a resounding thud when gravity finally has its way with it. The sound shocks you awake. You look up, dazed. You feel guilty (again). You have failed, at least temporarily, the Test of Literature. Something is wrong (you have always known it) with your attention span.2
The world of remarkable individuals making moral decisions across a long span of time is often what passes for profundity in literature. Greatness, we in America especially think, has to do with sheer size, with the expansion of materials, but one is entitled to have occasional doubts.3
What if length is a feature of writing that is as artificial as an individual prose style?4
As it happens, in the tradition of Western literature we have come to believe that, at least with the novel, length is synonymous with profundity (this is a confusion of the horizontal with the vertical, please notice) and that most great literature must be large. But what if length, great length, is a convention not always necessary to the materials but dictated by an author’s taste or will, a convention that runs parallel to expansionism, empire-building, and the contemplation of the heroic individual? It may simply be evidence of the writer’s interest in domination.5
Get fat and you will call hunger one of the virtues.6
I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.7
All work is the avoidance of harder work.8
Try painting a landscape on a grain of rice.9
If you don’t know the whole truth, you might as well keep whatever you have to say short. You might as well puncture the pretense of sheer size.10
It is as if the titanic ego of fiction itself has been brought down to a human scale.11
The Invention of Brevity
What if very short short stories are products of mass societies in which crowding is an inescapable part of life? The novel is, spatially, like an estate; the very short story is like an efficiency on the twenty-third floor. As it happens, more people these days live in efficiencies than on estates.12
It is as if all the borders, to all other realms, have moved closer to us, and we ourselves are living in tighter psychic spaces.13
In college I was once accused of owning only six objects.14
In my dating days, as soon as I anticipated going to bed with someone, I found it absurd, irrational, to further resist the inevitable.15
One common contemporary approach: cut to the quick.
Jettisoning content—temporal, material, or textual—makes me feel good all over.16
At this point, I must make a sort of confession: I, too, have fallen asleep over several famous authors. And I have woken up feeling that the fault must be mine and wondering, vaguely, about the convention of length in literature.17
I’m bored by plot; I’m bored when it’s all written out, when there isn’t any shorthand.18
If there’s a good line in a book, I’ll happily copy out the line and sell the book to the Strand.19
Value yourself according to the burdens you carry, and you will find everything a burden.20
The short-short story isn’t a new form; it’s not as if, in 1974, there sprung from the head of Zeus the short-short story.
Think of the shortest story you know.21
Perhaps it’s just an anecdote.22
Or a joke.
“A wife is like an umbrella,” says Freud, citing an Austrian joke; “sooner or later one takes a cab.”23
Short-shorts are similar to algebraic equations or lab experiments or jigsaw puzzles or carom shots or very cruel jokes. They’re magic tricks, with meaning.
Many people’s reaction nowadays to a lot of longer stories is often Remind me again why I read this, or The point being?
If you don’t know the whole truth, you might as well keep whatever you have to say short.24
Quite a few critics have been worried about attention span lately and see very short stories as signs of cultural decadence—bonbons for lazy readers, chocolates stuffed with snow.25
No one ever said that sonnets or haikus were evidence of short attention spans.26
Kafka, who was unusually susceptible to textual stimuli, read only a couple of pages of a book at a time, he read the same relatively few things over and over, his reading habits were eccentric, and he wasn’t a completist.27
The short-attention-span argument seems to have been invented by Anglo-centric critics who are nostalgic for the huge Victorian novel as the only serious form of literature, and talking about the short attention span is a form of blaming-the-reader.28
Duration of attention doesn’t seem as important as its quality.29
Many undergraduate writing students have an admirable impatience with the Dickensian model; they want, instead, to be commanded by voice.
We are all mortal. We are existentially alone on the planet. We want art that builds a bridge across that abyss. We want to read work that shows how the writer solved the problem of being alive.
Tell a story about the relation between literature and life, between art and death.
The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when all your arrows are spent.30
In the best short-shorts the writer seems to have miraculously figured out a way to stage, in a very compressed space, his or her own metaphysic: Life feels like this. Or at least: Some aspect of life feels like this.
Isn’t what grips us emotional and intellectual depth charge? What else matters?
Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan are antiquarians; they’re entertaining the troops as the ship goes down. Their writing is pre-modern.
On or about December, 1910, human character changed.31
Whether it’s a story, a short lyric essay, or a prose poem, something about the very nature of compression and concision forces a kind of raw candor.
The short stories, lyric essays, and prose poems gathered in this volume seem to gain access to contemporary feeling states more effectively than the conventional story does. As movie trailers, stand-up comedy, fast food, commercials, sound bites, phone sex, bumper stickers, email, texts, and tweets all do, short-shorts cut to the chase.
Let us merge criticism and imagination, fact and dream.
Let us obliterate the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction and create new forms for a new century.
Here, in a page or a page and a half, I’ll attempt to unveil for you my vision of life…
Let us create an explosion on every page, in every paragraph.
I don’t want to be bogged down by the tangential, irrelevant, or unnecessary. Stick a spear straight to my heart—stick it straight to my brain.32
The Fascinating Question of Art: What Is Between A and B?
One good thing about my impending death is that I don’t need to fake interest in anything. Look, I’m dying!33
We are all getting tired of the Village Explainers. Explanations don’t seem to be explaining very much anymore. Authoritative accounts have a way of looking like official lies, which in their solemnity start to sound funny.34
Exposition is a very Windexed window.35
We say: begin or end in the middle; begin at the ending or end with the beginning, but do not, do not begin at the beginning or end with the ending.36
In these stories, there are no prolonged, agonizing reappraisals, disquisitions on psychology. The situations don’t permit it because both time and space have run out simultaneously.37
I like to imagine a brush fire, deep inside a national park. The reader is a firefighter, and the writer’s job is to drop that reader directly at the edge of the blaze to encounter the flames and smoke immediately. There is no time for the long hike in.38
—the turn without the long straightaway, the take-off without the mile of runway.39
How much can one remove and still have the composition be intelligible? This understanding, or its lack, divides those who can write from those who can really write. Chekhov removed the plot. Pinter, elaborating, removed the history, the narration; Beckett, the characterization. We hear it anyway. Omission is a form of creation.40
The fascinating question of Art: What is between A and B?41
Two prisoners told each other the same jokes so many times that they resorted to numbering the jokes and just mentioning numbers to each other. One prisoner turned to his bunkmate and said, “Hey: number 27.” The other one didn’t laugh. “Why didn’t you laugh?” “I didn’t like how you told it.”
The line of beauty is the line of perfect economy.42
I say: when you dip a single toe in cold water, a shiver runs through your entire body.43
What the detail is to the world of facts, the moment is to the flow of time.44
Perhaps it is the nature of small things to flow together, forming something larger.45
In the very brief works collected here, there is precious little time between beginnings and endings, between entrances and departures.
Brevity is unluxurious. It can’t afford to lose the point, unless, of course, losing the point is the point.
The ending of a short-short is crucial. It should provide “retrospective redefinition” —that is, it should force the reader to process anew what she has just read.
The whole thing again, but with a difference.
The river we stepped into is not the river in which we stand.46
The pressure to lift great weight in a short span resembles the work that must be done in the final couplet of a sonnet—the two-line volta or “turn” that should flip the poem, disorient the argument.
Because, by the end of the story, poem, or essay, it becomes fairly transparent whether or not the writer can “perform,” the short-short is highly nervous-making.
There’s no time to relax in a short text. It’s like resting during the hundred-yard dash. It’s ridiculous even to consider. One should instead close the book and just watch television or take a nap.47
When students write very short compositions (as opposed to, say, a fifteen-page story that’s flawed from the get-go and flounders on and on in that state), the author has nowhere to hide. Instructors can much more effectively critique —both in class and in written comments—these shorter works.
So, too, in an hour-long class, a teacher can identify and trace for students the way in which each gesture or silence adds
up in one or more of this book’s forty-seven essays and stories.
Intelligent intensity has nothing to do with scale. It has to do with the quality of a person’s attention.48
I like the focus that working on small things brings. I must be exact and careful and pay attention to nothing but the little stuff in front of me. I don’t focus on details in most areas of my life, but here is one place I must pay deliberate, patient attention.49
There is the night a student reads a fictive description of a plane crash … the torn limbs pile up … 50
A simple hair across a scoop of ice cream will do much to repel people.51
A reviewer said about a collection of linked stories, published twenty years ago, that if the author kept going in this direction (i.e., toward concision), he’d wind up writing books composed of one very beautiful word.
The reviewer meant it as a putdown, but to the author it was wild praise.
Dissect, disassemble, break the short-short down.
Discuss it word for word, as if it were a geometric proof.
These stories provide an observable canvas that can be held in the hand and examined all at once.
Your mind can encompass a very short story in the way it can’t grasp a novella or a novel – like a hand closing over a stone with the word sadness painted on it.52
It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book – what everyone else does not say in a whole book.53
What is creation made of, and what do we make of it?54
The sun is one foot wide.55
A bow is alive only when it kills.56
Practically every week, physicists proclaim the existence of a subatomic particle that is smaller and shorter-lived and more elusive than the particle thought to be the fundamental building block of matter the day before.57
It is the space that defines the words, the skull the kiss, the hole the eye.58
Ah, what can fill the heart? But then, what can’t?59
1Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
2Charles Baxter, “Introduction,” in Sudden Fiction International: Sixty Short-Short Stories, ed. Robert Shapard and James Thomas (New York: Norton, 1989)
6James Richardson, Vectors: Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays (Keene, NY: Ausable Press, 2001)
7Blaise Pascal, Provincial Letters, no. XVI
9Jay Ponteri, “On Brevity,” unpublished manuscript
14Sarah Manguso, conversation with David Shields, Believer, June 2010
18David Salle, quoted in Janet Malcolm, “Forty-One False Starts,” New Yorker, July 11, 1994
23Heather McHugh, Broken English: Poetry and Partiality (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1993)
31Virginia Woolf, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” in The Virginia Woolf
38Dinty W. Moore, “On Brevity, and Parachuting into a Literary Brush Fire,” Creative Nonfiction 27 (2005)
40David Mamet, “Writers on Writing; Hearing the Notes That Aren’t Played,” New York Times, July 15, 2002
45Pagan-themed website, quoted by Ponteri
49Card designer Bekki Witt, quoted by Ponteri
50Amy Hempel, “Captain Fiction,” Vanity Fair, December 1984
51Gordon Lish, quoted in Hempel
57Bernard Cooper, “Train of Thought,” in In Brief: Short Personal Takes on the Personal, ed. Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones (New York: Norton, 1999)
DAVID SHIELDS is the author of fifteen books, including How Literature Saved My Life, published earlier this year by Knopf; Reality Hunger, named one of the best books of the year by more than thirty publications; The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, a New York Times bestseller; Black Planet, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Remote, winner of the PEN/Revson Award. The recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and two NEA fellowships, Shields has published essays and stories in dozens of publications, including the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire, Yale Review, Village Voice, Salon, Slate, McSweeney’s, and The Believer. His work has been translated into fifteen languages. He lives with his wife and daughter in Seattle, where he is the Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington.
ELIZABETH COOPERMAN’s work has appeared in the Writer’s Chronicle, Seattle Review, and 1913: A Journal of Forms. She earned her MFA in poetry from the University of Washington in 2010, lives in Seattle, and works for Poetry Northwest and a ninety-year-old blind man.