March 10, 2015 in Book Reviews

How long does a story have to be to sink into your soul? To have characters that you love or hate or root for or hope they get what they deserve? To have a plot that compels you to keep reading because you have to know what happens? Traditionally, it’s the novel that accomplishes all these things, but short stories, with their narrowed perspective to a single event or character, can be just as powerful.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is one of the most stunning short stories I’ve ever read. (Scroll past the acknowledgements to get to the story.) An entire war, an entire lifetime of a soldier’s hopes and dreams and desires and fears is distilled into a series of lists of the things each soldier carries in his backpack and pockets.

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson and The Long Walk by Stephen King are both Hunger Games-esque tales of the horrific “games” societies inflict on themselves in the name of superstition or control.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a haunting portrait of a woman’s descent into madness, The Color Master by Aimee Bender is filled with beautiful and sensual descriptions of color and fabric, and Karen Russell drops you into another world in St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, an amazing achievement in creativity and imagination.

What do all of these short stories have in common? They won’t let me go. I read and re-read them just as I do my favorite novels. Despite the fact that they are short stories, the emotional depth of the characters and the plot are arguably as rich as those in a novel. They’re smaller, yes, but no less powerful.

The question is, how short can a story go without losing the power to move us?

The shortest short story, possibly attributed to Ernest Hemingway, is this:

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

Six words, but it’s impossible not to feel the heartache that this simple ad must have caused someone.

How about Joyce Carol Oates’ Lethal? (Warning: Adult Content!) It’s only a paragraph long, but I defy you to read it and not come away without feeling like you’ve just been punched in the gut. Or Currents by Hannah Bottomy Voskuil, which is not much longer, told in reverse chronological order, and blows you away with the last line.

This is where Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas, comes in. Short-short stories, also known as sudden fiction, are stories that are limited in their number of words, but still must adhere to all the qualities that make a short story or a novel good.

This collection of short-short stories consists of stories no more than five pages long and they vary widely in subject and form. My favorite in the collection, Sunday in the Park by Bel Kaufman, is straightforward in form, but it delves into the dynamics between a husband and a wife so completely that when the wife has her final say on the situation, I actually said, out loud, “Oooo, that’s good.” All this in three-and-a-half pages!

A Questionnaire for Rudolph Gordon by Jack Matthews is told entirely in the answers of a questionnaire, but we never see what the questions are. T. Coraghessan Boyle’s The Hit Man is formatted like a biography, with headers like Early Years, First Date, and Peas: “The Hit Man does not like peas. They are too difficult to balance on the fork.”

The stories in this collection range from serious to funny, from traditional to experimental, and from heartbreaking to “What the heck did I just read?” The greats are well represented: there are stories here written by John Updike, Langston Hughes, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Ray Bradbury. The Afterword has an interesting selection of arguments among writers as to what defines sudden fiction and what it should ultimately be called (sudden fiction? short-shorts? blasters?).

The best part is that these stories are short: even on your busiest day, you can squeeze in reading an entire story filled with plot and characterization that will either pull on your heartstrings or make you laugh out loud in the span of about five minutes. And if you find that you don’t like a short-short, then you’ve only wasted five minutes of your time on it.

Let me know what you think of the short-short genre!