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The Excess of the Short-Short

November 6, 2015

This week we’re over the moon to have Rachel Levy, author of the novel A Book So Red,  guest blogging for us. Levy is here to set the record slant regarding the hedonistic capability of short-short prose. 


By Rachel Levy

Writing about flash fiction is tricky. I feel compelled to stumble through a course of predictable if not unproductive questions. What do I call these things? Am I talking about flash-, sudden-, short-short-, nano-, or micro-fictions? Why are there so many labels? Some call short-shorts “sparks” or “blasters,” others “fragments” or “vignettes.” There are those who describe the short-short as if it were simply excerpted from the “conventional” short story like Eve from Adam’s ribcage. Length, of course, is the cited convention here, which brings to mind additional, tired questions. Which stories count? Those under 1,000 words? 700 words? 500 words? In any case, which side am I on? Am I for or against flash fiction?

The critics are divided. As if the short-short were a campaign or a cause, some push for legitimization, standardization, and canonization. Others dismiss flash fiction by predicting its going out of style. Detractors diagnose the short-short to be a passing blight upon the corpus of literature—it’ll go away when we discover the cures for internet addiction, ADHD, and youthful frivolity. Or maybe when Jesus Christ comes back to earth he’ll send all the perverts, deviants, and short-shorts to Hell. In the meantime, some suggest we hedge our bets by partially and pragmatically buying in. For example, Harvey Stanbrough declares, “Flash fiction is not only enjoyable to write, but it’s also a good learning tool for improving your work.” By “work” Stanbrough presumably means long-form fiction. The real deal. Serious stuff. Because short-short stories “appeal to young people” and their “one-byte-and-go culture,” Aidan Chambers proposes we grant flash fiction a provisional pedagogical advantage: “Many professional authors agree [the story of conventional length] is one of the most difficult of all the literary forms to tackle. … Flash fiction, on the other hand, seems … to be what comes naturally to late childhood and teenage writers.” Except for Etgar Keret, the “master” of flash fictions, critic Jacob Silverman suggests we can safely ignore the genre’s practitioners:

The problem with flash fiction, is that much of it isn’t very good. Boosters like to say that So-and-so packs more into a thousand words than most writers do into a novel, but that’s almost never true—particularly when you consider that time spent with a novel, and all of the mental and emotional investment that that requires, is one of its principle features.

For Silverman, the reader is a mental/emotional banker, and flash fictions aren’t sound investments. Fair enough. Short-shorts don’t pay.

Big-big fictions are another story. They’re worth it. The time and effort it takes to read them pays off. Our language suggests that even though reading can be an arduous, trying, or painful experience, compensation awaits for those who finish the job. The bigger the book, the better the reward. A reader needs to feel like he’s exerting himself. Every effort counts. The discernable effort it takes to physically lift, carry, or hold a big book counts. Difficulty counts. With extremely long fictions, there comes a point in the reading experience when sheer tedium is most likely a formidable wellspring of difficulty. But not all tedium is sublime. It’s best if the tedium is intentional, so the reader has only herself to blame if she quits. Can she really blame the book about boredom for being boring? If an endless fiction is actually about the agony of ennui, then that fiction is probably difficult in a way that matters and pays off—and is spiritually purifying, too, no?

Dave Eggers thinks so. If you find investment banking too craven a metaphor, then look no further than Eggers’s foreword to the tenth anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace’s critically acclaimed big-big story, Infinite Jest. Eggers describes a “reader-mechanic” who labors on a book like he does on “a car or an Ikea shelving unit.” The job might be difficult, not to mention archaically gendered, but the pay, Eggers vouches, is as sweet as salvation. Infinite Jest is “a book that gives so much,” Eggers preaches, “that required such sacrifice and dedication.” Like a modern-day Puritan, Eggers assures you that it is through extended textual toil that you fortify your “brain” and your “heart,” and bear witness to the fact of your predestination: “When you exit these pages after that month of reading,” Eggers testifies, “you are a better person.”

Perhaps it’s the devil in me—or the witch, the whore, and the girl—or maybe I’m just lazy, but even talking about this holy work ethic makes me want to don the shortest short-shorts I can find and run through the stacks of the library, shrieking. Praise Satan! All hail the short-short! Down with hard work! … What. I won’t work. No work, no apologies.

Who wears writes short-shorts?

Yes, we still can’t decide what to call short-short stories, or which texts count. We know short-shorts only by their lack: they are that which is shorter than. Which is why, of all the labels, I like “short-short” best. It’s a name that signifies an excess of lack, a disruptive potentiality. Though some may try to assimilate short-shorts into their good old economy of labor—they’re great practice, a productive use of time between masterpieces—length is still a final frontier in our system of value. But we don’t have to believe the critics when they reduce the short-short to a byproduct of our one-byte, MTV, ADHD culture. We know the world is big, and Culture’s a beast. Short-shorts dash through. Dispossessed, they disinvest. This is their pleasure—and it is defiant, disturbing, deviant.

Since its 1953 publication, Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha has received a multitude of labels. Some say it’s a novella. Others call it a series of vignettes, ideograms, or prose poems. Today, some readers might call Maud Martha a “novel in short-short stories.” Critic Mary Helen Washington notes how early reviewers gave Brooks’ book “the kind of ladylike treatment that assured its dismissal” by focusing largely on Maud Martha’s lyrical prose style, light comedic tone, and brief episodic structure. Washington writes:

In 1953 no one seemed prepared to call Maud Martha a novel about bitterness, rage, self-hatred and the silence that results from suppressed anger. No one recognized it as a novel dealing with the very sexism and racism that these reviews enshrined. What the reviewers saw as exquisite lyricism was actually the truncated stuttering of a woman whose rage makes her literally unable to speak.

Consider the following excerpt in which Brooks’ protagonist, Maud Martha, silently and unhappily works to prepare a chicken.

People could do this! could cut a chicken open, take out the mess with bare hands … feel that insinuating slipping bone, survey that soft, that headless death. … The difference was in the knowing. What was unreal to you, you could deal with violently. If chickens were ever to be safe, people would have to live with them, and know them, see them loving their children, finishing the evening meal, arranging jealousy.

Though Maud Martha seems optimistic that she too is a person who can easily “cut a chicken open,” she identifies increasingly with the chicken as she handles “the mess” and feels “that slipping bone.” The “difference” may be “in the knowing,” but Brooks shows us that knowledge is constructed sensually and spatially. In this way, Brooks relocates the production of meaning from linguistic difference to the reality of gender and racial segregation. Feeling trumps thinking, and by the close of this short-short chapter, eating trumps speaking: “Maud Martha smacked her lips at the thought of her meal.”

Roland Barthes claims there are texts in which meaning is “sensually produced.” Is the short-short such a text? And there are “some perverts,” Barthes notes, for whom “the sentence is a body.”

Maybe one of Barthes’ perverts appears as the narrator of Diane Williams’s short-short, “The Care of Myself.” The narrator’s story opens with a brief encounter: a fireman rings her doorbell, and she mistakes his helmet for a bandage. “Do you have a wound,” she asks. Hers might have been a love story were it of a larger ilk—but no. “The days and years pass so swiftly,” the narrator states, and she swiftly brings her tale to a climax and a close:

Now, what I am doing for my wound is this: I stick any old rag or balled up old sock I can find as close to it as I can get. Belly-down on the floor, with my reading glasses on, I’ve also got some filler sticking almost into my asshole. With my bawdy book here to comfort me right in front of my nose—we are both, the book and I, products of a great civilization—I take the plunge. I am thrusting mightily, and sometimes I manage to get hurt again.

Bedding down with the “products of a great civilization,” Williams’ narrator reads with her body. She fucks the culture that wounds her. And what does that mean? What does she gain? I don’t know. She pleasures herself.

Short-shorts don’t work. They come.

Who wears writes short-shorts? What is a short-short? Of course there’s no one answer. You have your mutable list, and me mine. But I’m always looking for them, no matter the text I’m reading. A short-short: an exit for dashing through: an occasion to clock out and to get off.

I think there’s a short-short in Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great. Yes, Tamburlaine is a drama in verse, but there’s a moment (a short-short?) in the fifth act where the text breaks out in prose. Zabina and her husband, Bajazeth, have been captured by the mighty Tamburlaine. Bajazeth is held like a pet in a cage, but he commits suicide by ramming himself headfirst into the bars. Zabina finds his body and then brains herself, too. She says:

O Bajazeth, O Turk, O emperor—give him his liquor? Not I. Bring milk and fire, and my blood I bring him again; tear me in pieces, give me the sword with a ball of wildfire upon it. Down with him, down with him! Go to my child. Away, away, away! Ah, save that infant, save him, save him! I, even I, speak to her. The sun was down. Streamers white, red, black, here, here, here. Fling the meat in his face. Tamburlaine, Tamburlaine! Let the soldiers be buried. Hell, death, Tamburlaine, hell! Make ready my coach, my chair, my jewels. I come, I come, I come!

Zabina’s final speech is a shredding of Tamburlaine’s discourse. But is she going or coming? Her rage is both a perversion and a pleasure. “I come, I come, I come!” Her voice reaches an orgiastic pitch.

Or maybe my favorite short-short occurs in the fifth chapter of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. There’s a moment when the page is empty. There’s a break in the text, a barren swath, in which two lovers are presumably conversing. Woolf’s narrator explains how “it would profit little to write down what they said, … For which reasons we leave a great blank here, which must be taken to indicate that the space is filled to repletion.”

That space: a carnal filling feeling. And also: a carnal falling? Yes, I fall into Woolf’s page, but upon my exiting I am not a better person. I am beyond that economy for now. Unburdened of brain and heart, I am perverted, hedonistic.


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Maud Martha. 1953. Chicago: Third World Press, 1993.

Chambers, Aidan. “Sparks of fiction.” The Horn Book Magazine 88.2 (2012): 55-9.

Eggers, Dave. Foreword. Infinite Jest: A Novel. By David Foster Wallace. 1996. Back Bay 10th Anniversary

Pbk. ed. New York: Back Bay Books, 2006. xi-xvi.

Marlowe, Christopher. Tamburlaine The Great, Part One. The Complete Plays. New York: Penguin Classics, 69-153.

Silverman, Jacob. “Why flash fiction is an overrated genre, and why Etgar Keret is a master of it.” POLITICO. New York. 27 Mar. 2012.

Stanbrough, Harvey. “Sharpen your skills with flash fiction: flash fiction is not only enjoyable to write, but a good learning tool for improving your work.” The Writer 120.1 (2007): 34-7.

Washington, Mary Helen. “Taming All that Anger Down: Rage and Silence in Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha.” Massachusetts Review 24.2 (1983): 453-466.

Williams, Diane. “The Care of Myself.” Excitability: Selected Stories 1986-1996. Normal: Dalkey Archive, 136-7.

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography. 1928. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.


Levy author photoRachel Levy teaches and studies at the University of Utah. Her fictions appear or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Fence, Tarpaulin Sky, and Two Serious Ladies. Her first novel, A Book So Red, is recently out with Caketrain. Along with Lily Duffy, she is co-founder and co-editor of DREGINALD.


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