Yesterday I posted three microfiction stories. As I sat down to write my story notes today, I realized that I have more to say about these stories than there are words in each of the stories themselves. (Read them here.)
I decided to break this into several posts, because I think it's worth talking about. So I'll start with Hemingway... (Doesn't all modern fiction start with Hemingway?) Here's the story again for those who don't feel like clicking on the link:
"For sale. Baby shoes. Never used."
That's the whole story in its entirety. Six words. I understand Hemingway wrote it to give an example of how short a story can be. I don't believe he actually published it anywhere.
I've heard tell that some people think this ultra short mini-micro-story is a masterpiece. I am not one of them. It's kind of a dancing bear. (The point of a dancing bear is not that it dances well, but that it dances at all.)
The problem is that the story itself only happens in your head after reading it. Which is fine for a poem, or an aphorism, or anything too clever for words. (Or too clever for too many words as the case may be.)
And yet, Hemingway's story is as close as you can get to a story in six words. As a matter of fact, I would say that on some level it meets my criteria of building tension and releasing it. The key is the audience reaction to the first four words. "For sale. Baby shoes." Does that raise tension? Yes, and no. I mean, there is nothing dramatic about an ad for baby shoes, people sell them all the time.
At the same time, there is something visceral about babies. They are utterly helpless creatures of enormous value, and it is the biological duty of the species to protect them. So maybe we have a preconscious reaction of alertness.
Then there's the payoff... "Never used." What? Oh my god, dead baby? Miscarriage? What went wrong? These questions follow from the fact that it's a story by Hemingway (something deep and tragic must have happened) and the psychology of the whole "baby alert" thing. But then, imho, you have to think, "But... really? Is there any reason to think they aren't being sold because the parents simply recieved too many gifts of baby shoes? Or because they're pink and the baby was a boy?"
In my opinion, the story is bullshit, because it has no meaning, especially by Hemingway's New Critical standards. He and his followers had this thing about how the story is only about what's IN the story, and, not about what you know about the author, or the point of view of the reader. And there is nothing whatsoever to raise tension, or to pay it off, that's actually in the story. Not even an implication. There might be a baby involved, or might not. It's like saying "look, puppies!" (Is that a story - one word set up, one word pay off? Maybe I'm better than Hemingway!)
If you look at other criteria - a decision made, a change - it doesn't make it at all.
So in the end, I have to say that even though Hemingway's baby shoes story sorta qualifies as a story (if you squint real hard and don't take a New Critical approach) it's not a very good story. Even Hemingway can only go so far with six words, after all.
Tomorrow, we'll talk about the persistent duck and Clarence Darrow, and maybe a little about Hitchcock.
See you in the funny papers.