It had to happen. In an age of digital multi-tasking, the latest trend in fiction is toward the supershort. “Hint Fiction” is the coy term of choice coined by Robert Swartword 18 months back in a blog post “Hint Fiction: When Flash Fiction Becomes Just too Flashy.” Note: “Flash Fiction” and “Sudden Fiction” are more common terms that refer to the better established longer form, stories of less than 500 words.
|Hint Fiction maven Swartwood|
So what is Hint Fiction? Swartwood’s definition: “Inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s infamous six-word story — ‘For sale: Baby shoes, never worn’ — Hint Fiction is a story of 25 words or fewer that suggests a larger, more complex story.”
There are already Hint Fiction contests online, a Facebook page with 500-plus fans, and a Canadian writer named Arjun Basu who goes Hint Fiction one step better. He tweets 140-character-max stories to his 53,629 Twitter followers. Swartwood himself has edited the just-published Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer, a collection that is getting much play in the blogosphere and even among old-media literati like Ian Crouch of the New Yorker’s Book Bench blog.
I’ve read Basu and a fair amount of Hint Fiction, and it’s hard for me to see this stuff as anything more than a gimmick, a way to carve out a niche and attract attention in a media world with a 15-second attention span. Hint Fiction can be satisfying in a Hershey Kiss kind of way, but see if you can remember the plot 10 minutes later. I do want to keep an open mind on this. At a minimum, Hint Fiction could become a useful exercise for beginning writers. And perhaps, if we give the form a couple of centuries to develop, it will achieve the subtle power of the haiku.
Crouch of the New Yorker disagrees. “The best of these stories transcend the gimmick,” he writes, “and are complete, elegant moments of fiction.” As he notes, many tend toward the macabre, as if written by Poe wannabes on their Droids. One trick of the genre is to use the title to extend the story beyond the 25 words. Thus Crouch’s favorite:
“Jermaine’s Postscript to His Seventh-Grade Poem Assignment” by Christoffer Molnar.
“Ms. Tyler, the girl part was about Shantell. Please don’t tell anyone.”
Maggie Koerth-Baker of the ultra-hip Boing Boing site calls these stories “disturbing and delightful” and cites a piece by her good friend Jeremy Zoss called “Houston, We Have a Problem.”
“I’m sorry, but there’s not enough air in here for everyone. I’ll tell them you were a hero.”
This is “perfect reading,” says Maggie, “for those winter evenings where you just want to take in a sentence, and then stare out the window for 20 minutes digesting it.”
I like both the Molnar and the Zoss, but I don’t think I could ponder either for 20 minutes. As these examples suggest, much Hint Fiction has an old-fashioned O. Henry ironic twist. You have to admit they don’t have the resonance of classic short stories like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Frank O’Connor’s “Guest of the Nation.”
It also occurs to me that other writers – lyric poets – have been writing Hint Fiction for centuries without knowing it. For example, try an edited version of “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke:
“The whiskey on your breath could make a small boy dizzy, but I hung on like death. We romped until the pans slid from the kitchen shelf.”
That one is 27 words and needs just a tad more editing. Then there’s Emily Dickinson’s marvelous 24-worder:
“I DIED for beauty, but was scarce adjusted in the tomb, when one who died for truth was lain in an adjoining room.”
And there’s William Blake’s “The Sick Rose” (1794):
“O Rose, thou art sick. The invisible worm that flies in the night in the howling storm has found out thy bed of crimson joy.”
So I started playing around with Hint Fiction over the weekend and wrote a “story” in about three minutes. That experience gave me the idea for one more requirement: no writer should ever spend more than five minutes on a Hint Fiction piece. Here’s mine
The blade slices off my little finger’s tip. Blood gushes, but the pie gets baked. “Best apple pie ever,” say friends. But where’s my flesh?
Anybody else want to try?