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25 Words or fewer: 'Hint Fiction'

How short can a short story get? It seems a reasonable question in an age when writers such as Rick Moody experiment with Twitter as a template for writing fiction, while SMITH Magazine has made a mini-industry of the six-word memoir. ("Chaos. And then I found you," declares a recent one.)

Compared with that, the 125 efforts in Robert Swartwood's "Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer" seem like epics; they come in sentences, even (sometimes) paragraphs. Stuart Dybek's "Ransom" reads, in its entirety:

Broke and desperate, I kidnapped myself.

Ransom notes were sent to interested parties. Later, I sent hair and fingernails, too.

They insisted on an ear.

Dybek's story is an interesting example of what "Hint Fiction" has to offer, both because it manages to frame a narrative, and also because Dybek is a writer with some cred. This is the key to the book, Swartwood's ability to corral contributors who know their business, and whose business we know. Contributors include Ron Carlson, Peter Straub, Ha Jin and Joyce Carol Oates, whose heartrending "The Widow's First Year" consists of a single sentence: "I Kept Myself Alive."

What's great about the Oates piece -- or the Dybek, for that matter -- is that for all its (necessary) use of inference, it also remains fundamentally concrete. There is a heart to it, in other words, an emotional center; it's not just a linguistic gimmick, which is the risk with any work like this.

That's not to say there's no gimmicky material in "Hint Fiction," but even that stuff often takes us by surprise. Just check out my favorite story, Nick Mamatas' "Found Wedged in the Side of a Desk Drawer in Paris, France, 23 December 1989," which suggests a bit of revisionist literary history:


GODOT enters, stage left.

 -- David L. Ulin

Photo: Joyce Carol Oates in September. Credit: Francois Durand / Getty Images

Comments () | Archives (3)

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little thought phrases . and little bits of character . are not stories . this is haiku repackaged . Twitter continues to have a corrosive effect on communication and storytelling

As one of the contributors to this anthology who just participated in a group reading with the editor at Vroman's, I am not surprised by the first comment. There will be those who can see no good coming out of hint fiction, and I will not attempt to convince them otherwise. But I will note that those who attended the reading confirmed one thing for me: These are people who read novels, short stories, essays, drama and poetry. In other words, they are readers who enjoy literature in all its forms. What's the danger in that? Many thanks to Daivid Ulin for his thoughtful views on this new anthology.

To respond to "innercity", I would say this has nothing to do with Twitter. I would argue that these stories are more like Stephen Crane poems. I love these stories, but I'm not sure if I would call them stories, and I'm not sure if I buy the term "hint fiction". Here's a Crane:

I saw a man pursuing the horizon. Round and round they sped. I was disturbed at this. I accosted the man. "It is futile," I said. "You can never - "
"You lie!" he cried, and ran on.

This is 36 words, and can easily be chopped down to under 25. Would this be hint fiction or poetry?


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