Fiction in a Flash
From micro-fiction to book titles, the exercise of extreme verbal concentration is perfectly suited to the age of Twitter
This column has always celebrated brevity and her near relation, clarity.
One of the joys of English is that, while its huge vocabulary can be deployed in mesmerising Joycean arpeggios – for example, in Will Self’s extraordinary new novel, Umbrella – it can just as easily concentrate its meaning in a few well chosen words.
There is, indeed, a dialectic in the canon, between the wordy (Shakespeare; Byron; Dickens; Joyce) and the lean (King James Bible; Dickinson; Beckett; Hemingway).
A new celebration of brevity reaches its climax this week in Matt Shoard’s online magazine, Fleeting. Shoard, and fellow judge Tobias Hill, will sift the winners of Fleeting’s “Six Word Story Competition”, continuing readers’ growing interest in so-called “flash fiction”.
Shoard says “we saw nearly 5,000 entries in our search for the best six-word story in the world”. The question is: will they come up with a rival to Hemingway’s classic, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”? The shortlist includes John Banville: “Set sail, great storm, one survived”; the Guardian’s Tim Dowling: “Boy meets girl’s boyfriend, prefers him.” And Helen Matthews: “Macbeth divorced her for wasting soap”.
This is not the first time this kind of stunt has been tried. Many years ago, I remember an American literary magazine promoted a 50-word short-story competition, and published the results. But six words reduces narrative to the barest of bare bones.
In the age of Twitter, such an innovative approach to narrative is peculiarly suggestive and potentially addictive. Perhaps Fleeting’s idea will catch on, and become a fixture. Who knows?
Apart from such telescoped stories, the other arena for brief wordplay in books is, of course, titles. This year’s Booker list ranges from polysyllabic nouns (Umbrella; Narcopolis) to more resonant phrases like Bring Up the Bodies and The Garden of Evening Mists.
None of these is as clever and appealing as the title of Clare Balding’s bestselling autobiography, My Animals and Other Family. On my reading, this is one of the best titles of the year: witty, allusive and inviting in just five words.
Briefer still, and very much in the news for its 50th anniversary, is the Beatles’ first Top 20 Hit, “Love Me Do”. That’s three words, two basic chords, and the promise of a whole new world of music and lyrics to come.
Care to nominate your brief line?