Short-Short Fiction Essay - Critical Essays

Short-Short Fiction


Short-Short Fiction

The following entry presents criticism on the representation of the short-short form or subgenre in world short story literature.

Although the categorization of the short-short story as a subgenre of short fiction is recent, the form has been around for many years. In fact, critics have identified classical fables and parables, such as Petronius's “The Widow of Ephesus,” as prototypes for the short-short story. With the resurgence of the short story genre at the end of the nineteenth century, short-short fiction also reasserted itself as a viable form. Such prominent authors as Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce, Anton Chekhov, and Isaac Babel utilized the brief and condensed structure of the short-short story. In addition, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, and Bernard Malamud composed short-short fiction pieces. With the rise of experimental fiction in the 1960s, very short works became increasing popular with magazine editors and readers. The publication of several short-short story anthologies in the 1980s and 1990s, beginning with Short Shorts: An Anthology of the Shortest Stories in 1982, legitimized the short-short fiction form as a subgenre of short fiction. In structure, short-short stories range from one paragraph to twenty-five hundred words in length. Within that compressed space, these stories do not have complex plots; instead, they concentrate on anecdotes and dramatic incidents that provide insight into the human condition. Critics praise the intensity and spontaneity of these stories. The recent popularity of the short-short story has been attributed to the changing demands of magazine editors, the brief attention spans of most readers, and a rebellion against the rules of the traditional short story.

Therefore, some commentators view the recent popularity of short-short fiction as a sign of cultural deterioration and assert that the form is inferior to longer short stories. Moreover, some critics consider short-short fiction more like narrative poetry or prose poetry. There has been some critical controversy as to the most fitting name for the short-short genre. It has been called micro-fiction, one-minute fiction, mini-fiction, flash fiction, and sudden fiction, among others. Whatever the accepted designation, the short-short story continues to gain popularity and recognition as a category of short fiction.

Representative Works

Short Shorts: An Anthology of the Shortest Short Stories (edited by Irving Howe and Ilana Wiener Howe) 1982
Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories (edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas) 1986
Four Minute Fictions (edited by Robley Wilson Jr.) 1987
Sudden Fiction International (edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas) 1989
Flash Fiction: Very Short Stories (edited by James Thomas, Denise Thomas, and Tom Hazurka) 1992
Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Really Short Stories (edited by Jerome Sterns) 1996
75 Short Masterpieces (edited by Roger B. Goodman) 1996
Sudden Fiction (Continued): 60 New Short-Short Stories (edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas) 1996

Sholem Aleichem
“A Wedding Without Musicians” (short story) 1949

Ray Bradbury
“I See You Never” (short story) 1947

Raymond Carver
“Popular Mechanics” (short story) 1974
“Little Things” (short story) 1986

Anton Chekhov
“The Death of a Clerk” (short story) 1883
“Vanka” (short story) 1886
“The Student” (short story) 1894

Stephen Crane
“An Episode of War” (short story) 1902

Lydia Davis
The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories (short stories) 1976
Sketches for a Life of Wassilly (short stories) 1981
Story and Other Stories (short stories) 1983
Break it Down (short stories) 1986
Almost No Memory (short stories) 1998

Stuart Dybek
“Sunday at the Zoo” (short story) 1975
“Death of the Right Fielder” (short story) 1990

Ernest Hemingway
“A Very Short Story” (short story) 1924
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (short story) 1933

Shirley Jackson
“Charles” (short story) 1948

James Joyce
“Eveline” (short story) 1914

Franz Kafka
“The Sudden Walk” (short story) 1912
“The Bridge” (short story) 1913
“First Sorrow” (short story) 1922

Yasunari Kawabata
Palm-of-the-Hand Stories (short stories) 1988

Bernard Malamud
“A Lost Grave” (short story) 1985

Katherine Mansfield
“Germans at Meat” (short story) 1926

Yukio Mishima
“Swaddling Clothes” (short story) 1953

O. Henry
“The Exact Science of Matrimony” (short story) 1907

Joyce Carol Oates
“Good to Know You” (short story) 1996
“Death Astride Bicycle” (short story) 1998

István Örkény
Ezüstpisztráng (short stories) 1956
Minimythes (short stories) 1970

Dorothy Parker
“The Standard of Living” (short story) 1941

“The Widow of Ephesus” (short story) c. 66

Horacio Quiroga
“Three Letters … and a Footnote” (short story) 1947

Leo Tolstoy
“The Repentant Sinners” (short story) 1886
“Three Hermits” (short story) 1886
“Alyosha the Pot” (short story) 1905

Criticism: General Statements

Robert Shapard (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Shapard, Robert. Introduction to Sudden Fiction: American Short Stories, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas, pp. xiii-xvi. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1986.

[In the following essay, Shapard chronicles the difficulty in naming Sudden Fiction, citing the novelty and distinctiveness of the short-short story genre.]

All the works in this collection are from one to five pages long, and all are by American authors. A few are familiar, but the great majority have been published within the last five years.

Because they are so new, and sometimes so unlike the modern notion of story, it was by no means clear at the outset...

(The entire section is 1636 words.)

Stuart Dybek (essay date fall 1987)

SOURCE: Dybek, Stuart. “On Short Short Fiction.” Michigan Quarterly Review 26, no. 4 (fall 1987): 723-25.

[In the following essay, Dybek explains the appeal of the short-short story form.]

I wonder how many other writers have, as I do, tucked away somewhere in files or boxes or trunks unopened for years, unpublished stories and poems written by friends. Or, for that matter, stories and poems that were published, perhaps in some obscure, poorly circulated, little magazine that has long since folded and been forgotten. I'm thinking especially of work by people who for any multitude of reasons no longer write, or who have turned to other kinds of writing, yet...

(The entire section is 916 words.)

Charles Baxter (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Baxter, Charles. Introduction to Sudden Fiction International: Sixty Short-Short Stories, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas, pp. 17-25. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1989.

[In the following essay, Baxter outlines the differences between short-short stories and longer fiction.]

Imagine, for a moment, that you have fallen asleep while reading a great book. Suppose that the book is War and Peace or Crime and Punishment or Moby-Dick; it doesn't matter, as long as the book carries with it a crushing weight of cultural prestige. But somehow, toward the middle, your attention flags, or you're not up to the challenge, or you're tired...

(The entire section is 3061 words.)

Jerome Stern (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Stern, Jerome. Introduction to Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Really Short Stories, edited by Jerome Stern, pp. 15-19. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1996.

[In the following essay, Stern considers the unique challenges in writing short-short stories.]

A short time ago I got a phone call from a man in New York who saw the announcement of Florida State University's World's Best Short Short Story contest. He said, “It said 250 words maximum. What is that? A misprint? I thought maybe it should read 2500 words. 2500 words is pretty short.”

“No,” I said, “250 words is right. It's a challenge, a problem in narrative. And it seems to be...

(The entire section is 917 words.)

Criticism: Major Short-Short Fiction Writers

Thom Palmer (essay date summer 1989)

SOURCE: Palmer, Thom. “The Asymmetrical Garden.” Southwest Review 74, no. 3 (summer 1989): 390-402.

[In the following essay, Palmer emphasizes the importance of Kawabata's “palm-of-the-hand” short stories to his fictional oeuvre.]

In 1968, Yasunari Kawabata became the first Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Concerning this unprecedented citation, Professor Donald Keene, in his gargantuan work of scholarship, Dawn To The West (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1984), writes: “The Japanese public was naturally delighted to learn of the award, though surprise was expressed that a writer who was difficult to understand even for Japanese...

(The entire section is 4616 words.)

Lydia Davis with Christopher J. Knight (interview date winter 1999)

SOURCE: Davis, Lydia, with Christopher J. Knight. “An Interview with Lydia Davis.” Contemporary Literature 40, no. 4 (winter 1999): 525-51.

[In the following interview, Davis discusses major influences on her work, stylistic aspects of her fiction, and the major thematic concerns of her stories and novels.]

Lydia Davis was born in 1947, in Northampton, Massachusetts, where her late father, Robert Gorham Davis, was a professor of English at Smith College. Her mother, Hope Hale Davis, remains active as both a teacher and a writer. In 1957, Davis moved with her family to New York City, where her father assumed an appointment at Columbia University. Before beginning...

(The entire section is 11163 words.)

Further Reading


Brown, Sidney DeVere. “Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972): Tradition Versus Modernity.” World Literature Today 62, no. 3 (summer 1988): 375-79.

Contends that the paradox of Kawabata's oeuvre is that although he was recognized as a modern author, he actually “focused on traditional culture and gave little attention to things modern and Western, even though he wrote in a Japan undergoing modernization and all his novels had a contemporary setting.”

Chaves, Jose. “A Brief Introduction to the Latin American Short-Short Story.” Northwest Review 39, no. 2 (2001): 17-28.

Investigates the short-short story...

(The entire section is 434 words.)