Short-Short Fiction Criticism: General Statements

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Robert Shapard (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 exactly what to call these works. Short-short stories? Fictions? Or something else entirely? Almost nothing has been said about them yet by literary critics, so we asked the editors who publish them, and especially the writers who write them, What are these things? And, Why are we seeing so many of them now? With our queries, we sent an early version of this book under the working title, Blasters.

Blasters? Yes. We weren't so sure about the term, but it was handy, and certainly, we thought, memorable. Included with our working copies was an introduction, our own view of these works. From the beginning we were open to any fiction that was very short, be it prose sketch, prose poem, or some unnamed category, but we soon found that many of the best of these works, those with the most satisfying wholeness, often the most striking, belonged within the realm of story. This was disturbing, because we knew that some readers would dismiss these short-short works, in spite of their richness and variety, as fragments of the only kind of story that to them really mattered—the modern short story.

Brander Matthews claimed to be the first to identify the short story as a separate genre from the novel in 1901, in fact the first to name it, although it had been developing throughout the nineteenth century—so successfully in America that in the opinion of many it became a national form: as opera was to Italy, the short story was to America. With this as the model, it seems reasonable to assume that something called the short-short story must be an even younger form than the short story. Short-shorts must be a sub-category. Or maybe a sub-sub-category.

But of course that is all backwards. The name short-short story may be relatively new, but its forms are as old as parable and fable, myth and exemplum. The most often cited example of a classical short-short, Petronius' “The Widow of Ephesus,” is no rude prototype. Given an updated setting it could easily pass as a contemporary short-short. In our view, in fact, the modern short story was an adaptation of many older story techniques, including those of short-short forms, to the overwhelming popularity of realism and its expansive embodiment, the novel.

It may well be that the new popularity of the short-short story began in the spirit of experiment and wordplay in the 1960s, with works that are more often called fictions. In this collection, for an example of the difference between fictions and stories, compare Gordon Lish's “The Merry Chase” with John Updike's “Pygmalion.” Fictions, prose sketches and prose poems, as well as stories, all appeared in Robert Coover's TriQuarterly “Minute Stories” issue, ten years ago. Since then, as very short works have become increasingly popular in a wider variety of literary magazines, stories have become the dominant form, especially in the last five years, and that is reflected in this anthology. We hoped that the editors and writers we sent working copies to would confirm this trend, and our philosophy of the form, or offer alternate views to consider.

We expected, at least, a number of polite replies.

What we got was an uproar. It should not have surprised us that almost everyone we wrote had given thought to these things and was ready to argue in brief and at length about short-shorts—about their traditions, their present...

(The entire section is 6,530 words.)