I can’t imagine any logical reason why, but somehow it feels scarier to publish fiction than nonfiction. I mean, when you write nonfiction, at least if you’re being honest and non-ironic, you’re putting your real opinions and feelings out there. Your personality is sort of on the line, even if only in a highly metaphorical way that only matters to the thin-skinned among us. Yet somehow fiction, where you can put on any kind of personality and where you don’t have to pour out anything that you truly believe or actually feel, feels more personal. Perhaps it’s simply that I have more practice putting out nonfiction for others to see.
Anyway, I’ve become interested in microfiction. When it’s good, it’s fun to read, even when it’s bad you only waste a few seconds, minutes at most to read it, and it’s fun to write. Microfiction (defined as fiction that stays under some arbitrary word limit, whether it’s a thousand, five hundred or a hundred words) seems particularly well suited to the web. Not because I’m concerned about diminishing attention spans or interested in finding “a voice for the digital generation” or anything of the sort. It just fits.
There’s history in this, of course. No one ever tires of the six-word “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”, which is attributed to Hemingway. All sorts of authors, including Borges and Kafka, wrote short short stories only a few hundred words long. Jumping forward in time, lots of people are doing that sort of thing online. I’ve previously linked to Scientific Facts, sadly no longer updated, which tends to stay somewhere around 150 - 400 words. On Twitter, there are all sorts of people doing it. There’s Arjun Basu, who writes short stories that are exactly 140 characters. There’s thaumatrope, a zine that actually pays authors to write tweet-sized stories in the horror, fantasy and science fiction genres. On Tumblr, there was Fifty Words, no longer updated. While I can’t say I loved all or even most of Sam’s stories, I admire his dedication: not only did he publish one every weekday for a year, but he stuck to exactly fifty words, no more but also no less.
See also: Nanoism, Espresso Stories, 6-word scifi, Six word stories (like “Confessed anonymously. Forgot about e-mail signature.”), genre microfiction (how many words do you need to put a story in a specific genre?).
I think these <=50-word-stories are fun to write. They allow me to explore ideas that are best explored in fiction, but I don’t have to write up a whole thing, the idea can stay small. I know I can be verbose, but microfiction is all about paring down to the essentials. (It’s not about “point[ing] beyond meaning, to a kind of emptiness.”) It’s also all about clever ambiguity and suggestion. Not “show, don’t tell”, but “suggest, don’t show”. You have to do this, if the story is to be any good. You can’t have 3-dimensional characters, complex plots, character development, subtly, well-drawn mileus, lyrical metaphors (well, maybe you can squeeze in one or two) and so on in fifty words. If you want the story to be a real story, you must give the reader something to work with and trust them to imagine the rest. That’s why I’ve chosen fifty words, no more, but possibly less. You wouldn’t think it possible, but I’ve seen these tweet-sized stories and fifty-word stories and so on that contain redundancy and purple prose, simply to fill up those 140 characters or fifty words — which is why I feel an exact word or character count is not an enabling limit but a disabling one. You should allot a twenty-five word story twenty-five words, exactly.
Those were many words on brevity. Anyway: I decided to put some fifty-words-or-less stories out there. Currently at the rate of one per day. This may fizzle out quickly like my attempt at blogging Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, but I feel reasonably confident I can keep this up for some time. Technically, some of these may not be “stories” so much as “vignettes”, but who cares. They are what they are.
I don’t know why I gravitate towards the tragic. I’m not depressed, honestly. Anyway, this thing allows me to take on perspectives I don’t agree with; I do not, for instance, really believe that if only depressed people could manage to make themselves a little sadder, they would turn around and suddenly become euphoric, nor that too much happiness, per se, is a bad thing. But I can see how that could be a comforting fiction for someone to believe.Dec 20, 2009