In his recent interview on PBS, Philip Roth made a passing comment about Saul Bellows’ late-in-life shift to writing short novels. He described the form as a novel in which the author chooses to condense a storyline rather than expand it. For an aging writer who is being efficient with the energies he has left, the short form is logical, Roth admitted. But something in his tone seemed to indicate he was less than convinced about the short form’s artistic merits, or if it was his vehicle of choice.
A mixed bag of reactions in my brain:
If the online literary journals are to be believed , writing compressed fictional pieces is revolutionary and the future. Most posted vignettes are often less than 1000 words, or less than 500; in some cases they are limited to three or six sentences. One I saw recently was a contest with ten words max. It’s like a Battle of Cleverness.
Sudden fiction or flash fiction is an internet product, a celebration of economy of scope, style and narration. And may as well throw in poetic devices, too. It’s fast reading, read fast by rapid-decision editors for fast webzines for digestion by fast-moving users with fast iPads in our fast and compressed modern times, etcetera.
But at the core of the product itself, flash fiction is not really new and revolutionary. It’s not that far removed from, say, what Hemingway was doing in “Hills Like White Elephants.” Or Brautigan was doing almost fifty years ago in “Trout Fishing in America.”
Flash fiction strives for pure, lean impact. Evocative and as far from exhaustive as possible. Unfortunately many flash fiction pieces tend to sound strained, over-manipulated, ambiguous, or fall into the “way too precious” trap. The ones in present tense (and/or second person You) are especially cloying, like someone boring us with a breathless dream account. Yet many are real gems that carry a sparkle no matter how many re-reads, and these rise above those done by magic tricks with words that wow momentarily then are forgotten.
What the proponents of flash fiction don’t show or even broach on their sites, and for expedience sake can’t, is how the novel form is affected by this new direction of less is better.
Getting back to the short novel, what is it? There are the usual suspects as examples, masterpieces like Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” Pynchon’s “Crying of Lot 49,” Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Or some will include “The Great Gatsby” or “Catcher in the Rye.” The difference is, if we go with the generally accepted figure of 50,000 words plus equals a novel, those last two don’t count as short novels. But they do achieve an end by the same means: streamlining the story and its delivery in a highly artful and stylized way. Another that comes to mind, a personal favorite, is Rick Barthelme’s “Tracer,” a masterfully written short novel that is seamless and presented without a sense of author’s effort.
Within this venture of writing by contraction and condensing or compressing, whatever you call it, there are hundreds of toolsets at the writer’s disposal.
Kurt Vonnegut could present a novel with expansive action and concepts via his genius of writing pithy sentences and employing white space. His thing was stylistic compression, not an abbreviation of storyline. “So it goes.”
Dave Eggers does it the other way, at the highest level, with a compressed storyline in “Hologram for a King.” The scope of actual drama of time and place are limited (similar to Camus’ “The Stranger”). The payoff comes in character portrayal and mood that feels more like theatre than a bound book.
I love to read Roberto Bolaño because so many of his sentences are crafted to be interesting and filled with story. It is their density, their PSI that draws me in. I can read one of his short stories (and sometimes even just a page of one) and feel as if I’ve read a novel. He transmits an enormous amount of information. There are enough particularities to keep things visual and us the readers engaged. But there is no fluff, none of the vast amount of description (“the twittering birds”) and development we run across in a 500-page novel.
Each has its merits, the expansive and the brief. Was Roth hinting at something else? What defines a short novel? Will flash fiction influence its presentation and what this new breed of insta-readers want? Is there something new going with short novels? A new sub-genre yet to evolve?
(to be revisited)