E D I T O R I A L . 1 2
Short Short Stories, 20th February 2003
Earlier this month the Guatemalan author Augusto Monterroso, whom I admit I had never heard of before, died. He was the author, the news articles said, of the shortest recorded short story. By now, youll probably know it by heart, it runs:
Upon waking, the dinosaur was still there.
During the afternoon, the day news of Monterrosos death broke, I was called by the BBC programme Front Row, and asked if Id come in to their studio and chat with the presenter for a little while about how short a short story could be. Despite the fact Id just returned from Oxford Street, and would now have to go back again, I said yes.
On the tube, I wrote down a few notes.
I remembered an English teacher at school who told me that a poem had to ask a question, and that the shortest poem in the English language was therefore:
I also remembered Norman Mailer reciting Muhammed Alis equally short
(in number of letters) poem:
Another thing which came to mind was the joke about the Jewish telegram: Start
worrying. Stop. Details to follow.
What I tend to tell students in creative writing classes, if they ask, is that
a short story usually deals either with a moment of chance or of change. Nothing
need happen (it can be a moment of chance of change, failed), but there is always
the drama of it not happening.
Another answer I sometimes give is that a story should contain a situation
and a surprise. This seemed the best explanation of The Dinosaur,
which seemed to me an admirable little piece of work.
I had about this time last year written a very short short story myself. It
The wingèd man left the party, and we carried on much as before.
I thought, if challenged to break the world record, I could edit this down
The wingèd man left us, quietly.
I also came up with a couple of even shorter stories, in dialogue:
This I further reduced to:
Which I think leaves me holding the world record. (Good luck if youre going to have a go cutting back.)
More generally, I noted as I sat on the tube on the way to the BBC, short stories have been getting shorter for most of the twentieth century. Henry James thought little of including The Turn of the Screw or In the Cage in collections of short stories, rather than publishing them separately as novellas despite their coming in around a hundred pages long.
I think time-starved contemporary readers, despite their greater addiction to the novel, still beam a certain amount of gratitude towards writers who keep it short. Authors like Philip Larkin, Jane Austen, Bruce Chatwin, all of whose outputs were small, seem very endearing we can get to know them, properly.
And Saul Bellow, in the Afterword to his Collected Stories, notes how, we respond with approval when Chekhov tells us, "Odd, I have now a mania for shortness. Whatever I read my own or other peoples works it all seems to me not short enough."
He adds: I find myself emphatically agreeing with this.
Voltaire famously ended a letter with the words: Im sorry to write
at such length, I didnt have time to write less.
When I got to the BBC studios on Portland Place, I was told the short story
article had been cut in order to make room for something else. They said
sorry for the inconvenience, thank you for coming, gave me some money for a
I took the tube.