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  • How Few Words Can the Shortest Story Have?
  • Amihud Gilead

Of the best shortest story, we have only tales. According to one of them, Ernest Hemingway was proud of being the author of a story written in merely six words: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." He considered this as his best story.1 Interviewing Gary Paulsen, Lori Atkins Goodson heard another version:

Probably the best writing ever done was by Hemingway and several other writers—I think it was in North Africa. During a drunken discussion, somebody said that they should write the best and shortest story they could write. They all had stories. Hemingway came up with six words: "For sale: Baby shoes. Never used." ... Isn't that great? That's all there is. Six words. There's a book, there's a movie, there's a short story, there's a poem—anything you want to do with those six words, you can do it. It's just amazing what you can do with your words.2

I greatly prefer the first version to the second despite its musicality or semi-rhythm. The minor colon is better than the major full stop and the capital letters. The whole story is genuinely minor in tone, and its great power rests upon this tone. "Used" is much less evocative and more commercially practical than "worn." "Used" draws the attention to the shoes, whereas "worn" intimately relates to the dead baby. Yes indeed, these six words can initiate a book, a feature movie, and the like; yet, as you will see below, I prefer to think about a whole world centered around, or arising out of, Hemingway's six words. Whether his six-words story is the shortest ever written is quite a different question, which will not be discussed in this paper.

A very short story may comprise more than six words, say, seventeen, [End Page 119] such as the following: "The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door" ("Knock" by Fredric Brown).3

Which of these two stories is the better? The shorter one, Hemingway's story in the first version. Why? Not only because there is not a single superfluous word or, even, a letter or punctuation mark; each word, each mark must be there, each is necessary for the story. Hemingway's six words create or initiate a whole story, actually a universe, of sorrow, bereavement, mourning, solitude, silence, untimely death, despair, loss, and tragedy.4 Thus, each word in this story gets the utmost meaningfulness or significance that a word may have. Hemingway's story shows us a tragic world of dread "in a handful of" six words, each of which is very simple. In contrast, although Brown's story bears a lot of tension and it is quite enigmatic (Who is knocking on the door? God, the Devil, an alien? Or is it simply a hallucination?), it conveys much less in seventeen words than do Hemingway's six. Brown's seventeen words do not create or reveal a world, let alone a universe. They create some tension, perhaps a thrill, possibly an enigma but not a world. There is certainly some puzzle that the reader may attempt to solve, but not much more.

Even in this respect, Hemingway's story is more enigmatic: What is the purpose of the sale of this baby's shoes? Is there some hope that what cannot be used for the lost baby will be useful for another, living baby? Or is it the stinginess of the dead baby's parents or relatives? Or is it their poverty that forces them to sell even these little shoes? Or is it their wish not to possess these shoes any longer despite their great significance? Regarding this last possibility, it is more suitable to sell them than to throw them away. In any of these possibilities, the shoes have some value. And the enigma under discussion is certainly tragic in any of these possibilities.

In contrast, Brown's story suggests merely a puzzle, not a tragic enigma. Such a puzzle may be found even in pulp fiction, not in fine writing, whereas...


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