How Few Words Can the Shortest Story Have?
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 Hemingway has told us a fine story comprising six indispensable words to create or reveal a whole tragic world encircled by silence. The silence under discussion is also stillness: as if nothing could be changed in the parents' world, as if the absolutely untimely death has frozen their world and rendered it unchangeable. In such a world, no knock on the door brings any comfort or can change anything. At best, someone who wants to buy the brand-new shoes at a cheap price may knock on this door, and this knock is possibly the only adequate response to these shocking six words. Finally, Hemingway's tragic story as well as its [End Page 120] enigma has no comforting solution, whereas Brown's puzzle may have such a solution, even a salvation. No relief is possible in Hemingway's shortest story. The only consolation lies in its artistic beauty.
Hemingway's six words reveal a world in which countless human beings exist, whereas Brown's seventeen words create only a room in which the last man on earth remains alone. The knocking on the door cannot be human, for the last man is in the room and he does not knock on his own door. It is even possible that this man did not hear the knock, for the story tells that "there was a knock on the door" and not that "a knock on the door was heard." Of course, following Berkeley, one may interpret the existence of the knock to mean that someone (perhaps God alone) heard it. But one must not follow Berkeley's empiricist idealism to interpret Brown's story adequately. Much less than that is needed.
This paper raises a question: How few words can the shortest story have? Think of a story that consists of only one word: Died. Indeed, this one word creates an enigma—who was (or is) dead? Possibly, the narrator of the story feels himself or herself as a dead person; possibly, someone else died. Nevertheless, this single word does not create or reveal a world. Even if there is an implicit, a most abbreviated, story, there is no world and no one would consider this word to create a fine, let alone the best, story. "Died" elliptically stands for two words, one of which is the unknown or enigmatic subject, whereas Hemingway's six words stand for many more words, many more than only two.
The simpler the words are, the greater possibly is the world they reveal. Hemingway's six words are absolutely simple; they belong to the simplest, commonest words in the English language; they are mundane. They could serve as part of a brief notice or a short advertisement in the "Buy and Sell" columns of a daily newspaper. To choose the most common words, to use them with the possible greatest restraint, yet to reveal a huge world by means of them or to create one out of them is the gift of a great artist.
Hemingway's story lacks nothing. It does not matter who the baby was or who were the parents. It could be any lost, dead baby or any parents. Yet the story is certainly particular (because of the unworn shoes) and still extremely universal. In contrast, in Brown's story the whole point is: Who knocked on the door? The mystery in question is superficial or contrived, since the whole point about it is the identity of the one who knocked on the door. If the narrator told us that it was an alien, or the Devil, or God, the whole mystery would disappear immediately. In contrast, if Hemingway informed us about the baby's identity and [End Page 121] that of his/her parents, this would not change the enigmatic nature of the story. Moreover, it would not change the drama or the tragedy that the story portrays.
How to do things with words is a task that literature, poetry, philosophy, or psychoanalysis attempts to perform. How to do the maximum with the minimal number of words, or how to do the best with the minimal or few words, is a key question. Hemingway's story focuses around a tragedy of a great loss, perhaps the greatest possible, the loss of the greatest hope or expectation. By limiting itself to this tragedy, these six words open a wide human world for the readers. In contrast, Brown's seventeen words restrict the world very much, reducing it to the room of one person. The loss appears to be so great: the loss of the human race as a whole except for one person. But such is merely a matter of appearance. The loss in Hemingway's story is much greater due to its genuine nature and reality. It leaves the impression of the loss on any sensitive reader. The effect thus becomes very real, even personally real. Not so in Brown's story. The loss is extremely fantastic or implausible. Because of its incredibility or inconceivability, the loss affects the reader, if at all, very little. Indeed, there is some suspense, some excitement is involved, and some readers may be alert to some extent. But this trick is available to any, however mediocre, writer of thrillers, detective stories, science fiction, pulp fiction, and the like. Great dramatists need much more than tricks.
One may compare Hemingway's six words to a line in a poem. But I do not think that such a comparison is quite in place. Think, for instance, of a line taken from "The Waste Land" by T. S. Eliot—"I will show you fear in a handful of dust"—and add to it only the date in which that poem was written. Indeed, such a line in the context of the time after the "Great War" (World War I) may make the reader tremble. Eliot made it possible to conceive of a whole world of dread within a handful of dust taken from one of the battlefields or cemeteries of this horrible war. The poetic restraint and conciseness open a world's horizons for the reader. Brown's seventeen words suggest a more confined reality than do Eliot's ten words or Hemingway's six that conjure up a world enough and time wide open for us. The grief and the mourning appear to confine or restrict the world but, in fact, they open it wider. A whole world has been changed because of the loss of one child or because of a handful of dust metonymically representing a huge number of dead in a world war. Nevertheless, the way in which Hemingway made his story is not the way of the poet. Hemingway's story could not be a poem. It [End Page 122] is as if a notice or an advertisement appeared in a newspaper. It could be quite possibly such an advertisement but not a poem, even though the person who composed it could only be an artist, possibly a great one. Eliot's shivering line, in contrast, could never be an advertisement. To put such a line in an advertisement would definitely be a misuse, a quite inappropriate use, especially in the aesthetic sense.
Nevertheless, Hemingway's six words do not make an advertisement. To do so, some indispensable details are needed, such as the address or the means of communication by which the seller can be reached as well as something about the price of the item. The lack of such details makes these six words commercially useless or impractical yet leaves their artistic value intact. Were these details mentioned, the reader would think that the six words were still artistically put although for a commercial aim.
The tension between the practical aspect of an advertisement and its artistic significance opens an unbridgeable gap. It is the gap between mundane life and a great artistic achievement. This gap is a loss. It embodies the very loss, the unbridgeable gap between grief or misery and real beauty; between real beauty and the mundane world of commerce, advertisements, and innumerable petty things. The baby is dead; the shoes are for sale; what remains is Hemingway's best story. What remains is the beauty of a genuine art.
Reconsider the two following advertisements:
1. For sale: baby shoes, brand new.
2. For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Only two different words make the whole difference in the world. The commercial phrase, "brand new," brings no novelty with it, no genuine hope, but only an opportunity to buy the brand new baby shoes at a very reasonable price. In contrast, "never worn" refers to the never uttered but nevertheless presumed hope that, in the near future, the baby would start to walk. Alas, the baby died before taking its first steps in the world. Owing to these words—"never worn"—the entire span of time and even the open future (but not for the baby and the parents) are presented to the reader's attention. The great expectation, as to the baby's first steps in the world, has gone for ever. But the shoes remain, and are now for sale. There is nothing new about it. But the words "never worn" press home to us the great novelty of birth, of its cosmic, universal significance. An entire religion has been constructed on the birth of one baby who was destined to be the redeemer of the whole of [End Page 123] humankind. The birth of any baby changes the entire world, even if its birth may be known only to a few persons. Such is also the significance of any person's death. What is left of this baby? The never-worn shoes whose echo resounds in a whole world of mourning and bereavement.Hemingway's never-worn baby shoes suggest a dialogue or counterpoint with Van Gogh's Shoes, which is a whole world surrounding two worn-out shoes (certainly not for sale!), a universe of long toil and old age.One great art meets another. A painting in six words meets a painting in a few outlines and colors.
Making a world, revealing a universe, in six words or in a few outlines and colors has to do with real beauty: the universe under discussion is a cosmos, in the ancient Greek sense of the word. The tragic sense of these six words ends with an aesthetic consolation: as much as the grief and dread are immense, they can be concisely, precisely, and meticulously expressed in six words. This certainly has a great aesthetic, even sublime, significance in literature, poetry, or philosophy.
Consider these six words: "For sale: author's books, never opened." These words make or reveal a reality of frustration. However great it may be, still it is nothing to compare with a baby's death. These six words may sound even pathetic to some or many readers, whereas Hemingway's six words are not at all pathetic. The reality of frustration, however great, is much smaller and shallower than the world of grief and mourning that Hemingway's words reveal or create. The expression of the frustration of the author whose books have been never read does not create or reveal a world of grief. Even the significance of the sale of the baby's shoes is quite different from that of the author's unread books. The echo of the first sale is much more resounding than that of the second. Frustration, however great and deep, is not enough to make a world. The frustration that is involved in Hemingway's story becomes even greater because baby's shoes popularly signify a token or a talisman for good luck. Yet the death of innocence can create a world of dread, such a world in which babies die, whereas no amount of frustration can make such a world. The reality of frustration may take part in a world of dread or grief, but not the other way round. Following Hume, one may compare an unread or ignored book to a dead-born baby.5 But this is a metaphor; by no means is it such a tragic loss. Thus, a world of grief or dread is much greater than a reality of frustration, however great.
The closer that words approach silence, the greater the effect that they can convey. Such is the case of Hemingway's six words. Much remains [End Page 124] in silence, and yet this kind of silence is full of reality, thoughts, emotions, and feelings. It is pregnant with innumerable unspoken words. Nothing in Hemmingway's six words says too much, whereas in any of the other less-artistic examples that I have discussed above, the words say too much. There is much more silence in Kafka's works, in those of Joyce (see below), or in Hemingway's six words than in any of the other examples I refer to in this paper (except for the sublime line by Eliot). And this silence speaks; this silence echoes each word to the utmost.6
Some wrongly believe that Augusto Monterroso, the Guatemalan author who died in 2003, wrote the best shortest story in the history of literature. Unlike Hemingway's story, which needs no title, Monterroso's story is entitled The Dinosaur. Except for the title, it is composed of the following words: "When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there."7 Seven words in Spanish, nine or seven in English. I prefer it to Brown's shortest story, but I appreciate Hemingway's story much more. Brown's story and that by Monterroso, unlike Hemmingway's, have something in common. It is the element that appeals mainly to the reader's imagination and, to some extent, the intellect. The possibility that one man remains after a world catastrophe and that someone knocks on his door is sheer fantasy; likewise, the witty micro-story about the dinosaur. Both stories are much less complicated or ample then Hemmingway's. They can be much more easily paraphrased or interpreted. For instance, Monterroso's story can be adequately paraphrased or interpreted as follows: "When he woke up, the Obsolete was still there." Similarly, Brown's story can be easily interpreted as God, the Devil, or an alien knocking on the door.
Both these stories have no need to appeal to mental capabilities other than the reader's imagination and intellect. What makes a whole world, even a universe, of a few artistic words, has to do with our mental integration; they should relate to a complete mental entity consisting of emotions, feelings, thoughts, wishes, hopes, intellect, imagination, and analysis; and they are all integrated into one story to make a whole of a world. Brown and Monterroso pose a challenge to our imagination and intellect alone. All our other mental capabilities need not be involved, let alone take part in an act of integration. Science fiction, pulp fiction, and the like need only one's imagination and intellect; and that is all. They offer us a game: a puzzle to be solved, something to entertain the reader and not much more. Hemingway's shortest story does not entertain us. It demands much more. It demands the reader's commitment and it does so from the reader as a whole person, not only as an imaginative person or one capable of solving or dissolving [End Page 125] puzzles. Without deep emotions, the reader could not get the point in Hemingway's story. In contrast, not much of the reader's emotions or experience is involved in the other two "shortest" stories. There are mainly entertaining puzzles.
Another example of a tricky shortest story is John Barth's "Frame-Tale" consisting of the following ten words: "Once upon a time there / was a story that began".8 The author instructs the reader to fold a Möbius strip out of the first five words printed on the long edge of one side of the page and of the last five words printed on the long edge of the other side of the same page. The result is that the reader makes a loop repeating these words infinitely. What is the merit of such a trick in comparison with James Joyce's use of one word only, one of the most common words in the English language—"the"—to end and to begin his masterpiece Finnegans Wake? No tricky loop is needed to create or reveal an endless, infinite world constructed of a most musical language. In this respect, in a paradoxical way, Joyce's masterpiece contains many fewer words than Barth's "Frame Tale," for Joyce makes much more of his words, whatever their number, than Barth's frame-tale. This tale produces an "eternal or infinite return," but this return, though infinite, does not reveal or create a world or cosmos. Moreover, contrary to the Joycean return, Barth's return consists of redundancy and of a mechanically-contrived endless loop. Following an aesthetic necessity, Joyce's masterpiece contains nothing redundant, superfluous, or mechanical. Reading it again and again can reveal something new, even something entirely new, to the reader.
Hence, the best shortest story may contain some thousands of words or more, provided that not even one single word in it is superfluous; rather, each word is indispensable for creating or revealing a whole world. Moreover, the story lacks nothing. As long as such is the case, it does not matter how many words the story contains. Everything that the reader needs is there, waiting for him or her to uncover it.
To demonstrate this, I can present two examples, both are by Franz Kafka.
"The Next Village"
My grandfather used to say: "Life is astoundingly short. To me, looking back over it, life seems so foreshortened that I scarcely understand, for instance, how a young man can decide to ride over to the next village without being afraid that—not to mention accidents—even the span [End Page 126] of a normal happy life may fall far short of the time needed for such a journey."
For we are like tree trunks in the snow. In appearance they lie sleekly and a little push should be enough to set them rolling. No, it can't be done, for they are firmly wedded to the ground. But see, even that is only appearance.9
Of course, no translation can do justice to Kafka's most exact and concise language, and yet, even by means of these translations, the reader can realize that not one word is missing just as not one word in them is superfluous. Each of these stories ("The Trees" is probably the shortest story that Kafka wrote) makes a world enough and time. The distance between the next village and the grandfather's one takes more than a lifetime to travel. The picture of us as a line of tree trunks in the snow is a wide world (and time) enough of human lives as mere appearances.
Note that both of Kafka's short stories have titles, whereas Hemingway's needs none. This, of course, does not diminish Kafka's masterpieces even slightly. It simply draws one's attention to another merit of Hemingway's achievement. In this case, the absence of a title is of great significance, for it opens the story wider and makes it even more universal. A title creates a focus or a spotlight. Hemingway's story needs no such focus or spotlight. It makes a stage-world of its own, which needs no further illumination. The limelight of these six words lies within themselves. Their focus lies in the tiny shoes, which, as under a limelight, draw much of the reader's attention. At the same time, this focus does not distract that attention away from the rest of its world of grief and dread. On the contrary, this limelight points out or exposes the darkness and silence that encircle these shoes. The dramatic sense, the sense of catastrophic tragedy, is thus maintained.
If each word in the best shortest story is not superfluous and not one word is missing then each word in it is not contingent but necessary. Necessity plays an essential role in the aesthetic value of artistic achievements. Beauty pertains to some kinds of necessity, certainly to the necessity concerning each literary masterpiece. The same holds good for mathematical necessity. Even if mathematics has to satisfy logical necessity, an aesthetical necessity is no less indispensable. As G. H. [End Page 127] Hardy reveals, "Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics."10 For me, mathematics is first of all a great aesthetic achievement, more like music rather than logic. Mathematics and music have to meet two standards—necessity and beauty.
Bearing in mind what I have said above, we must convert the question, which this paper raises, into the following one: How many superfluous or missing words may the best shortest story have? My answer is: Not one. Each word in such a story is entirely necessary or indispensable; not one is missing. Six words may be good enough to create or to reveal a whole world of beauty, a cosmos.
1. "Hemingway once wrote a story in just six words ('For sale: baby shoes, never worn.') and is said to have called it his best work." See Wired Magazine 14 (November 2006): 1.
2. "Single-handing: An Interview with Gary Paulsen," The ALAN Review 31 (2004): 58. In the same vein, the Australian writer Robert Drewe "offers a reference to what is regarded as the shortest fiction in the world, Hemingway's, 'For sale. Baby shoes. Never used.' A story Hemingway wrote when he bet his friends 10 dollars he could write a story in less than 10 words." See Jane Munro, "Polished Gems: The Joy of the Short Story," ABC: North Coast NSW (August 7, 2006).
3. First published in Thrilling Wonder Stories 33:2 (December 1948).
4. The universally tragic sense of Hemingway's six words has found deep echoes in lamenting hearts. For one, see Marlene Rankel's dedication to the memory of her late daughter, Allison Stewart: "Funeral yesterday: Donor lung expected tomorrow." See 2006 Dabrowski Congress Proceedings: The Seventh International Congress of the Institute for Positive Disintegration in Human Development (August 2006, Calgary, Canada), p. 15. For another example consider: "Sign outside cemetery: 'No children allowed'" (Pamela Kennedy, a winner in LAAC/LRAC 6 Word Short Story's competition). See the examples at http://lrac4.charterinternet.com/docs/2007/websitepiece.pdf.
5. "Never literary attempt was more unfortunate than my Treatise of Human Nature. It fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots." See David Hume, "My Own Life," in The Philosophical Works of David Hume (Boston: Little, Brown, 1854), p. xv. This piece should also be considered as a fine shortest story.
6. As Marion Lupu suggested to me, much of the dramatic effect of Harold Pinter's works lies in what is not said, and the term "Pinteresque" suggests "threat couched and lurking in the ambush of the unspoken." As Pinter mentions, "The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear.... When true silence falls we are still left [End Page 128] with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.... I think that we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid ...." See his "Writing for the Theatre," an Introduction to Complete Works, vol. 1 (New York: Grove Press, 1978), pp. 14–15.
7. "Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí." It can be translated "When it/he/she awoke ..." or "Upon waking,..." and so forth. For an English translation see Augusto Monterroso, Complete Works and Other Stories, trans. Edith Grossman (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996).
8. John Barth, Lost In the Funhouse (New York: Bantam, 1969), pp. 1–2.
9. Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken Books, 1971).
10. G. H. Hardy, A Mathematician's Apology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 85. [End Page 129]