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  • Microfiction: What Makes a Very Short Story Very Short?
  • William Nelles (bio)

Impressed by Woodrow Wilson’s speeches, a member of his cabinet asked him how long it took to prepare them. “It depends,” Wilson told him. “If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now” (Boller 226; as the anecdote reminds us, Wilson was a college professor before getting into administration).1 In speeches and letters, as in journal articles, brevity is readily appreciated; in fiction, it hasn’t been so easy to defend. The stigmatization of the very short work begins at least as early as Aristotle’s stipulation that size does matter: “Beauty is a matter of size and order, and therefore impossible … in a very minute creature … the longer the story, consistently with its being comprehensible as a whole, the finer it is by reason of its magnitude” (233). Edgar Allan Poe concurred about the limitations of works that are “too brief ” (May 60): “Without a certain continuity of effort—without a certain duration or repetition of purpose—the soul is never deeply moved” (61); “a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all” (69).

Nevertheless, there have always been artists willing to risk the miniature. Such short verbal forms as the parable, exemplum, fabliau, and fable have been widely and more or less continuously practiced for millennia. Our contemporary society has been especially prolific of miniature art forms, such as post cards, pop songs (and their accompanying videos), television commercials, and bumper stickers. My interest here lies in describing the contemporary miniature narrative genre variously called “microfiction,” “flash fiction,” “sudden fiction,” “minute stories,” “short-shorts,” and so on.2 While such poetic forms as the sonnet, haiku, and epigram have been recognized as prestigious genres, serious criticism of very short prose works has been [End Page 87] slower to develop. Something of an academic canon of miniature stories has begun to coalesce, however, including such familiar anthology pieces as Raymond Carver’s “Popular Mechanics” (434 words, perhaps the quintessential microstory), Julio Cortázar’s “A Continuity of Parks” (639 words), Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel” (324 words), and Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” (660 words). While it is perhaps premature to jump all the way onto the bandwagon with Lauro Zavala, who has declared that “la minificción es la escritura del próximo milenio” (“minifiction is the writing of the next millennium”) and “la clave del futuro de la lectura” (“Seis” 1, 14; “the key to the future of reading”), the popularity of the genre (and the increasing number of college courses devoted to it), combined with the number of distinguished writers who have increasingly come to practice it, justifies further attention.

My central claim in this essay will be that most stories shorter than a couple of pages or so (say around 700 words) are not just quantitatively but qualitatively different than most stories above that length. The most systematic analysis of narrative brevity is still Norman Friedman’s classic 1958 essay “What Makes a Short Story Short?,” and I accordingly begin my argument with a review of his important discussion. My conclusions about the formal effects of brevity, however, differ considerably from his. Specifically, I propose that a generic distinction may be drawn between short stories and microstories on the basis of six key narrative elements: action, character, setting, temporality (especially duration and order), intertextuality, and closure.

Before laying out my analysis, I should stipulate that my focus on formal elements does not mean that I deny the relevance of other factors. There has been a dramatic spike in the production and consumption of very short stories since the 1980s, which suggests that historical and social contexts, not just formal considerations, have influenced the development of microfiction. At the most general level, Raymond Carver has claimed that the very nature of reality (or of the writer’s perception of it) helps dictate the length of a piece: “To write a novel, it seemed to me, a writer should be living in a world that...


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