What We Talk About When We Try To Talk About What To Call The Stuff We Write: Notes Toward an Answer to Sam Pink’s Question from Yesterday


>>is there any definable characteristic that separates what is called “flash fiction” from what is called “short story” or “novella” or “novel.”<< (click thru for Sam’s whole post)

When I was younger I was obsessed with word-counts. I always wanted to know how long a book was “supposed” to be. No writer I have ever asked about this has ever wanted to give a straight answer to this question. I used to think it was because they were fussy and protective over their secrets, but now that I am older and wiser I understand that it is because they don’t actually know. Nobody does. When Amazon put in that feature with all the book stats, it was one of the happiest days of my life. I spent hours looking up every book I could think of, to see how long they all were. A few months ago, when I switched to a Mac, I was delighted to learn the Pages gives me a running word-count at the bottom of the work-window, and that if I highlight a section of text, I instantly get the word-count for that section. (This blog-window does the same thing, btw.)

But many years before the machines came to the rescue, there was one man who attempted to give me the answers I sought. That was, naturally, Stephen King. In the preface to a book called Different Seasons, he explains that what you are reading is a collection of four “novellas.” He then goes on to define this term. King estimates that a short story is anything up to about fifty thousand words, and a novel begins at seventy-five thousand. Anything between those two figures is a novella.

Those figures probably seem insane to most readers here, and indeed these days they do to me also. Dennis Cooper and Barry Hannah, two of my favorite writers, seem to specialize in books that range (these are guesses) between thirty and fifty thousand words. Also, there are several writers I can think of who tend to write more “regular-length” (if not quite King-range) novels, but my favorite book of theirs is their shortest one. Jim Shepard, Project X. Darcey Steinke, Milk. Denis Johnson, The Name of the World and Jesus’ Son (which I think can realistically be considered either a novel or a story collection, and actually clocks in at a mind-blowingly brief twenty-six thousand words). Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness. John Gardner, Grendel. Stanley Crawford, Log of the SS The Mrs Unguentine. The so-called “short novels” of Tolstoy (Hadji Murad, The Death of Ivan Ilych–there are I think eight in total). These are all off the top of my head.

Melville House has published editions of “The Dead” by James Joyce, Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych, in their Art of the Novella series. The stand-alone editions don’t look skimpy, in terms of page-count, and yet I find myself inclined to quibble with the assignation. So maybe–in fact, definitely–King’s standards don’t hold up. At least they don’t if you’re anyone other than King. As a personal rule of thumb, they seem to have worked out just fine for him, and I wonder if in the end maybe this is what it’s all about. Steinke published Milk as a novella. Dennis Cooper published God Jr. as a novel, and my bet is that it’s shorter than Milk is by a decent margin. DC has also been known to refer to his story “The Ash Gray Proclamation” as a novella. At approximately 7500 words, it wasn’t even the longest story in The Apocalypse Reader (the anthology in which I published it). In fact, it may not have even made the top 3. But that’s the point- when Dennis was writing “Ash Gray” (or rather, when he had finished it and was deciding what to call it) he wasn’t wondering how long the average Rick Moody short story runs. He was thinking of how long the average Dennis Cooper novel runs. Or maybe he wasn’t thinking that either.

I think there’s no question that “novella” is the X factor in this equation. I’ve seen Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” and his At the Mountains of Madness both identified as novellas. To my mind, neither one is. “Cthulhu” is obviously a short story, and Mountains is clearly a novel, albeit a shortish one (though it’s probably only about as long as any given novella in Different Seasons).

But didn’t Sam actually ask about flash-fiction? I just checked the top of this post, where his quote is, and yes he did. Flash-fiction I think is a relatively new term, though somebody else can go look that up because I’m not going to. What I do know is that there was an anthology called something like The Very Short Story published sometime approximately mid-century (maybe in the ’60s? I can’t remember the exact title so I can’t find the book online) and I believe in that book they pegged a very short story at about ten pages (say 2000 words) or less. By their standards, Hannah’s “Water Liars” would be a “very short story.” Now again, to us, this must seem like madness. We would never call anything that long “flash” or “very short,” but you have to remember that these people were working at a time when literature was still published in all major magazines and newspapers. This was the same era in which The New Yorker published Donald Barthelme’s novel Snow White in full in advance of its publication in book form.

I remember that the Very Short Story anthology had a Hemingway piece in it. I’m not sure which one, but I believe it was “Hills Like White Elephants” or “Indian Camp.” This to me is perhaps a “pretty short story” but I wouldn’t call it a “very short story,” and it certainly in no wise “flash-fiction” as I understand it, by which I mean as we seem to use the term today. Hemingway’s story “A Very Short Story,” on the other hand, is a great and classic example of flash-fiction. (So is “One Reader Writes.”)

Everyone knows that anachronistically applying terms to works of art is a fool’s game, but everyone also knows that stupid can be another name for fun. I’ve seen Kafka’s “The Messiah” classified variously as “flash-fiction,” a “short story,” and “an aphorism,” ie not a piece of fiction at all, but rather a saying. That last one seems the most right to me, but I wouldn’t begrudge anybody the use of either of the other two terms.

In the end, each writer has to make their own calls about how they want to perceive and classify the writing they generate–or encounter. For me, flash-fiction tends to be under 1000 words, usually under 500. The language can be minimalist or dense or bejeweled or whatever else. It can be story-driven or not, though in “flash” pieces characterization seems relatively less important, or else is accomplished largely by the reader’s inference. The flash-fiction in particular seems inclined toward imagistic writing. Its brevity also enables it to deliver a “punchline” ending with a bit more aplomb than other forms (which is not an argument for doing it; I’m just saying it’ll be less bad). But all other considerations notwithstanding, the defining feature of flash-fiction seems to me to be that its true subject is the extreme contest between concision and dilation. I think this is evident in pretty much all the flash-fiction I admire, from the aforementioned Hemingway pieces, to that first story in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, the work of Diane Williams, the short-shorts by Padgett Powell (“Texas,” “Florida,” “Flood,” etc.) that appear sprinkled throughout his collection Typical, the title story of Dennis Cooper’s Ugly Man, Amy Hempel’s “Breathing Jesus,” much of Grace Paley, most of Peter Markus, a good portion of the pieces in Gary Lutz’s Stories in the Worst Way,  Kafka’s “The Hunter Gracchus,” and so on and on and on.

I think that flash-fiction as it is written today is more likely to bleed over into the category of “prose-poem” than that of “short story.” It’s really come into its own and established itself as a form, albeit a highly flexible one. It seems distinct to me from the “short story” as a category, in a way which has nothing to do with word-counts.

But I’m still not sure whether it’s truly possible to ever get away from relational definitions- part of what makes something a “short story” is its “not-being-a-novel.” And vice versa, so the definitions are interdependent and X can’t really be solved for without the whole equation falling apart. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to get a little closer to what Tao Lin calls “concrete reality” (though in terms of the way he uses that phrase, everything that follows is hopelessly abstract).

I think that one non-relational characteristic of the short story is that, as a matter of effect, it should cause more problems than it solves, and raise more questions than it answers. This is the inverse corollary to the fact that most short stories are built on what Donald Barthelme called the “mousetrap” model, an analogy that I think is sufficiently self-explanatory. He was speaking derisively, of course, and in his time found more than one very fine solution to that problem as he saw it. And of course, some stories are simple open-shut mousetraps. We call these “disappointments.” For other stories, however–the really really good ones that a room full of people can speak about for an hour and still feel as if they’ve barely scratched its surface–the “problem/resolution” model is a pretty good starting place. The better the writer is, the more nuanced the presentation of the problem, and the more enigmatic the “resolution.” Basically, “problem/resolution” is only a limitation if it stays stuck at the level of plot. If the “problem” is elevated, say, to the level of character, then what that character might do becomes an open question, and the “resolution” of the story might be something totally unexpected, which at the level of “plot” resolves little or nothing at all. A short story should open and then close, but this is not to say it should be totally self-contained. A good one will nearly always have a closing that does double duty as some kind of second opening. (That opening might be the equivalent of a starving man trapped in a locked room, glimpsing a mountain range through a barred window–the specifics of the execution matter far less than the vibe, the implications.)

A novel, on the other hand, is obliged to be a sort of self-contained system. That’s not to say it needs a bow-tie ending, and that’s not to say it won’t also attempt to make use of the same effects as flash fiction (powerful images; concision/dilation) and the short story (questions raised; distant vistas glimpsed but not explored, or even necessarily reached). Of course a novel will do these things too, probably many times and in many ways, sometimes more than one at a time. But a novel is a larger, more complex system with many moving parts. If a good flash-fiction is a shower of sparks, and if a good short story is some sort of well-oiled and high-powered (though possibly infernal, or Rube Goldberg-inspired) machine, then a good novel is a kind of factory tour. It might plod along, or run at breakneck speed, you might trust the tour guide or not, but one way or the other it’s going to lead your around for a good long while, and the end result should be a sense of having had a complete experience of some kind.

A novella, still the least fixed of all possible terms, always stuck between the two worlds, is perhaps then best-defined by the relational terms on either side of it. A novella can be either a kind of super-saturated short story, something so packed with novel-like characteristics that you want to go ahead and call it a novel, but aren’t sure if you really should; or else it’s a kind of super-svelt (not to say “light”) novel, one with the kind of characteristics and–for lack of a better word–“feel” that you are typically given to associate with the short story, and yet, there’s something…more, or anyhow other, going on in the work, so that you just know “short story” won’t fully cut the descriptive mustard. The metamorphic quality and season-to-taste usage of “novella” makes it singularly useful in the instances where no other term or terms seems sufficient. Perhaps, then, this lack of fixed definition is not a problem, but rather the point itself.