Sunday, November 8, 2009

from Lauren Becker

Very Short Fiction: Fragments of “Real” Narrative?

John Freeman, editor of the literary journal, Granta, authored a recently-released book entitled The Tyranny of E-mail. The primary thesis of the book is that that the relentless flow of e-mail with which we deal has left us disconnected from one another, reduced our attention spans and decreased our abilities to live with mindfulness and deliberation. I find it difficult to disagree with his observations and am certain that his book is deserving of its many impressive reviews.

However, in listening to a recent radio interview with Freeman, I found myself extrapolating, somewhat indignantly and perhaps without merit, that Freeman might consider both the writing and reading of very short fiction to be among the unfortunate results of living in the fragmented age of e-mail. Though his observations about writing were made in support of his position that communication is no longer as thoughtful and meaningful as it was in the past, I couldn’t help but hear some of what he said without considering it in context of his role as an editor of a literary journal.

Most directly, Freeman stated that, in dealing with a “grazing” style of reading, “we never get into the deep submersion that you get in a long-form narrative,” using novels, biographies and narrative poems as examples. He went on to say that “when you give yourself over to a text in that sense, you engage a part of your imagination which is crucial … to developing empathy and a supple understanding of how people interact with the world.” My frustration reached its pinnacle at this point, as I thought of numerous writers who demonstrate and evoke those very elements masterfully in remarkably few words.

These, along with other indirect statements, left me wondering whether Freeman’s opinions were an indictment of my preferred form of writing. As I did not wish to draw such conclusions unfairly, I e-mailed, (in a true instance of irony), a question to the station, by which I asked Freeman whether it was his opinion that very short fiction is a byproduct of the disruptive e-mail phenomenon he describes, and is therefore less legitimate in that, by nature of its brevity, it cannot capture the imagination as longer form narrative can. I provided the context of my own writing experience, and proposed that this form encourages significant imagination, in that its readers must be capable of inferring information that, in the interest of conserving words, its writers do not actually state.

My question was not addressed on air. To find if there was, indeed, any foundation for my suspicion with regard to Freeman’s views on very short fiction, I listened to the interview again, pulling relevant quotes, some of which I cited above. I found additional evidence of that foundation in his assertion that the book Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert, was successful in large part due to its presentation in short sections, most of which did not exceed 1200 words, a word count that dwells in or adjacent to that of very short fiction. He referred to Dan Brown’s use of very short chapters to make the same point.

Still curious, I reviewed Granta’s submissions guidelines. I do not subscribe to Granta, nor have I recently read an issue, and cannot attest to the length of the fiction it generally publishes. Its submissions guidelines state that there are no restrictions as to length, and Duotrope indicates that Granta accepts work consisting of fewer than 1000 words. I am, however, doubtful that Granta publishes a significant amount of very short fiction. Though my arguments are circumstantial, I believe that his statements indicate that Freeman, the editor of the well-respected journal, might be dismissive of very short fiction, especially that which is published online, as a means of communicating anything more than the “200 pithy short e-mails” that he crafts daily.

I hope that I am wrong in this regard; if I am not, I hope that Mr. Freeman looks at such quality literary journals that highlight very short fiction, as Wigleaf, Quick Fiction, Smokelong Quarterly and Vestal Review, and realizes that this form has the potential to demonstrate exceptional depths of imagination, empathy and understanding of human relationships within its own restrictive word limits. Though the nature of today’s frenetic means of communicating is inarguably disruptive, it does not follow that our ability to create effective narrative is likewise compromised.

Bio: Lauren Becker lives in Oakland, California. Her active imagination and overdue deadline on this commentary led to her admittedly ill-supported postulations that ensure that she will never be published by Granta. Her work has appeared in PANK, Opium Magazine, Wigleaf, Pindeldyboz and elsewhere.

Read "A Boy" at Monkeybicycle
Read "A Simple Explanation" at Storyglossia
Read "Where is San Diego?" at Opium Magazine


  1. Hm. I get it. I think. Just from what you've described in this article(I haven't read his book nor have I listened to his interview)I don't think Freeman is necessarily saying that short fiction can't have depth, but because of its brevity the relationship between the text and the reader is short-lived. A longer narrative requires a longer committment which can last a period of days, weeks, or even months. It's the difference between putting on an awesome hat in a department store, giving a few quick turns in the mirror, and being fitted for a suit and then wearing it all night at a wedding. Both have merit and the ability to offer insight, it's just...the whole time thing. Personally, if I follow a character for hundreds of pages, I'll devolop a longer lasting connection than if I followed that character for 500 words. That's not to say the connection has less impact in a shorter piece, it just...won't carry as long. For me. Or something. Good article, Becker.

  2. thanks mel. excellent points. i agree with most of them. i write mostly vsf but read novels, almost exclusively. There is more of an investment of time, of self, in longer fiction. My point was not that he simply believes that longer narrative allows for more intense character development, etc., than shorter form. Rather, I heard some strong implications that might be read as dismissiveness of the form of vsf as a whole.

    In truth, I'm actually much more fascinated than indignant. Freeman's book is about the history of communication and its effect on human interaction. What is next? Will pithy e-mails, in fact, constitute the major form of narrative in the future?

    i just want to point out that i wrote the post with attention to laura's early goal of using us as lab rats (in a good way, of course!) for her students. I have no idea what a MFA curriculum looks like, but I assume it includes a significant focus on critical thought.

    i hope what i wrote might be a jumping-off point for a discussion of what constitutes effective narrative. can we convey empathy and human relationships in so few words? is it an question of either/or? or better/worse? is vsf a legitimate form of telling stories?

    i'd love to hear laura's students answer that question, with examples. if the conversation does take place, i hope she writes her own post about it.

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  4. What interests me in accounts of e-mail and social media related disconnect, reduced attention span, and decreased appreciation of life is that there is nothing more than an anecdotal subjectivity to compare the current social media with pre-e-mail era disconnect, poor attention span, and decreased appreciation of life. It can as well be postulated that before e-mail we were disconnected and did not notice, we always had a poor attention span, and if we did not properly appreciate the richness of life nobody noticed.

    For students coming up in the current communications environment the relationship to narrative may be something like for ppl brought up immersed in television looking back on a world pre-radio and the long drawn out volumes of prose narrative that go on and on for seemingly endless stretches of time. A time when all one had was a kerosene lantern and book, almost any book would do.

    If the sense of time in a text is stretched out that one gets lost in the miasma of words and therefore cannot see a narrative due to the expansive length of the journey, I would suggest that in vsf readers will become attuned to sense out the narrative. More so that those vsf that exhibit the narrative that an aggregate of readers of vsf are sensitive to notice and appreciate will be brought to surface.

    One question that I suppose this brings up -- Do readers need narrative?

  5. More of this? It's such a bothersome topic (Freeman's). More condescension from the cognoscenti. Yes, yes, you were much smarter back then, 1995, before all the internet and email, your brains worked so much better, you had such deeper thoughts. And really, why all this attention to this subject now, like 10 years after the fact? It can sometimes seem like these people just woke up and discovered this odd creature called the internet. Or was it that they spent those first ten years simply dismissing it and now that they see it really is here to stay they are worried. Uh oh, this internet thing, people are USING it. Does that mean they won't read my books?? I better write one about it to make sure that doesn't happen.

    Ok, so that's some amount of hyperbole, I haven't read Freeman's book and I'm sure he makes good points. Still, though, right, has he read SmokeLong or NOON or elimae? Has he looked at Luca Dipierro's one-sentence book trailer on YouTube? Will he give these things a try? Because, well, they're not going away. Creative people, you know, they've latched onto this internet thing, this tool. They are making things here. Sure yeah, turn off the computer sometimes, go for a walk, read a book, go to an art gallery. Of course. But man, come on.

  6. Reading this post reminded me of the book "Everything Bad Is Good for You" by Steven Johnson. He makes a very good argument that things like video games and television are actually making us smarter, contrary to popular belief. For example, he diagrams the plotlines of television shows from different eras. "Dragnet" is pretty much a straight line--there isn't anything in the way of subplots and there isn't any deviation away from the main characters. Soap operas break away from that mold, asking viwers to keep track of a ton of different plotlines over a long period of time. The first prime time show he mentions that really embodies that is "Hill Street Blues" (which was, and continues to be, hailed as ground-breaking, no?). It's not nearly as easy a line to draw. Lots of sub-plots that continue through more than one episode, lots of characters interacting with each other across many intertwined relationships. He similarly diagrammed more current shows (I think "The Sopranos" might have been one model he used; "Seinfeld" was another). REALLY complex. But lest one think he was cherry-picking the "quality" shows to make his case, he also diagrammed some really lowbrow stuff (although I'm hard-pressed to remember the specific examples). Much, much more complex today than at any time previously.

    Videogames underwent a similar examination. From the days of Pong to the incredibly layered adventures of today that almost require guide books to finish. He went into a lot of detail about how a kids' game might require the player to get a bucket to go to a well to fill the bucket to grow some flowers to get the bees to make the honey that will be required to offer as a gift to a guard who'll let you pass, etc., etc. Incredibly long trains of logical steps.

    And while people bemoan the dumbing down of the country, intelligence keeps going up. The various tests that are used to measure intelligence continue to adapt to people's new kinds of intelligence. On standardized tests over the decades, he showed that while math and language skills have remained relatively stable and haven't required much adjustment of questions/measurements, logic portions of tests have had to rather radically change to keep up with people's increasing ability to solve complex logical problems.

    And... I'm talking too much. But here's why this post reminded me of the book: there seems to be an assumption that the levels of information and their smaller sizes (emails, texts, very short fictions, etc.) are dumbing us down, when, in fact, it may be completely the opposite. The language is being forced to evolve at an incredibly rapid rate. Yes, we can make fun of chat-speak like LOL, etc., but that language isn't replacing the existing language, it's adding to it. And I look at something like "Easter Rabbit," which I'll admit I still don't fully understand while at the same time immersing myself in it (because I desire to stay immersed in it), and it feels like a further evolution, or at least a demand for further evolution of how we take in information.

    It seems likely to me that the rate at which information impacts us now is going to force us (individually and as a species) to keep getting smarter, to require our brains to do more in less time. How that impacts each person will be fascinating: some will try to deny it in the guise of calling the evolvers less intelligent; some, I suspect, will actually succumb to mental illnesses that we aren't even aware of yet; some will thrive.

    Really interesting post, Lauren. Sorry to go off on such a long tangent.

  7. wow, dave... that is more words than I can read in one sitting ;-)

  8. Fantastic post and commentary.

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  10. In an instance of perfect timing, Freeman reinforces my assertions here:

    (i don't know why this doesn't show up as a link. cut and paste. it's worth it.

  11. Lauren,

    Hi, thanks for this very thoughtful post. I just wanted to drop a line to say that I love very short fiction. Lydia Davis is one of my favorite writers, and in the first issue of Granta I closed (107) the magazine ran three short pieces by Mahmoud Darwish which can be called prose poems or dreams or simply very short fiction. We also ran, on our website, around the same time, an incredible piece by a young writer named Jessica of the best pieces of short fiction I've read in a long time. It was 1000 words. A marvel of compression. Check it out at (I can't seem to paste a link in here). The only reason we didn't publish that story in issue 107 is we couldn't find the right space for it. (Which gets into tedious issues about ads and signatures and the fact that once we decide how long an issue is going be, we can't add pages without making more paper in Italy, which takes 5 weeks).

    Anyway, I should say I don't think it's a slap at the power and artistry of very short fiction to say that a novel, by its nature, often provides a deeper, more emotionally engaging reading experience. It's length allows it that power. In that converation you referenced, I was simply pointing out that the way we tell stories -- or the stories which appeal to large number of readers -- is changing based in part on the media environment we live in, with e-mail being one of the primary agents of change.

    I think it's fair to say that there are some subtleties and complexities of human experience which will be lost in the literary form if more and more writers switch to short chapters, bigger gaps between paragraphs, or just shorter in general. All that said, I think it's always possible to say quite a bit in a few words -- look at haiku! -- and I look for and would happily publish very short fiction if it grabs me and knocks me over.


    John Freeman

    p.s. in reference to another comment above, I don't think this is an issue of elitism. Actually, if you consider the fact that writing and publishing and reading on the internet necessitates access to a computer, which, unless you have the time and mobility to visit a library during hours which often don't fit into the lives of the working class, using the web as a publishing tool has boundaries -- a different set -- but boundaries to entry which are often glossed over. I'm well aware of NOON and think some of the work which is being published on the web and which uses the internet as a creative tool is exciting and full of promise.

  12. I think that's a great point about the web being, at least to some extent, a different barrier for audiences. However, if you look at Twitter and follow the trending topics, you'll find that there's a huge section of the population that those of us in off-white towers don't see much. Cell phones seem to be no barrier whatsoever, and the ability to read on phones is (or should be) opening up much larger audiences/pools of writers.

  13. Hi, John, thanks for stopping by. I didn't say you were being elitist, I said you were condescending, and about this I could be quite wrong, as your post here shows you as probably a very nice guy. Still, the trope "X is what's wrong with society" is one I often find tiresome, much because it's so easy to state. Email, the intenet, public education, big oil, the liberal media, religion, bipartisan politics, bovine growth hormone, factory farming, text messaging, and oversexing the cinema are all running down society, interfering with our ability to think and work and live our lives to their capacity. It is often less easy to take off your dun-colored glasses and look for the wonderful, or at least interesting, things the internet and bipartisan politics could bring us. In any case, I'm writing out of ignorance because except for the broad strokes your book has been characterized in, I don't know much about your arguments. Thanks.

  14. "I think it's fair to say that there are some subtleties and complexities of human experience which will be lost in the literary form if more and more writers switch to short chapters, bigger gaps between paragraphs, or just shorter in general. All that said, I think it's always possible to say quite a bit in a few words -- look at haiku! -- and I look for and would happily publish very short fiction if it grabs me and knocks me over."

    I haven't read the book, but this paragraph here does betray both condescension ("look at haiku!") and a lack of familiarity with the rich variety of very short fiction available and being written today ("bigger gaps between paragraphs"?)-- I could go on and on in explication, but honestly, if you aren't up on what you're talking about in the first place, what's the point? There is no logical, direct connection between "e-mail" and very short fiction. There is no threat to longer literature, or any other form of art.

    Read Joseph Young ( Read Smokelong Quarterly ( Just for starters, and follow links from there to discover more, and try not to become deeply, emotionally engaged along the way. I promise you, you will become haunted.

  15. Hi John:

    Thank you for your very gracious response to my post.

    Though it might not sound like it, I greatly enjoyed your interview. I was fascinated by your incorporation of your literary background into a discussion of the historical parallels in which changes in means of communication have affected the quality of human interaction.

    I am glad to hear that you do, in fact, have an appreciation, not only for very short fiction, but for its online presence. The story to which you directed me at the Granta website is exceptional and an excellent example of the depth and richness that this form may convey. While I have a true love and respect for very short fiction, and read it often, I agree with you that longer narrative provides a more substantial experience. At the same time, I cannot agree with your point that novels, by nature, are more emotionally engaging. Very short fiction, by its more condensed nature, may evoke strong emotion with taut rapidity or slow build-up. In either case, it may be devastating, beautiful, mournful and so much else.

    I do not propose that all very short fiction is good. But when you do see something that grabs you and knocks you over, I hope you will pick yourself up and send an acceptance letter at once, without apology for including it online rather than in print. Today I sat at my computer and read a lovely story at I look forward to reading more.

    Best regards,

    Lauren Becker

  16. things lost, things gained
    literary form

    the human need for narrative form is not necessarily diminished by changes in the technology of media, and that which is essentially human will continue to come through regardless of the form of the media

    one aspect of the vsf and the internet is the 'fruit fly cycle'... things move/morph/adapt very very fast... certainly there can be a sense of dislocation, that nothing stays put long enough to feel subtle or complex... but the pear is still there rotting on the table

  17. For the record, I think pithy emails can and do tell some wonderful stories. Having to answer work correspondence at night is a different matter altogether.

    I don't buy that the form or availability of the writing is the problem here.

  18. interesting write-up and comments, obviously

    this is funny to me on a personal note b/c the first online Granta piece I read was this 600-word gem -

    i've had similar discussions with other flash writers about length...some of my stories that seemed done at 300 words greatly improved at 1000 words...but most just got more boring/bloated

    saw an interesting line today from maura stanton to her prose poem at matchbook - - she says, "When I write regular fiction that goes on for pages it’s hard not to feel embarrassed about all the boredom I’m creating. But the prose poem feels just right. It lets me do anything, it’s always a surprise, and it’s over before anyone has time to yawn. Or so I hope." Sometimes I can relate to that with my writing.