It was only matter of time before Twitter-era writers would burst out of their frustrating 140-character non-fiction straitjackets, expand their literary horizons, and swing for the fences.
Welcome, then, to Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer (W.W. Norton), just out and edited by Robert Swartwood, a Lititz, Pa., blogger who’s already run a “hint fiction” contest judged by novelist Stewart O’Nan and claims a kind of “meme copyright” on the notion. The book defines its new genre as “a story of 25 words or fewer that suggests a larger, more complex story.”
Could such a form suggest a smaller, less complex story?
Swartwood, at any rate, claims in his introduction that Hemingway created the first “six-word story.” Hemingway scholars question the tale, but Papa’s alleged “hint story” does display the edgy sort of soupçon Swartwood has in mind: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
A few name writers have been lured into this fey conceit between covers, though presumably not because Swartwood paid them by the word. Here’s Peter Straub’s “The Endless Mystery": “When, on his deathbed, he last saw her, she had not aged by so much as a day.”
Joyce Carol Oates, who perhaps wrote hers in a nanosecond, contributes “The Widow’s First Year": “I kept myself alive.”
Ha Jin, working his traditional territory, offers “Ideal": “The boy dreams of becoming a panda, who makes money by meeting visitors. For such a pampered celebrity, even a girlfriend is provided.”
Some of the masterworks of less celebrated writers are, truth be told, better. One is Adam-Troy Castro’s “Chance Meeting at the Insurance Office": “He had a fat neck, predatorial eyes, and a smirk of cruel recognition. `Yes,’ I said, without any pleasure. `I do remember you from high school.’”
And thriller writer Tess Gerritsen maintains her toughness in “The Lover’s Regret": “They are now grown up, the children I abandoned to be with you. They hate me. But not nearly as much as I hate you.”
In his brief (though not 6-word) introduction, Swartwood rolls out every rationale he can for recognition of “hint fiction” as a serious form, albeit one at the bottom of a hierarchy he describes as “novel, novella, novelette, short story, sudden fiction, flash fiction, micro fiction, drabble, dribble.”
Our hint entrepreneur reminds us that “less is more.” He declares that “the length of a story does not determine the credentials of a writer.” He warns, “It’s always a slippery slope when people begin placing limitations on art...”
Well, I’m not sure I’m convinced. But I do agree with Swartwood’s claim that “Hint Fiction is an exercise in brevity.”—Carlin Romano, Critic-at-Large