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Formes brèves

 | 
Cécile Meynard
, 
Emmanuel Vernadakis

Première partie : Formes brèves en littérature : définition des concepts

The Economy of Short(est) Fiction : Narrative Forms and Knowledge Stuctures

Michael Basseler

Texte intégral

  • 1 In this essay I draw on several ideas and include some passages from my chapter on “Short-Short Fic (...)

1The title of my essay1 entails two basic assumptions, both of which are probably neither very common in short story criticism nor self-explanatory, and therefore might require some remarks right away. The first assumption pertains to the use of the word “economy” in the first part of my title; the second one is implied in the subtitle, and particularly in the – perhaps somewhat opaque – term “knowledge structures.” And while in my essay, of course, I will try to clarify what I mean by using these concepts at some more length, as well as how they interrelate in my approach to short and very short fiction, let me begin somewhat playfully by providing some very loose and general definitions.

  • 2 W. Chan, The Economy of the Short Story in British Periodicals of the 1890s, London: Routledge, 200 (...)

2The OED defines the term “economy” as “[t]he way in which something is managed; the management of resources; household management.” Among the historical uses of the term listed in the OED, we find, for instance: “the rules which control a person’s mode of living” and “the careful management of resources; sparingness.” Particularly this last notion is something we find frequently in discussions on the short story form, even when the term “economy” is not used explicitly. Short stories handle their material – or, we might say: manage their narrative resources – very carefully, even sparingly. Each constituent, or resource, of the story – be it on the level of the plot or on the level of discourse – is there for a specific reason, nothing is superfluous, everything serves the design – or even effect – of the short story: “In contrast to the novel’s expansiveness, the short story’s brevity forces writers to compress situation, characterization, mood, etc., into a limited space, resorting to suggestion rather than statement […].”2

  • 3 A. Levy, The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story, Cambridge: Cambridge University Pres (...)

3A second connotation of the term economy with regard to short fiction might point to the commercial value of short narratives. Even before the dawn of the American short story in early 19th century, for instance, sentimental stories, providence tales, anecdotes, and numerous other short narrative forms have contributed to the emergence of magazine literature in the 18th century, thus paving the way for professional writers like Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe who where among the first Americans to make a living from their writing. Ever since, the short story has been oscillating between culture and commerce. Until today, commercial magazines like the New Yorker still play an important role in disseminating texts, popularizing authors, styles, and themes, and thus shaping the canon of short fiction writing in English. Andrew Levy’s The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story3 and Winnie Chan’s The Economy of the Short Story in British Periodicals of the 1890s are among the best works that illuminate the ways in which the development of the short story has been entangled with questions of economic but also cultural capital, and thus with the exchange of cultural knowledge in the literary marketplace.

  • 4 K. Curnutt, Wise Economies: Brevity and Storytelling in American Short Stories, Moscow, ID: Univers (...)
  • 5 Loc. cit.
  • 6 Loc. cit.
  • 7 Ibid., p. 2.

4But there is yet another dimension to the notion of narrative economy in short fiction. John Barth once remarked that the we “feed on short stories like living ducks: Take a breath, take the plunge, take our tidbit, and soon surface.”4 Drawing on Barth’s quip, Kirk Curnutt suggests that it is the brevity, or economy, of short stories that creates a “particularly profound experience”5 for the reader: “Because no narrative can absorb all the potential details that might contribute to its significance,” he claims, “some principle of economy must refine it. How a story is minimized in the moment of telling – and what is subsequently left out – is often what tempts the reader to risk another plunge.”6 Economy therefore not only refers to the careful management of resources and the commercial value of short stories, but also describes, in Curnutt’s terms, “systems of cultural exchange, narrative exchange in particular, in which meanings are collaboratively produced by authors and audiences.”7

5This concept of an economy of narrative exchange in which meaning is produced by authors and readers, and always within a certain cultural framework, also already establishes the connection to the second part of my title, and thus to the notion of short-(short) stories as knowledge structures. Again, at this point let me just offer a couple more concepts, ideas and quotations that may further help to sketch the horizon for my essay in a rather loose and associative manner.

  • 8 P. Drucker, The Effective Executive. London : Heinemann, 1967.

By the term “knowledge economy” we usually refer to the ways in which values are produced not by agricultural, industrial or some other labor-intensive forms of work, but by the intellectual work of what Peter Drucker in 1967 famously called the “knowledge worker”.8

6Closely related to the concept of knowledge economy, or information economy, is that of an attention economy. Attention economy describes how in our world of a rapid, extensive distribution of knowledge and information, attention itself becomes a rare and valuable resource. Here’s Herbert Simon’s definition from as early as 1971:

in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else : a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious : it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

7Starting from these rather loose ideas, the aim of my paper is to shed some more light on how we might conceptualize short narrative forms not so much by iterating the formalist-structuralist question of “what makes a short story short,” but by asking how short and shortest forms of fiction, through their careful management of narrative resources, constitute an exchange system of cultural knowledge. In the next section, therefore, I shall elaborate on my notion of a generic economy of short fiction that includes the short story, but also other, that is longer (novella) and shorter (flash fiction) forms of narrative fiction. While I take all of these forms to build a generic continuum or system, my focus here will be on very short fiction, since it acuminates and condenses the mentioned questions of sparingness and the careful management of resources as well as the particular reading experience and the meaning-making processes resulting from it. In a next step, I will expand my notion of short and shortest fiction as knowledge structures, before I illustrate my ideas on two examples of flash fiction from contemporary American literature (David Foster Wallace, Lydia Davis).

Flash Fiction and the Economy of Genres

  • 9 See the list provided by W. Nelles, “Microfiction: What Makes a Very Short Story Very Short?,” Narr (...)
  • 10 See R. Shapard, “The Remarkable Reinvention of Very Short Fiction,” World Literature Today, n.p. 20 (...)
  • 11 D. Shields, Reality Hunger, London: Penguin, 2010, p. 126.
  • 12 See also the Introduction in D. Shields, and E. Cooperman, Life is Short – Art is Shorter: In Prais (...)
  • 13 A. Chantler, “Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story,” in A. Cox (ed.), The Short St (...)

8With the publication of collections and anthologies of “sudden,” “flash,” and “micro” fiction since the 1980s,9 a number of explanations for this boom or “reinvention” of very short narratives have been advanced.10 Often, these are based on the notion that short-short fiction is a contemporary phenomenon, attuned to the medial, social, and cultural realities of our historical moment. Some have stressed that these forms are best equipped to capture an incoherent (post)modern world that can, if at all, only be adequately represented in fragments and vignettes. Short-shorts, so this argument goes, address the pluralisation and acceleration of culture and society, which renders grands récits obsolete and ideologically questionable. A version of this argument can be found in David Shields’s Reality Hunger (2011), who reasons that short-shorts “gain access to contemporary feeling states more effectively than the conventional story does,”11 comparing them with other cultural forms like movie-trailers, fast food, and bumper stickers.12 Ashley Chantler also sees the short-short boom as “a sign of the times,” considering that “the internet buzzes with numerous e-zines, websites, forums and blogs containing short-shorts, no doubt because they are perfect for the emailing, texting, abbreviating ADD generation.”13

  • 14 R. Shapard, art. cit., p. xiv.
  • 15 L. Al-Sharqi, and I. S. Abbasi, “Flash Fiction: A Unique Writer-Reader Partnership,” in Studies in (...)
  • 16 R. Shapard and J. Thomas (eds), New Sudden Fiction. Short-Short Stories from America and Beyond, Ne (...)
  • 17 W. Nelles, art. cit, p. 89.

9The proliferation of narrative forms of lesser extent than the conventional short story thus updates the old familiar question of what a short story is, and where its generic boundaries lie, a question that has usually been discussed with reference to longer forms, and especially the novel. Structurally resembling these discussions, anthologies like Sudden Fiction (1983) and Flash Fiction (1992) have introduced new generic terms to suggest that there is an essential rather than relative difference between these forms and the traditional short story. As Robert Shapard confidently claimed in the foreword to Sudden Fiction, almost all of the writers who contributed to the volume “accepted the short-short as a form of its own.”14 Mostly, these new genres are delimitated on quantitative grounds: flash fiction was introduced as a generic term for narrative pieces of up to 750 words (the term “flash fiction” was coined by James Thomas in 1992), but in effect the range goes from about 50 to 2000 words or more.15 Other generic names, like “new sudden fiction”16 and “microfiction”17 also rely on quantitative restrictions of the various varieties of shortest fiction, sometimes based on a mere counting of words, sometimes on the reading time, as in “four-minute fiction.”

  • 18 W. Nelles, art. cit., p. 97.
  • 19 A. Chantler, art. cit., p. 41.
  • 20 The very title of Nelles’s essay is of course a nod to Norman Friedman’s classical essay “What Make (...)
  • 21 W. Nelles, art. cit., p. 91

10From a qualitative perspective, such length-based categorization evokes Norman Friedman’s famous question: “What makes a short story short?” (Friedman, 1958) The trouble, in other words, begins when we want to state where exactly the difference between the various forms of short fiction lies, other than in the sheer number of words. In the most systematic essay to date that grapples with this question, William Nelles claims that “microfiction seems to me not just shorter than the short story, but different: if it’s not a different genre, then at least it’s a different species.”18 Whereas for Chantler the commercially and/or experimentally motivated proliferation of generic terms based on word-count is highly artificial and without any analytical value,19 Nelles claims that there is a significant and even essential qualitative difference between stories of up to 700 words and stories above that length.20 His position is thus in keeping with the notion that quantity is the prerequisite for certain qualitative possibilities of prose fiction. According to him, a “different set of narrative principles does seem to kick in as stories shrink down to a couple of pages or less.”21 However, if one takes a closer look at this “different set of narrative principles” – extreme action, reduced character, indistinct setting, linear temporality and short duration of related events, intertextual referentiality, and closure – it remains doubtful whether these principles are really unique to microfiction, and whether they constitute a generic quality at all.

  • 22 See J. Derrida, “The Law of Genre,” in D. Duff (ed.), Modern Genre Theory, Harlow: Pearson, 2000 [1 (...)
  • 23 W. C. Dimock. “Introduction: Genres as Fields of Knowledge,” PMLA, 122:5, 2007, p. 1379.
  • 24 Ibid., p. 1378.

11There is no shortage of approaches that set out to explain the currency and valence of very short narrative forms in our cultural and media environments; neither is there a lack of quantitative and qualitative attempts at defining and categorizing these forms, based either on pure length or on the narrative techniques which supposedly set them apart from longer stories, or a mix of both. While the cultural critiques, despite their intuitive convincibility, are ultimately speculative and difficult to prove, formalist attempts have to contend with the realization that the “law of genre” is one of impurity rather than purity,22 and that despite solid names genres are not “taxonomic classes of equal solidity but fields at once emerging and ephemeral, defined over and over again by new entries that are still being produced.”23 When looking at an emerging genre like short-short fiction, it makes sense to assume that the limits to other genres like the short story more resemble a “fluid continuum” than any clear-cut and immutable, definitional boundary.24 In the following section, I will therefore provide an alternative approach to short-short fiction that takes as its focus the relationship between narrative economy and the ways in which short narrative texts, through their narrative economy – understood as a qualitative rather than merely quantitative feature –, produce meaning and how they handle knowledge.

Short(-Short) Fiction as Knowledge Structure

  • 25 See N. Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1978. See also V. Nünning, A. Nünning a (...)

12My conception of shortest forms of fiction as knowledge structures starts from the basic assumption that all formal knowledge, regardless of its content, scope, or importance, is necessarily and unavoidably generically constituted. Genres importantly contribute to, and shape, our “ways of worldmaking.”25 In his seminal book on genre, John Frow has put forth a similar idea by arguing that

far from being merely “stylistic” devices, genres create effects of reality and truth, authority and plausibility, which are central to the different ways the world is understood […]. These effects are not, however, fixed and stable, since texts – even the simplest and most formulaic – do not “belong” to genres but are, rather, uses of them ; they refer not to “a” genre but to a field or economy of genres, and their complexity derives from the complexity of that relation. Uses of texts (“readings”) similarly refer, and similarly construct a position in relation to that economy.

13Stressing the pragmatic value of genres in terms of how they enable and constrain meaning-making processes, Frow’s intervention to genre theory offers a fruitful approach to conceptualizing the various kinds of short fiction, spanning a “fluid continuum” from micro-story to novella. First, genres, from such a vantage point, are not simply sets of stylistic, formal as well as thematic conventions, but fulfill important functions with regard to the social production of meaning and knowledge. This implies that genres do not just present an a priori knowledge and give it a particular shape, but rather create meaning, which is inscribed in, and thus inseparably connected to, questions of form. Second, the notion of a field or economy of genres provides an alternative to the taxonomy-oriented approach of formalist-structuralist theorizing in that it stresses the complex, relational quality of genre. In keeping with the Derridean notion of the “law of genre,” one might say that individual texts belong to genres without belonging, always oscillating between various points in a generic continuum and at the same time expanding it. Third, and probably most importantly, the meaning-making processes that take place with every “use” of a text are likewise embedded in this economy of genres. The “effects of reality and truth, authority and plausibility” of certain genres like the short story, flash fiction or novella can therefore only be gauged from a relational perspective.

  • 26 Ibid., pp. 74-76.
  • 27 Ibid., p. 74.

14By focusing on the processes of meaning-making and knowledge production in short narrative forms, I am not suggesting that formal aspects – and (gradual) differences among the various genres – do not matter; on the contrary, what Frow calls truth effects are deeply ingrained in the discursive qualities of the respective genre, including the formal organization, rhetorical structure, and thematic content.26 In this regard, the typical length of texts in a certain genre plays an important role alongside other factors such as verse or prose form, oral or written, and so on. It also includes matters of the formal organization at the level of the presented story as well as at the level of discourse, that is how the story is presented. As one central aspect of this formal organization of genres, “the shaping of the temporal and spatial relations of the projected world, the quality and duration of actions, and the relation between the central narrative “voice” or perspective and the figure of the author produces very particular effects as to how the fictional world is constructed, also with regard to its reference to the real world.”27

  • 28 Ibid., p. 7.
  • 29 R. Brosch, Short Story. Textsorte und Leseerfahrung, Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2007, (...)
  • 30 U. Eco, The Open Work, Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1989, p. 12, original emphasis.

15If all texts construct worlds that are generically specific,28 and meaning is enabled as well as restricted by generic structure, one also needs to take the reception process into account. The “decoding” of generically encoded knowledge presupposes our familiarity with generic conventions and structures. With regard to short forms of narrative fiction, brevity is a (relational) quality that prefigures our “uses” of short fiction, and one might argue that the reading experience that short fiction engenders also significantly differs from that of longer narratives. Renate Brosch, in Short Story: Textsorte und Leseerfahrung (Engl.: Short Story: Genre and Reading Experience), characterizes the short story as an “omitting genre” which “does not aim at a comprehensive depiction of its material, but wants to leave an irritation that calls for completion.”29 Where longer forms such as the novel usually treat their material in a conclusive manner, short fiction tends to evoke “cognitive dissonances” on the part of the reader and trigger what Brosch calls “projective reading,” that is an interpretative disposition that blurs the boundaries between text and context. Short forms of narrative fiction are often “open works” that require a “theoretical, mental collaboration of the consumer.”30 In the same vein, John Gerlach holds that

a story is an invitation to construct explanations, explanations about causality, connections, motives. When we feel we are constructing them significantly […], we sense story. […] Story proper is more accurately defined by speculations it encourages on the part of the reader than by what actually occurs in the reported event. Plot is not necessary, nor is a fleshed-out sense of character and setting, as long as the reader is prodded to think in terms of character and motive.

  • 31 R. Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, New York : Hill and Wang, 1975 [1973].
  • 32 See R. Brosch, op. cit., p. 97.

16Short(est) forms of narrative fiction may therefore effectively be described as knowledge structures, whose meaning and “truth effects” are as much entwined with formal brevity as they are with the specific reading experience rendered by it. The shorter a text, the more “writerly” it tends to become (in Roland Barthes’s terms), bringing pleasure to the engaged reader31 and producing cognitive dissonances that challenge her knowledge system.32

Case Studies : David Foster Wallace and Lydia Davis

  • 33 D. F. Wallace, “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life,” in Brief Interviews with Hid (...)

17The first example I would like to discuss is David Foster Wallace’s “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life,” which appeared as the opening piece in his collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999).33 Here is the entire story, which consists of a mere 85 words including the title:

When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the same twist to their faces.
The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.

18The constituents of this microfiction are very simple. There are three characters, two men and a woman, all of which are unnamed, probably to suggest the universal quality of their encounter as a shared experience of postindustrial life. As readers we hardly get any information about them, except that the man and woman both seem to be single (“each drove home alone”). Neither the temporal frame nor the spatial setting are explicitly defined, but from our cultural knowledge we might infer that the situation takes place at a party or another social event, and it seems likely that the man who introduces the other characters is the host. The kernel event (or rather non-event, since nothing really changes after all) of this flash fiction is the moment in which the two strangers are introduced by the man/host. All three practice the cultural etiquette for such occasions, pretending to like each other and “hoping to be liked” in return. In fact, this social protocol seems to provide the sole connection between them; apart from that, they only share “the same twist to their faces.” With the second paragraph, the perspective shifts toward the host and his social anxiety, which is now spelled out more explicitly as the dominant affect of this encounter. The formulaic phrase at the end highlights the superficiality of the situation, further emphasized by the repetitive syntax (“now did one now did one now did one”) with which the story not only closes in a kind of social perpetuum mobile, but also recalls Gertrude Stein’s famous line from “A rose is a rose is a rose”. Things are what they are.

  • 34 J. Frow, op. cit., p. 115.

19As this brief analysis already shows, there is so little “literal” meaning in the text that readers are forced to construct meaning from their socio-cultural frames and schemata, triggered already by the story’s title. Making up almost one tenth of the entire text the title is particularly important for the construction of meaning, as it provides a textual cue, or “metacommunication,” that guides the reader’s interpretation and tells her “how to use it.”34 As a history of postindustrial life, the story apparently amounts to more than a sparse description of an odd encounter between three people. Rather, the title implies that in a metonymic manner the story stands for postindustrial life pars pro toto: this is the essence of it. As a meta-narrative comment, the fact that this history is “radically condensed” already speaks to the generic quality of the kind of knowledge or meaning Wallace’s story produces. Moreover, the title self-reflexively alludes to the postindustrial knowledge economy of which the characters, but also Foster Wallace as the author of the piece, are a part. Through its extreme narrative condensation, the story projects postindustrial life as a pure absurdity: stripped off anything else that might matter in the characters’ lives – their feelings, hopes and desires, their friends, even their jobs, money, and social status –, the vacuity and, ultimately, meaninglessness of this form of life is foregrounded. As a social practice, pretense – or “acting as if” – has replaced all substance and meaningful relations. This is also captured in the sparse narrative form: there is nothing else worth telling about, or if there is, this would only illustrate what is already presented here, namely the absence of meaning.

20As in all small forms of literature, each and every single word of this story carries particular significance and meaning. Not unlike a poem, Wallace’s story works on the paradigmatic level as much as it does on the syntagmatic level, foregrounding certain semantic relations through linguistic structures. The epiphora in the first two sentences (“hoping to be liked”) intimates the unspoken socio-psychological undertones of the characters’ conversation, but in its parallelism it also signals the uniformity of their lives. Another key word of the story is “anxious,” as it identifies the psycho-social infrastructure of postindustrial life; anxiety and fear are the “structure of feeling” (sensu Raymond Williams) that characterizes the contemporary American society Wallace depicts in this story and many other of his works.

  • 35 A. Fowler, Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes, Oxford: Clarendo (...)
  • 36 H. White, The Content of the Form. Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, Baltimore and (...)

21Changes of scale, that is the enlargement (macrologia) or diminution (brachylogia) of texts, may not only give birth to new genres, as Alastair Fowler contends.35 I argue that they also affect the ways in which literary texts communicate meaning, and in which knowledge is created in the interactive relationship between author, text and reader. Once again, the term “radically condensed history” is instructive here, because it self-reflexively points to the process of brachylogia, and thus to the generic quality of the kind of knowledge Wallace’s story produces. First, whereas history and historiography, but also the novel as a literary form so complexly entangled with history, are usually made up of vast volumes of material, this story presents “history” in a radical fashion by means of omission, absence, exemplification, and compression. What must be known about the history of postindustrial life, Wallace suggests, can be said in less than a hundred words. Second, whereas traditional, capital H History is concerned with big events of public significance and representativeness, Wallace’s piece is also small in the sense that it centers on a seemingly trivial, private encounter between anonymous and therefore interchangeable subjects. The smallness of the narrative coincides with the insignificance of the event it relates: Postindustrial life is best told as a petite histoire. Third, however, the story presents itself as fractal, a tiny form or section that, when magnified, is indistinguishable from, and resembles the whole: the entire history becomes visible in one brief situation, which in turn is the result of that history. The “content of the form” is thus crucial for understanding the ways in which Wallace’s story narrativizes reality, condenses it, and blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction as well as between genres of literature and history.36

  • 37 L. Davis, “My Childhood Friend,” in Can’t and Won’t. London: Penguin Books, 2015 [2014], p. 235.

22My next example is Lydia Davis’s “My Childhood Friend,” from her recent collection Can’t and Won’t (2014).37 It employs similar strategies of omission and condensation, yet is even shorter and more reduced than Wallace’s piece, consisting of no more than 50 words:

Who is this old man walking along looking a little grim with a wool cap on his head ?
But when I call out to him and he turns around, he doesn’t know me at first, either – this old woman smiling foolishly at him in her winter coat.

  • 38 M. Fludernik, Towards A “Natural’ Narratology,” London : Routledge, 1996, p. 12.

23What are the parameters that hold Davis’s piece together as a story? Unlike the previous example by Wallace, which seems to “tell itself” as there is no identifiable narrative instance, this one is told by an overt autodiegetic narrator. Through this narrative perspective, in combination with the extreme brevity and the lack of any signals of fictionality, the story blurs all generic boundaries between fiction and autobiography, between “imagined” and “real” lives. Are we to assume that it is the author, Lydia Davis, who is speaking here? Moreover, one may debate whether this text constitutes a story at all, or whether it is not rather a short impressionist or imagist poem. However, if we accept temporality and experientiality, defined as “the quasi-mimetic evocation of real-life experience,” as the key elements of narrativity, then it becomes clear why Davis’s text is best conceptualized as a story.38 As we read and process it, it activates certain cognitive parameters and embodied experience that are temporally situated: this is what it feels like to meet an old friend after so many years.

24Again, the title is crucial in that it provides the key to understanding the relationship between the characters, which is not explicitly mentioned in the story itself: they are childhood friends. Interestingly, the title gives the possessive adjective (“my childhood friend”) rather than the indefinite article (“a childhood friend”), thus further linking this specific experience to the I-narrator’s subjectivity. The season is winter, metaphorically alluding to the season of the characters’ lives. In contrastive relation to the temporal marker “childhood,” the adjective “old” serves to condense the piece’s temporality – this is a long story of several decades cut short in a mere three lines. The story omits everything that has happened in between, and even their relationship is only vaguely hinted at by the term “childhood friend,” thus triggering a number of questions: What kind of friendship did they share, and for how long? What, in fact, do we mean if we call someone a “childhood friend?” Why does he look “a little grim?” And what does it mean that she smiles at him “foolishly?” What will happen next? Will they talk to each other, maybe spend the day in a café nearby and indulge in memories about their shared childhood? Will they meet each other regularly from then on, rekindle their friendship and maybe even become lovers? Or will he “grimly” rebuff her, pretending that he doesn’t remember or know her?

  • 39 R. Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel : Lecture Courses and Seminars at the Collège de France, 1 (...)
  • 40 Loc. cit.
  • 41 Ibid., p. 49.
  • 42 Cl. Öhlschläger, “‘Feindialektik Der Zeit’, Aspekte Einer Epistemologie der Kleinen Form in Transna (...)

25While the story leaves all of this up to the reader’s imagination, it does make a point about the nature of such encounters. By juxtaposing, condensing, and contrasting different layers of time, Davis’s piece is an excellent example of Roland Barthes’s notion of a form of writing that allows one to capture and express the aesthetics of the everyday, providing what Barthes called an “acute dialectic of time.”39 “Why “acute dialectic?” Because, “in each case, […] a contradiction between two categories: brief, searing contradiction, like a kind of logical flash, too quick to cause any pain.”40 Barthes derives this notion mainly from the haiku form, but it seems very fitting for microfictions like Davis’s too: it dramatizes the momentariness and fleetingness of an instant that for Barthes “doesn’t appear to be compromised by any duration, any return, any retention, any saving for later, any freezing,” yet also already transforms this instant into memory and implying “the immediate consumption of that memory.”41 Claudia Öhlschläger astutely summarizes Barthes ideas: “Small forms […] provide the formal framework for the immediacy of the instant, while in the act of recording they already archive its disappearance.”42 As in Wallace’s micro-story, the “content of the form” here correlates with an epistemology that is intricately linked to the radical economy and reduced character of the narrative.

Conclusion : The Knowledge of “Small” Literature

  • 43 See also M. Basseler, An Organon of Life Knowledge. Genres and Functions of the Short Story in Nort (...)

26By looking at the recent phenomenon of flash fiction, I have tried to demonstrate how short narrative forms, through their formal and stylistic economy, create very particular reading experiences and, consequently, certain effects of reality and truth. While we have witnessed a revival of the discussions about “the knowledge of literature” in the recent years, the generic constitution of literary knowledge has been conspicuously absent in this debate. This is especially true for short fiction. To my mind, however, if we want to come to terms with the ways in which literature contributes to our knowledge, and how it often makes us feel that we are cognitively better off for having read a text, we need to take into account the role of genre, not so much as a fixed and stable entity but rather as a fluid continuum, or field of knowledge.43 I have therefore referred to the economy of short fiction – both at a formal level and as a complex system of a narrative exchange of meaning that involves authors, readers, and cultural contexts – to describe the knowledge of “small” literature. This knowledge often stands in contrast to the culturally dominant forms of knowledge, which aim at comprehensiveness and totality, rather than selectiveness and adumbration.

  • 44 S. Autsch, C. Öhlschläger, and L. Süwolto (eds.), Kulturen des Kleinen. Mikroformate in Literatur, (...)

27In the wake of a valorization of popular culture, digital media, and the aesthetics of the everyday, as well as in the context of the larger processes of our knowledge and attention economies, small forms and their aesthetic modeling might gain in importance, particularly with regard to the transformation processes in our modes of perception, information and communication. Consequently, we might ask how and to what extent short and shortest forms of literary expression shape our cultures, generating new perspectives and knowledge. On the one hand, micro forms can be interpreted as a response to our experience of the scarcity of time – or economy of attention – as a vital resource in our condensation as well as distribution of knowledge. On the other hand, they also focus on the moment and on manifestations of the ephemeral by drawing our attention to minute details and often to the seemingly unimportant, trivial, and marginal.44

  • 45 O. Ette, (ed.), Nanophilologie : Literarische Kurz- Und Kürzestformen in Der Romania, Tübingen : Ni (...)

28Instead of delineating clear-cut boundaries between various genres such as the short story, flash fiction, sudden fiction, novella, etc., I would suggest that an analysis of short-short fiction allows us to perceive and analyze patterns that stand in a metonymic or self-similar relation with literature by and large, very much in the sense of what Ottmar Ette has called “nanophilology.”45 A nanophilological approach to short forms of fiction not only acts on the assumption that a micronarrative, as a kind of fractal, always signals its literary and cultural macrocosmos. Even more importantly, it is interested in the ways in which short(est) literary forms experimentally deploy knowledge in the brief, fleeting moments they zoom in on, and how they are engaged in the wider cultural processes of the production and exchange of meaning.

Notes

1 In this essay I draw on several ideas and include some passages from my chapter on “Short-Short Fiction” in P. Delaney, A. Hunter (ed). The Edinburgh Companion to the Short Story in English, Edinburgh: EUP, 2018, pp. 147-159. Reproduced with permission of Edinburgh University Press through PLSclear.

2 W. Chan, The Economy of the Short Story in British Periodicals of the 1890s, London: Routledge, 2007, p. XV.

3 A. Levy, The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

4 K. Curnutt, Wise Economies: Brevity and Storytelling in American Short Stories, Moscow, ID: University of Idaho Press, 1997, p. 1.

5 Loc. cit.

6 Loc. cit.

7 Ibid., p. 2.

8 P. Drucker, The Effective Executive. London : Heinemann, 1967.

9 See the list provided by W. Nelles, “Microfiction: What Makes a Very Short Story Very Short?,” Narrative, 20: 1, 2012, pp. 87-104.

10 See R. Shapard, “The Remarkable Reinvention of Very Short Fiction,” World Literature Today, n.p. 2012. Web, 29 July 2015, https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2012/september/remarkable-reinvention-very-short-fiction-robert-shapard, accessed 10 march 2019.

11 D. Shields, Reality Hunger, London: Penguin, 2010, p. 126.

12 See also the Introduction in D. Shields, and E. Cooperman, Life is Short – Art is Shorter: In Praise of Brevity, Portland: Hawthorne Books, 2015.

13 A. Chantler, “Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story,” in A. Cox (ed.), The Short Story, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2008, p. 49.

14 R. Shapard, art. cit., p. xiv.

15 L. Al-Sharqi, and I. S. Abbasi, “Flash Fiction: A Unique Writer-Reader Partnership,” in Studies in Literature and Language, 11:1, 2015, pp. 52-56, p. 52.

16 R. Shapard and J. Thomas (eds), New Sudden Fiction. Short-Short Stories from America and Beyond, New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2007, p. 15.

17 W. Nelles, art. cit, p. 89.

18 W. Nelles, art. cit., p. 97.

19 A. Chantler, art. cit., p. 41.

20 The very title of Nelles’s essay is of course a nod to Norman Friedman’s classical essay “What Makes the Short Story Short,” with which Nelles shares his dominantly formalist approach.

21 W. Nelles, art. cit., p. 91

22 See J. Derrida, “The Law of Genre,” in D. Duff (ed.), Modern Genre Theory, Harlow: Pearson, 2000 [1980], pp. 219-231.

23 W. C. Dimock. “Introduction: Genres as Fields of Knowledge,” PMLA, 122:5, 2007, p. 1379.

24 Ibid., p. 1378.

25 See N. Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1978. See also V. Nünning, A. Nünning and B. Neumann (ed.), Cultural Ways of Worldmaking, Verlin/New York: de Gruyter, 2010.

26 Ibid., pp. 74-76.

27 Ibid., p. 74.

28 Ibid., p. 7.

29 R. Brosch, Short Story. Textsorte und Leseerfahrung, Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2007, p. 83, translation mine.

30 U. Eco, The Open Work, Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1989, p. 12, original emphasis.

31 R. Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, New York : Hill and Wang, 1975 [1973].

32 See R. Brosch, op. cit., p. 97.

33 D. F. Wallace, “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life,” in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, New York: Black Bay Books, 2007 [1999], p. 10.

34 J. Frow, op. cit., p. 115.

35 A. Fowler, Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982, pp. 172-73.

36 H. White, The Content of the Form. Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

37 L. Davis, “My Childhood Friend,” in Can’t and Won’t. London: Penguin Books, 2015 [2014], p. 235.

38 M. Fludernik, Towards A “Natural’ Narratology,” London : Routledge, 1996, p. 12.

39 R. Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel : Lecture Courses and Seminars at the Collège de France, 1978-1979 and 1979-1980, trans. N. Léger. New York : Columbia University Press, 2011, p. 48.

40 Loc. cit.

41 Ibid., p. 49.

42 Cl. Öhlschläger, “‘Feindialektik Der Zeit’, Aspekte Einer Epistemologie der Kleinen Form in Transnationalen Perspektive,” in S. Autsch et al. (eds), Kulturen des Kleinen, Mikroformate in Literatur, Kunst Und Medien, Paderborn : Wilhelm Fink, 2014, p. 60, translation mine.

43 See also M. Basseler, An Organon of Life Knowledge. Genres and Functions of the Short Story in North America. Bielefeld : Transcript, 2019.

44 S. Autsch, C. Öhlschläger, and L. Süwolto (eds.), Kulturen des Kleinen. Mikroformate in Literatur, Kunst und Medien, op. cit., p. 11.

45 O. Ette, (ed.), Nanophilologie : Literarische Kurz- Und Kürzestformen in Der Romania, Tübingen : Niemeyer, 2008, p. 1.

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University of Giessen

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