How short can a short story be?

by John Boland

Brevity, as Shakespeare noted,  is the soul of wit, which is probably one of the reasons why some readers cherish the lyric poem over the epic and the short story over the novel. But how short can a short story be before it loses all substance and meaning?

Very short, indeed, in the view of American author Lydia Davis, whose Collected Stories push the possibilities of the form to its minimal limits. Formerly married to novelist Paul Auster, the much-praised Davis is so tersely elliptical that she makes the cool, spare Auster seem positively garrulous.

Here’s one of her stories, A Double Negative, in its entirety: “At a certain point in her life, she realises it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.” And here’s another, this one called Away From Home: “It has been so long since she used a metaphor.” Or how about Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room, whose title is twice as long as the text, which reads: “Your housekeeper has been Shelly.”

Hmm, perhaps a little too pared down and self-consciously enigmatic for me, and also lacking the poignancy of the tiny unpublished story usually attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

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