Why Six-Word Novels are Bullshit

I met my friend Erin over an argument. She didn't like something or other that I wrote in Boise Weekly, and decided to shout at me about it in a punk club. That turned into a wild disagreement on literature that has made us friends ever since.

Erin, a book store clerk and published book reviewer, also likes to write flash fiction (stories generally less than 100 words), something I largely detest. Not because of its its brevity, but because I dislike trying to make things be things they aren't instead of letting them be the best whatever they already are that they can be, and that once you begin with the premise of writing flash fiction, you're already creating a box—extremely short form—that the story you are writing may not fit into. Stories should be as long or as short as they need to be, no more, no less.

Obviously, Erin disagreed, and brought up the so-called six-word novel, something that was big on Twitter for a while with the hashtag #SixWordNovels, but that was around before Twitter as well. Erin cited a story by Hemingway as an example of how six words was all it took to tell a rich and engaging story: “Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.”

I'll admit, Hemingway has never really been my thing. But the belief that those six words somehow constitute a complete story is patently absurd. We went 12 rounds over it, convincing everyone in the bar we were about to come to blows, when in fact we were having a great time.

Erin's argument was that from those six words, a reader is given a sense of plot, background, and an emotional weight that conveys the story's gravitas. I completely disagree because from my perspective the plot is wildly ambiguous, and the background and weight that would be delivered hinge on those plot points.

How so?

Why weren't the baby shoes ever worn? I'm serious. Why? If you know about Hemingway's life, or have read his work, then you fill in the blanks with the events in A Farewell to Arms (his wife and child die). But, one: that's a helluva lot more than six words, and two: not everyone has read it, and three: that's a subjective inference.

Everything that supposedly makes this story great comes from the idea that it is a tasteful take on tragedy, a concise slice of life that showcases the fine line where tragedy bumps into the day-to-day life we still have to live while enduring it. His baby is dead, and now he has to deal with the physical objects around him that stir him up through emotional association. It's heavy.

But what if the shoes weren't worn because they didn't fit the baby they were bought for, who is alive and plump without a care in the world? What if someone bought the shoes as a gag present for a person with extremely large feet? What if they were given as a gift at a baby shower and the expectant mother got two of the same pair from two different attendees? What if a junkie told her parents she was pregnant so they would give her money to spend on heroin and they instead bought her baby stuff which she was then trying to sell? What if a wholly different tragedy struck and the baby was born with deformed feet that don't fit in shoes? Etc.

The point is that those are all very different stories, and if you reach the end of the six words and you can't say for certain what happened, then no, it isn't a complete story. I accept some ambiguity of character as acceptable at the end of a story, but not ambiguity of plot. And moreover, if the events of the story are totally different than those the reader believes to have transpired, then the intended emotional connection is false as well. I don't think you can even say for certain that the story is a tragedy, and not a comedy. I'm not saying that a complete story can't be told in six words, just that I find it highly unlikely it will be truly complete or satisfying for the reader.

Some would say that art is subjective, and that you take from the story what you will. But with storytelling, the area that is open to interpretation is more about how to feel about the story, not about what it is that the story is actually about.

For example: let's assume that it's a story about Hemingway's baby dying and not any of the other potential scenarios. If so, at the end, one could feel sad, they could feel that he dodged a bullet because having kids is a burden, they could feel that capitalism is a beautiful system that allows for the best possible distribution of required goods even in the face of tragedy, or many other things. That's the subjective interpretation of art that works for this medium. But those emotional responses are still based on the perceived fact and/or events of the story, and if in fact those fact or events are different, then it's all screwy. It's like a server in a restaurant writing down on a ticket that you want a club sandwich and the cook deciding that means you really wanted a batter-fried human thumb. That level of subjectivity doesn't apply to written communication because there is an intended message. If the medium is too short to convey that message, then it doesn't work. And if it is short enough to convey that message, then that brings up a whole other issue.

Social media has driven the idea that brevity is somehow a paramount value. But there is a strong tendency for people to mistake shallow thinking for concise writing. If a story only takes six words, fine, but it probably isn't a very interesting story. Incredibly complex issues don't always fit into 140 characters, and trying to force them into that box does a disservice to your subject and to your readers. And with both flash fiction and social media, it's the box that comes first, not what fits into it.

Of course, Erin disagreed to the bitter end (last call), a truly wonderful character trait, and continued to work on her yet-to-be-published collection of flash fiction, a book I sincerely look forward to reading one day.

You can read more of Erin's “wrong” opinions on her blog, or in her work for The Blue Review.



what are you talking about - part II

In our first discussion of one book among the slew of books written to help us plebes decipher James Joyce, we looked at James Joyce’s Ulysses and Anthony Burgess’s Rejoyce (1965). (Anthony Burgess who is best known for his 1962 novel, A Clockwork Orange.)

Part Two will find us taking on Joyce’s last novel, Finnegans Wake, and John Bishop’s 1986 tome, Joyce’s Book of the Dark.

If you weren't aware already, Finnegan's Wake is one of the most incredibly written and misunderstood books ever printed. It’s hard to even find an entry point in beginning to talk about it, not least of all because the book has no concrete entry point of its own but starts in the middle of a sentence. Joyce drops his readers into his ocean of words and we’re swept away by the fast moving and often baffling current. Here’s what I mean:

 “But the duvlin sulph was in Glugger, that lost-to-lurning. Punct. He was sbuffing and sputing, tussing like anisine, whipping his eyesoult and gnatsching his teats over the brividies from existers and the outher liubbocks of life. He halth kelchy chosen a clayblade and makes prayses to his three of clubs. To part from these, my corsets, is into overlusting fear. Acts of feet, hoof and jarrety: athletes longfoot. Djowl, uphere!”

But then, what does one expect? Driven mad by the trials and tribulations of Ulysses (the struggle to complete it and then the obscenity trial(s) shortly after its original publication) as well as his ongoing battle with eye problems (iritis, glaucoma and cataracts leading to twenty operations and unimaginable pain and suffering), it’s a wonder he even bothered with another novel -- let alone one of such far-reaching magnitude.  The popular notion is that Ulysses is a book about and which takes place in a single day and Finnegans Wake being about “night,” specifically dreams and the netherworld of anything-goes. But that theory, even if it’s what the author had in mind as a concept, is just too easy of a description.

Hardly anyone understood what Joyce had written. Even those who stood behind him years before while he toiled arduously on Ulysses thought he’d gone off the rails.I am made in such a way that I do not care much for the output from your Wholesale Safety Pun Factory,” wrote Harriet Weaver to Joyce in a twisted fan letter, “nor for the darknesses and unintelligibilities of your deliberately entangled language system. It seems to me you are wasting your genius.

D.H. Lawrence didn’t seem to enjoy the ride, either: “My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but old fags and cabbage-stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest, stewed in the juice of deliberate journalistic dirty-mindedness – what old and hard-worked staleness, masquerading as the all-new!” Ever the competitor, Vladimir Nabokov didn’t want Lawrence to get all the fun and so did his own act of bitchiness by whining the book was, “nothing but a formless and dull mass of phony folklore, a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room [...] and only the infrequent snatches of heavenly intonations redeem it from utter insipidity…”  Yowza!

Two editors at Houyhnhnm Press, Danise Rose and John O’Hanlon, set out to publish a “more comprehensible” version of the book and, after thirty goddamn years of work, it was finally published in 2010. To get an idea of the work involved, take a look at Rose’s personal copy of Wake with she made her own notations of possible amendments: 

Naturally, a boundary smashing book as such attracts those overachieving souls who wish to decipher it all for the good of humanity. Sticking with the absurdity of it all, I set before you one such example: John Bishop’s 1986 tome, Joyce’s Book of the Dark. It is a 400+ mind-melting page the likes of which not seen since … well, since Finnegans Wake was published some forty-seven years previous. It’s hard to not hype the magnitude of Bishop’s work. A reviewer for the esteemed Library Journal went for the undersell approach by writing that it: “will help serious readers of the Wake get their bearings.” Yes, well maybe that’s true, but whatever bearings Bishop may help us find in Joyce’s work gets thrown off considerably by his own research. He atom-splits Wake into a trillion possibilities and connects the dots between the novel’s various influences: the political/philosophical teachings of Giocan Vico, the Egyptian Book Of The Dead, and that old stand-by reference point and all around great guy, Sigmund Freud. But that’s merely the beginning. In fact, that’s hardly the beginning.  Let’s just take a gander at a random sentence, shall we:

 “According to one line of speculation inevitably issuing from the Wake’s study of ‘meoptics,’ we might therefore conceive of an agent internal to the body agitating the ‘rods and cones of this even’s vision’ into wakefulness during visual dreams – and doing so not haphazardly, but with such weird precision as to etch there, graphically, people, scenes and even alphabetic characters of a sufficiently credulity-gripping lifelikeness as to conceive the dreamer of their reality.”

Yeah, that’s exactly what I was thinking! It’s not just words, either. Oh, no. He’s has gone to the trouble of making us some visual aids. Check this one out: 

I’m not going to bother explaining that one for you (because I can’t). Here, try this one that is supposed to be a bit simpler: 

Bishop is the sadist and we’re just masochists.

This book, like its subject matter, has the ability to induce panic attacks. The walls of the reader’s imagination are eliminated and the enormity of not just Finnegans Wake, but of the possibilities of the world and life itself, become almost too big for the mind to handle.

Expect to take this one slow. Bishop’s lofty ideas and theories require patience (Lord knows I haven’t read it all), but it’s worth the time and effort. In that way, Joyce’s Book of the Dark is perhaps the perfect companion to Finnegans Wake as both books challenge and reflect the wonders of language and thought.

However, an argument can be made that Bishop’s work is almost too much. Jeepers, maybe I don’t need a full breakdown of Egyptology in order to understand, say, three certain pages of this thing. (“That Joyce has in mind as a “premier terror” of the dark “errorland” of sleep, the loss of consciousness is suggested by the name that he repeatedly uses throughout the Wake to refer to the Egyptian afterworld.”) This is akin to getting your car stuck on a dirty, wet backroad only then watching the tow truck getting stuck in the same pit as it tries to pull it out.

Bishop himself is a professor of English at the University of California Berkeley, which means he’s about a mile from where I’m writing this thing so I could wander over to his office and ask him myself … but … I’m sure he’s busy.

Joyce’s Book of the Dark is a world unto itself: a fascinating verbal/visual gate-crashing study of the whole goddamn creative universe. It might someday get its own critical companion study -- one which helps us figure out what was going on in Bishop’s head, never mind Joyce’s. It creates new problems, new questions, new furrowed brows. If you want to get your hands really dirty and muck about in the essential fibers which make up the staggering brilliance of James Joyce, Book of the Dark is where you want to be.

But for those of us who need Joyce’s vision watered down just a wee bit more, there is another fantastic manual out there, one which even the hyper-kinetic American philosopher and psychonaut * Terrence McKenna endorsed some years ago. Stay tuned for part three.

*Yep, that’s an actual term, look it up.


What Are You Talking About? (Part 1)


It’s been seventy-three years since James Joyce died in a Zurich hospital after a surgery for a perforated ulcer. Therefore, it’s been seventy-three years since the rest of us have been left to fend for ourselves when it comes to deciphering the author’s two greatest works, Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. Since their publication (1922 and 1939, respectively), most of us know more about these book’s notoriety than their actual plots. Well, guess what? Turns out, since his death, there have been a whole slew of books written by people trying to and then deciding they have, in fact, figured it all out. You've got your reader's guides, your companions, your centennial symposiums, your methods and designs, interpretations, introductions and even unabridged republications of original Shakespeare and Company editions. On and on it goes, everyone seems to have an angle and, apparently, everyone has a goddamn book contract. 


Perhaps the most readable of these is 1965’s Rejoyce by Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess. (Also published as: Here Comes Everybody: An Introduction To James Joyce For The Ordinary Reader). The main reason the book’s success as a digestible look at Joyce’s work is due to Burgess’ career as a critic and linguist, both of which are fairly important decoding tools needed for the job. Though how he was able to condense a brilliant and, ultimately challenging writing career into three hundred paperback pages might be worth a book itself, but let’s not let get distracted.


In quick succession, Burgess unravels Joyce’s early work (Dubliners, A Portrait Of The Artist… and Chamber Music) into bite-sized pieces as he takes us into the path of that literary one-two punch of Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. The early work might seem separate entities, but, as one learns from Rejoyce, each act as a stepladder to the next book. Sure, all that is typical, almost expected in a writer’s creative trajectory, but where Joyce ultimately ended up is far from typical.


So, once arriving at the inception, development and execution of Joyce’s last two books, Burgess strips away the perplexity and underscores certain aspects of the narratives which are often lost in the hub-bub. For Ulysses, Burgess reveals the difference between complex inner dialogues of each character which are written in that now famous/notorious stream-of-conscious style:


The first [artistic problem with using extensive interior monologue is concerned with characterization: how does one make one person's interior monologue sound different from another? Joyce…solves the problem by assigning a characteristic rhythm to the thought-stream of each of his main three characters. Stephen’s is lyrical…Bloom’s is quick, jaunty, jerky…Molly’s are long flowing.”


And then there’s this observation on the underlying thematic possibilities:


“Each episode of Ulysses corresponds to an act of the Odyssey, and the correspondence proliferates in a mass of subtle references. When, for instance, Bloom strolls by Sir John Rogerson’s Quay in glorious summer morning weather, he is re-creating the lotus eating episode of the Odyssey. But the Homeric parallel is only the beginning. Shape and direction are primarily imposed on each chapter by means of an Odyssean reference, but that reference suggests related references, sub-references and those have much to do with not only the direction and subject matter […] but the action itself and even the technique [.]”


Oy vey! Even when stripped to its foundations, Joyce’s writing is a bit…oh how shall we say, congested with meaning. And, as we know now, that wasn’t even his most challenging work.


While Burgess does take on Finnegan’s Wake (“Difficult?”, he asks rhetorically about the book, “Oh yes, difficult. But a certain difficulty is the small price we must pay for excitement, richness [and] originality.”), he actually saves much of his critical/analytical expertise for his second book on this subject ten years later entitled Joysprick: An Introduction To The Language Of James Joyce. Sounds like a lovely beach read, no?


Finnegan’s Wake is so full of mystery and verbal rabbit-holes, it’s a wonder anyone even bothers; but then, what's fun about not bothering? Anyway, in part two, we’ll take a look at the a book which may be our best source to figuring out this master’s greatest, most frustrating work. Until then, I leave you with this: