Baby literature

This week, Jean Morley muses on the mini-novel form

For sale: baby shoes; never worn. 

That heart-stopping little nugget comes courtesy of Ernest Hemingway, who, in response to a 10 dollar bet, managed to write the world’s shortest story. It was an impressive feat by the author renowned for his tomes of impersonal prose. Replacing his exacting accounts of guerrilla war tactics and the marital problems of artistic couples, he used six words to create this poignant snapshot of human life. 

Imagine the possibilities of the six-word novel for the tired, twenty-first century reader. We’ve all been there: you’re in pseudo-intellectual mode and about to open your mouth to discuss a seminal work of modern literature. You can’t look dumb.

Mid-sentence however, it emerges that your knowledge of Jane Austen’s classic comes from a glittering Bollywood epic, where Mr Darcy is a single man in possession of not only good fortune but a pair of golden dancing shoes. Ouch. It makes me sad to have to report that Wikipedia plot summaries are not always reputable bastions of knowledge we expect. It was a let-down to read that Far from the Madding Crowd is not a pastoral account of nineteenth century life, but a Nu-rave hotspot in Tokyo’s Eastern quarter.

Of course, we could muse upon the rapid deterioration of modern literature. But I suggest we capitalise upon it, by reading and creating six-word novels. 

Unfortunately, this blog won’t be a good place to start. I understand why George Bernard Shaw began a note to his friend, “excuse the long letter, I haven’t time to write a short one.” Summarising anything is unbelievably difficult. My own attempts to rewrite novels in mini-form have hinted at literary massacre. Alice in Wonderland, that timeless children’s classic, became, “Don’t drink strange potions, seek help.” Frankenstein was, “Monstrous fun, don’t try this at home.” Romeo and Juliet became similarly preachy: “Don’t trust the friar, I’d say,” or, the piece of advice we’d most like to have given the star-crossed lovers, “Send text when snail-mail fails.”

Given my obvious ineptitude for rewriting the works of others, perhaps I should stick to writing mini-novels of my own. Attempting to compose a piece as touching as Mr Hemingway’s, I’ve taken inspiration from one of the saddest events in a child’s life: the death of a gold-fish. If “Bubbles is swimming among the stars” doesn’t bring warm salty drops to the corner of your eyes, you’re a cold, callous, excuse for a human. At any rate, my attempt is decidedly superior to Joan Rivers. “Liars! Hysterectomy didn’t improve sex life” may have been to the point, but it imparts more information than most readers would ever want to glean from a seven-hundred-page autobiography. 

Of course, the concept of a six word summation isn’t entirely ‘novel’. Excusing the excruciating pun for a moment, it seems that the six-word summation has its application in other fields. History Ireland Magazine recently ran a competition asking readers to use six words to summate a historical occasion. One admittedly tasteless entry took on the theme of the Irish famine: “Blight, no chips, sight coffin ships.” Another managed to squeeze into six words at least eighty years of civil war divide. Describing Michael Collin’s assassination at Béal na Bláth it read, “Arrived half shot, departed fully shot.” My personal favourite though deserves to be turned into a worldwide slogan for St. Patrick’s day. “Saint came, snakes wane, scholarly fame.” Exactly. 

Of course, the mini novel isn’t entirely flawless. I admit writers may have problems convincing readers to buy six words of prose. But really, in an age where reading is a six-minute encounter with Metro at the back of a bus, or our most private words become noun-starved nonsense on the screen of a phone, short fiction makes sense.