Type "Hemingway's six-word story" into a search engine and you get hundreds of hits. The vast majority of them are people saying what a magnificent story it is, how powerful, how evocative, how inspirational, etc, etc.
But, does it deserve this adulation? Well, frankly ... no. For a start, it seems pretty unlikely that Hemingway actually wrote it. And while I can't argue about the fact there are six words there, I will metaphorically bang my fists on the table at this point and shout NO WAY IS THIS A STORY!
I accept there's no hard-and-fast definition of what a story actually is. It needs a beginning, a middle, and an end, some will say. It should be about a character facing a challenge, others will tell you. It needs a moment of epiphany, somebody at the back will whisper. They're all good theories, but there are exceptions to all of these 'rules' that I still consider stories. I'm a traditionalist, in many ways, but essentially my main requirement for a story is that it should be about something happening to someone. And, as a reader, I want to know two things: who that someone is, and what happens.
Now, this doesn't mean I'm going to demand pages of back-story about every character. I can get by without even knowing their name. The important thing is, I want to get a feel for them, for who they are. And just a word or two can be enough to sow that seed. Having that feel for a character is where a story gets its emotional punch from - whether the character is a saint or the most devious scumbag on the planet, you need to feel that sense of connection to care whether they're rewarded or punished. The baby shoes story has no characters in it. It's a card in a newsagents window, or a classified advert. Who cares about that?
The main failing, though, is the 'What happens?' part of the equation. While I will be the first to admit that the main event of the story doesn't have to occur during the narrative itself, I don't think it's unreasonable to ask for a hint or two about what it might actually have been.
But, Dan, it's obvious - the baby died. That's why it's such a sad and beautiful story.
Well, apart from being one of my pet hates (...This story needs more drama - I know, I'll chuck a dead baby in! Guaranteed emotional gut-punch!), there's nothing to back that up. True, it's probably the first conclusion most people will jump to, but does it stand up to scrutiny? Not really. What's the first thing people do in times of extreme grief? Personally, I believe there would be a lot of things on the list ahead of cranking up eBay. Your kid dies and all you can think about is trying to get a few quid back on the clothes they won't be wearing? Yeah, no, I don't think so.
So, what else might have happened?
- The baby (and, why not, the mother too) died and the father distracts himself from the overwhelming grief by selling all their possessions one by one through the local paper.
- The father died on his way to the hospital and, as he'd chosen the shoes, the mother can't bear to see the baby wearing them.
- The shoes were bought by the grandparents, but due to a row about what the baby will be called, the parents have shut them out of the baby's life and refused to accept their gift.
- The baby was born with no feet.
- The shoes are liquidation stock from a baby boutique that's gone out of business.
- The baby was born with enormous feet.
- The shoes are owned by a shoe fetishist who's finally overcome his addiction to tiny footwear.
- There never was a baby - it was all part of an elaborate practical joke that got out of hand and just returning the gifts would be really awkward.
- The baby turns out to be an alien, with a writhing mass of tentacles instead of legs. The parents are nonetheless smitten, and raise the baby as their own, but don't need the shoes.
- The baby's been born in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and, thanks to the radiation poisoning, has three legs, so a pair of shoes isn't much use.
- The notice in the newsagents window is a coded message for a secret agent, and has nothing at all to do with shoes or babies.
- The baby shoes are shoes made from babies.
- The mother is the Little Mermaid, and when her first child arrives she discovers the magic potion that gave her her legs doesn't extend to her offspring, who's born sporting a fishy tale.
- Who buys shoes for a baby, anyway? They can't walk, they don't need shoes. The baby wears booties and everyone's happy.
- The shoes were a gift and got lost in the post. When they turned up five years later, nobody in the house needed them.
- The parents are obsessed with designer brands and the shoes were a present from a well-meaning but less label-conscious relative.
... and I'm sure there are hundreds of other possible explanations. But that's the beauty of it, people might claim. It can be all these and more. What a wonderful story! No, that's not how a story works. In a story, you might not know exactly what's happened, but you do need a reasonable idea of what it might be that's floating there, hazily, just outside the narrative. The baby shoes piece might well lend itself to the ideas above and more, but that makes it a good writing prompt, not a good story.
To bring things to a close, I'll leave you with something Hemingway did write (in his diary), and though it's more than six words long, it has character, drama, and is an infinitely better story than Baby Shoes:
Got tight on absinthe last night. Did knife tricks.