Wednesday 24 July 2013

Not the Best Short Story Ever Written

We've all seen it.

According to legend, Ernest Hemingway came up with this one night in order to win a bet, showing off his mastery of language by writing a story in just six words. It's often wheeled out as an example for new writers to gawp at. And gawp they do, struck dumb by the sheer power of it. The six-word 'masterpiece' is often held up as an example of how leaving things out of a story can sometimes be even more powerful than putting them in.

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 diedThat'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.
Science Fiction:
  • 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.


Perry said...

Or the shoes were too small. I've seen 'wedding dress' used instead of 'baby shoes'.

You're right, it's not a story. If it is, I'll publish a shopping list. Maybe my bank statement, too. Now that would be a story worthy of Dickens.

Dan Purdue said...

Would that be 'Hard Times', or 'Great Expectations', Perry?

The shoes might have been an "inappropriate" colour, if the parents hadn't known the sex of the baby and had hedged their bets by buying pink and blue. The list goes on.

"Wedding dress" works fairly well - I suppose it's slightly more specific, but it still doesn't quite make it a story by my reckoning.

Unknown said...

Its not a story, no. But it would work as a blurb :)

Some of your 'comncal' reasons made me giggle :)

Lindsay said...

I enjoyed reading your takes on this far more than the original 6 words! I also love it when someone bucks the trend of saying how wonderful Hemingway's writing is! Some of it is dire.

Patsy said...

Whoever wrote it has used the six words well, I think. Like all pieces of writing some will like it more than others. I like it.

What would you call it if not a story?

Dan Purdue said...

Thanks, Dee.

Cheers, Lindsay - thinking up those alternative takes was good fun.

Patsy - That's a good question. I don't have a suggestion, I'm sorry to say. Some might call it flash fiction, but I think flash is generally supposed to tell a story, even if it is only slight or just hinted at. So I don't know what to call it. Maybe somebody will come along with a suitable suggestion.

And I'm not saying I don't like it. I'd just like people to stop calling it a story!

Leila said...

We have a baby and he was given some shoes, and he outgrew them before he had started walking, ergo, we had baby shoes never worn. We did not sell them on e bay though. We took them to a charity shop. This is all just in support of your argument.

Anonymous said...

"Played hide the sausage. Lost sausage."

But yes, this bugs me every time I read something claiming this story is genius so I'm glad you've called Hemingway (or whoever actually wrote it) out on this.

Though I'm not sure I agree with:

And I'm not saying I don't like it. I'd just like people to stop calling it a story!

I think it scrapes by as a story, but not a good one. It might impress for a moment, the first time you read it, but nothing after that.

Rachel Fenton said...

It IS a story - the lacuna is as big and important device in story writing as the words that are there, more important, I'd say - and all of Hemingway's stories demonstrate this - even the long ones - the real story is the one he isn't telling us. And he wrote how deliberately he cut out the story from the narrative so that the power always resided in the sub text.

With regards to this story in particular, I do think it has more resonance for people who have wanted and or lost a baby. There are stories and poems I can think of that meant nothing to me once upon a time then floored me in more recent re-readings.

But you you revealed a curious thing in your deconstruction - Baby Shoes isn't a good story - it's many.

Anon said...

Lacuna – the spaces. Yes, v important in stories. And sub-text, too. Yes, I get that. But when it is pared back to just these six words, then the spaces are too big and the story is anything at all, and what a reader brings to it is more than the writer put there (which is ok too) except that the reader in this case puts everything there. Surely a good story is more than just the spaces.

This has the feel of an academic exercise written by a fan of Hemingway rather than Hemingway himself. ‘How far can you cut away narrative and still have a story?’ – notice I said ‘have’ and not ‘tell’. How big can you make the spaces and how sparse the bits between the spaces and still suggest story?

I get that there can be many reading of the same story and each reading will depend on what you as a reader bring to a piece. I get that poetry works by resonance and doesn’t require the same specifics as narrative and that this could be an experimental prose-poetry piece. I get that if you want this to have told a story it doess. But I can’t help feeling that it is a bit like me as a child waking up and staring at the sun on my curtains and roses on the fabric and I could see faces in the pattern… but they were roses.

At the very least, if you are going to say that there is story here, it is (as has been pointed out) many stories and as such it is a neat party trick but a poorly told tale in that it does not tell a story but prompts the reader to construct a story of their own or myriad stories of their own.

Dan Purdue said...

Interesting comments, everyone. Many thanks for your contributions (particularly Ric's sausage story).

This is what I think is so interesting about Baby Shoes - it seems to be accepted as a story, but only by those willing to construct a story of their own around it. For me, that's like a stand-up comic coming onto the stage and saying, "A funny thing happened to me on the way to the gig tonight," and then waiting for the audience to make up their own jokes and burst out laughing.

I guess there are going to be as many interpretations as there are readers. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. And, as Rachel says, there are going to be people out there who want it to be a tragic story about a lost baby, and no amount of me saying that doesn't really make sense and there are hundreds of other, equally (if not more) likely, explanations will ever change their minds.

It's an interesting question, in terms of how much work the reader can be left to do without ownership of the story transferring entirely to them. Stories without any room for doubts or interpretation are deathly dull, but when you have to decide for yourself what happened and why and who was affected, it's the other end of the scale and is perhaps not boring, but ultimately pointless. Reading should always be a collaborative act, but both sides have to do their bit.

Jonathan Pinnock's latest published story is interesting in terms of telling a story, without telling the story. You can read it here:

I didn't really expect to find any sort of answer to the Hemingway question, and I definitely didn't expect to change anybody's mind one way or the other. But after having been told this is a slice of genius for so many years, it's good to find out I'm not the only person yet to be convinced.

DT said...

Simple explanation - too many pairs of shoes. (And a very small debt to the local crime lord that has to be paid off.)