Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The 920-Word One-Liner

Don't we read fiction for robust pleasures like character, gorgeous language, and tragedy so pungent it slashes the hands? Damn right we do. Then why do writers (and editors) think they can get away with hanging a story on a gimmick?

Case in point: Theodore Ross' 920-word one-liner, "The Somalian Smokes It Up," in the July 2005 issue of Pindeldyboz. In such a short story, you wouldn't think it would take Ross three paragraphs (285 words, if you must know) to explain how the main character got nicknamed "The Somalian," but it does; and just when it appears that something's about to happen, the story flames out in a joke: having seen a beggar defecating in the open street, the Somalian concludes (in a tortured point-of-view shift), "Isn't that just the way of things in Cambodia, his home: someone always shitting on the Promised Land." Sheesh. This from an editor at Harper's. Read it yourself and tell me you're not disappointed.

Another case in point: Debra Broughton's "Colour of Friendship," appearing in the January 2005 issue of Word Riot. This time, it's a different kind of punchline, the sort used in detective fiction and spooky movies all the time: the main character is the one who committed the murder, though in this case you only realize there was a murder at the very end. --Oops, I think I gave away the ending again.

The problem, see, is that these stories aren't genre stories, where gimmicks and guessing games are part of the deal. Both of the stories I've mentioned so far are both presented as literature, and guess what, kids? A higher standard applies. A good rule of thumb is that literature is worth reading more than once. If it can only stand up to one reading (because the second time through, for example, you already know that Bruce Willis' character in Sixth Sense is actually dead), you're probably not writing literature. If your entire story relies on not telling the reader something critical -- not just the minor misdirections of any storyteller, choosing her pace and order of events; no, I mean, for example, when you showed your main character walking out on her boyfriend and you deliberately didn't tell your readers that she'd just stabbed him to death -- if your story rests on that sort of dishonesty, you should realize that your story's not going to be worth reading twice.

One last example: "Self Defense," by Michael Hartford, also in Pindeldyboz' July issue. Again, this is a different kind of one-liner, old as time: the main character, a normal, suburban dad, is provoked beyond endurance by his wife, who keeps shooting him with a squirt gun at their son's birthday party. In the story, much is made of attempts by the politically-correct to separate squirt guns from real guns (the ones in the story are made in the shape of animals, and the manufacturer calls them "squirters"). But scratch the surface, it seems, and we find humanity's primal impulses locked, loaded, and staring us in the face. Never mind that we know nothing, really, about the relationship between the husband and wife in this story - to understand the hostility they unleash, it's supposed to be enough, apparently, that she keeps criticizing his choices for the party (what food to serve, how to cook it, whether or not to give out the squirt guns) and that he keeps ignoring her.

Even if these stories were better than they are (when was the last time you read a story like "Self Defense," where a calm, ordinary day in the suburbs turns violent?), they'd still be weak, because they're designed only to shock the reader with the punch, if not the punchline. Are their characters presented with real conflicts that will, no matter the choice they make, cost them something they love? No. Are the stories distinguished by blazing language or formally challenging? No. These are easy stories to write, simple in concept and simple to execute. It's the curse of the short story form -- it's hell to write a great one, but it's easy to write one O. Henry would've been proud of. Try extending any of these for 20 pages, and they'd fall flat. Don't we all write and publish stories that fall flat? Absolutely. But let's not set our sights so dadgum low.

--Benjamin Chambers, Founding Editor

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