It seems you can’t go far on the internet without running into some reference about how Twitter is revolutionizing literature.  You know, the idea that a writer has only a fixed amount of characters, and that is charging writers to become more and more economical with language ever before — that brevity is becoming quite a fashion.  I would also class this with the “shrinking attention span” argument that people have often lobbed at MTV music videos, as well as a the amount of content advertisers can cram into a 30 or 60 minute spot.    Recently, one sees this with a proposed “Hint Fiction” anthology to be published by WW Norton.  The rationale of “Hint Fiction has been laid out here, and here’s an excerpt:

Me, I want to coin a term, so I’m going to do it here and now: those very, very, very, VERY short stories should be called Hint Fiction. Because that’s all the reader is ever given.  Just a hint.  Not a scene, or a setting, or even a character sketch.  They are given a hint, nothing more, and are asked — nay, forced — to fill in the blanks.  And believe me, there are a lot of blanks.

Um.  That’s definately not fiction.  That is not fiction by a long stretch.  It’s poetry.  Specifically, it’s prose poetry.  Fiction is usually the art of narrative — it’s the art of (experimentalism aside for a moment) of telling a story.  Once one gets into the act of “hinting” at something, while leaving the mechanics, nuts, and bolts of fiction, one is venturing into poetic territory.  Forget about the formal aspects that come with the history of poetry and verse for a moment.  Poetry has always been about the artful, creative use of language.  Creative writing teachers usually say, “Forget about making overt political points with poetry; if you want to do that, write an essay.”  And they’re right.   Poetry is a medium dependent not only on metaphor, but on compressing or panoramically expanding language in ways to hint at greater meaning.  This is why, for example, readers can approach writers like Dylan Thomas, Robert Creeley, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, A.R. Ammons, or William Carlos Williams and come away with vastly different interpretations.

But, there’s something more.  It seems some people want to go at lengths to credit Twitter with bringing the notion or idea of brevity to writers.   But then again, if you read works of “hint fiction” with an eye towards literary history, one will quickly find that this aesthetic is nothing new.  “Hint Fiction” is not the cutting edge, especially if you look at the history of poetry.  Lets start with the obvious.

Asian Formalism.

If anything values subtlety and hinting its classical Asian Poetry.

1) Haiku/Senryu

Forget what your high school English teacher taught you.  Haiku has nothing to do with 5-7-5 syllabics.  Sure, that’s the syllabic pattern in Japanese, where polysyllabic words or the norm.  17 English syllables can get rather wordy, and so adhering to 5-7-5 violates the minimalist spirit of haiku in Japanese.  Haiku was only meant to be a poetic form contstrained by the length of one human breath.  It has to have a seasonal reference, and if it doesn’t  then it ends up becoming senryu, haiku’s usually comic close cousin.  Asia has other classical forms that are similar, as the Korean sijo comes to mind, as does the five line Japanese tanka.  Yet, brevity is the norm with all of them.  To illustrate this, here is a poem by the great Matsuo Basho:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of the water.

And here’s a tanka:

HEAR the stag’s pathetic call
Far up the mountain side,
While tramping o’er the maple leaves

Wind-scattered far and wide

This sad, sad autumn tide.

–Saru Maru

Here is a Korean sijo:

Do you still sleep in this valley,
at rest under thriving grass?
Where have those rosy cheeks gone,
do your bleached bones remember?
I brought good wine for us to share—
Here, I’ll pour it on the grass.

–Im Che

So, there are certain aesthetics in each of these.  A crisp sense of imager, and OH YEAH, they hint at meanings not readily there and laid out for the reader.  Of course, it’s often quite vogue to point to Asian lit for examples of brevity and subtlety in action, but Western Culture is not without it’s precedent too.  There’s always the epigram, which often came as a brief, clever statement.  There’s a tradition of this dating back to the Greeks.  In modern poetry, that has evolved into a single lined poetic form called the monostitch.  Here’s one by the late A. R. Ammons:

COWARD
Bravery runs in my family.

Hint Fiction has it’s predecessors, and last I read a history book or two, Matsuo Basho or the Latin poet Martial didn’t have computers, the internet, or Twitter squeezing their attention spans.  A sense of minimalism has always been with literature.  “Hint Fiction” is in act nothing new — it’s just a prose variant on what’s come before.  That said, I’ve been filling out a notebook during my lunch breaks at WalMart, in hopes of submitting something.   Sure, I quibble a little, but I don’t bregrudge the editors of hint fiction.  In fact, despite all of these objections, I still plan on bying the book once it’s finished


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