Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.

By Jamelah Earle on Wednesday, September 20, 2006 09:42 pm

The title of this post:

For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn

is a short story allegedly by Ernest Hemingway, perhaps written to settle a bar bet or perhaps written as a challenge, but either way, it's a complete work of fiction. It's a piece of writing I think about a lot, and it's one of my favorites. It's evocative, powerful and clocking in at six words, it proves that it's not necessary to blather on endlessly to tell a good story.

The Hemingway story is an extreme example of one of my favorite types of writing -- flash fiction. Flash, also known as micro, sudden, short-short, postcard, minute, quick, furious, and skinny, is a type of story that has a limited number of words (definitely under 1,000, but in many cases, under 500). Typically, it has a traditional beginning-middle-end story arc, though of course it happens in an ultra-condensed form.

In my experience as someone who very rarely went beyond 500 words with pieces of fiction, I found that I'd often run into people (usually other writers) with the opinion that short-short fiction is okay, but it's not the real thing, and I think that is an unfair way of looking at flash. Though I definitely make no claims of genius, I absolutely believe that when done by a master, it's an incredibly fast read that lingers indefinitely. Like quick-moving shadows thrown on a late-night wall by cars passing on the street outside, it often takes a lot of thinking to understand what you think you saw, and with each analysis, its shape shifts and you find something different. Take the story "Little Things" by Raymond Carver (text here), which, at 498 words, is a brilliant example of flash fiction.

Even before I did 70% of all of my reading on a computer screen, I had no patience for unnecessarily long works of fiction. I suppose this is why I became (and remain) a fan of the ultra-short flash fiction. (And probably also why I can't be bothered to finish Anna Karenina.) Flash is perfectly suited for online reading, and there are quite a few places that deal entirely (or almost entirely) in flash fiction. Flashquake, Smokelong Quarterly, Vestal Review, and Pindeldyboz are just a few places online where you can get your flash fix.

In honor of the subject at hand, I feel that I should keep this post short, so I'll close by mentioning that Litkicks's Action Poetry is a great place to make every word count by trying some flash fiction.

11 Responses to "For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn."

by Pete29 on

Recent convert to flash fictionWhen I started writing, I was a bit of a snob, going the well-worn route of 3-5K word stories and generally ignoring flash fiction. But recently I've been converted to flash fiction. I'm really drawn to its brevity and blunt to-the-pointedness, and I like the fact that I can write a finished story in a few days, as opposed to the several weeks required for a longer story. I've come to realize that I really like fiction that says what it has to say, shuts up and moves on (in fact, I prefer people who are that way too). Thanks for exposing me to flashquake--I just sent them a story a few minutes ago.

by Billectric on

well, now...This proves I should follow my instincts. I've written a lot of short stories. I like reading short stories. I finally decided to write a novel because people always said, "You should write a novel." Now, here comes Jamelah talking about flash fiction! But that's ok. I'm having fun writing my novel. In fact, each chapter is kind of like a piece of flash fiction, but they all fit together. So it's all good.

by drplacebo on

E. A. Poe writes FlashI am in the process of re-reading Edgar Allan Poe. Poe can be a bit verbose at times, but I just finished "The Tell-Tale Heart". Call it what you want, flash, short-short, the bottom line is this: He grabs your attention with the first paragraph, and then drives the story on to it's inevitable conclusion. It is brilliant story-telling, in my opinion.

by drplacebo on

Ectric - I just wanted to say that I plunked down cold hard cash for your book "Time Adjusters and Other Stories". I especially liked "Fear Flight", "Cut Up (The Stolen Scroll)", "Miss Glenly's Dreadful Room", and the title story. Also - "The House and the Baboon" - it was kind of like "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" on controlled substances that were not available in Mr. Poe's day.

by Billectric on

Poe is great. Have you read the short stories of Maupassant? I like him, too. Fun to read.

by Billectric on

You have certainly made my day, dr. p! A hearty thanks to you.

by willtupper on

WeirdFor years and years, since the very first time I'd heard of the Hemmingway thing, I've always remembered it as being, "For sale: baby's shoes, never USED."Because I thought that Hemmingway was going for sound-alike, kind-of rhyme that SHOES and USED gave. Making it almost poem-like, a mini-haiku.Here's another one, in the same style I guess:What the hell do I know? :)

by warrenweappa on

Take the Litkicks ChallengeI don't know if this:"Action Poetry is a great place to make every word count by trying some flash fiction,"is the same as the Pepsi Challenge but I took up the guantlet and submitted.

by Alexanderdeathpart2 on

flashI do the most flash fiction out of anyone here -- just wanted to toot my own horn...

by jamelah on

Hi. Yeah, I've actually seen it both ways, but I've seen "never worn" more often, so I went with that version. This is the problem with things that are legends.

by sara newman on

Can I subscribe to your site? If so, please sign me up!

Thanks