I have limited patience for long stories. When I heft a book like War and Peace or Cryptonomicom or Infinite Jest, I feel a sort of fatigue before I even turn to the first page. Sometimes these epics turn out to be a fantastic investment of time – Ulysses is over nine hundred pages long, for example – but even when they are, I can’t help but wonder if the story couldn’t have been told better in less space.
There are practical limitations to how long a truly good story can be. Stories are about characters and their interactions and desires. The longer a story gets, the more characters it can support, the more interactions they can have, and the more their desires can conflict with each other or with the world. This conflict increases tension, and tension is one of the fundamental building blocks of a great story. But tension has a shelf life. When you’re six hundred pages in, everything that happened on page one is still relevant (or, at least, it had better be), but it’s so long ago that you just don’t care. I sometimes wonder if the writers of these bludgeons simply decided that they had created a good setting and some good characters and just didn’t want to stop writing them. At least have the decency to make it a series.
Not every story needs to leave you begging for more, but there’s something wrong when reaching the end makes the reader sigh “finally.” Which is why we specialize in short stories here at AE. We believe strongly in the virtue of succinctness. I know that our three thousand word limit has caused heartache in many writers who would like to submit to us, and yes it’s arbitrary but, if anything, it’s a bit high. My memory is not perfect, but I’m pretty sure that every story AE has published grew leaner on its way from the submissions queue to the front page.
All this is to say that it’s no accident that our microfiction contest, AE Micro, has become an annual affair. There are also practical limitations on how short a good story can be. Hemingway’s six-word story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” ) is a work of art, surely, but really more poem than story. But two hundred words, that’s room to work with, as three years of stories have shown us. To make a story work within a constraint like that, though, it mustn’t waste a word. It’s a sort of platonic ideal of storytelling. The quality and quantity of AE Micro submissions this year are staggering. We’re still working our way through them, but we promise to have a list of winners to you as soon as possible.
In celebration of the AE Micro 3, we’re going to be running with a bit of a very short fiction theme this month. As such, the inaugural fiction post for Issue #7 introduces Christopher Olson’s Tremendous Tales, a single panel comic in which each episode tells a story through an image and twenty or so words (so, about 1,020 words at the standard exchange rate). We’ve got four episodes of Tremendous Tales for you up front, but you can be sure that the next hit isn’t too far away.
-D.F. McCourt and the rest of the AE Staff