The Surprising Power of Stories That Are Shorter Than Short Stories

Author Stuart Dybek talks about how to layer meaning into works of "flash fiction."

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Last week, Stuart Dybek, one of America’s living masters of the short story, published two new, and very different collections. The nine pieces in Paper Lantern: Love Stories are fairly conventional—they’re stories with drawn characters, and clear conflicts, that reach a certain length. Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories is more focused on the evocative power of language itself—as the strange, musical pairing of words in its title suggests. In offerings that range in length from two lines to nearly 10 pages, from narrative to wholly impressionistic, Dybek uses fragments, koans, and brief lyric flights to capture whole worlds in miniature.

In our conversation for this series, Dybek discussed the troubled label “flash fiction” (which was also the topic, and title, of Nathanael Rich’s review in this month’s Atlantic magazine), a form without a solid definition. We discussed why the form tends to blend fiction and poetry, how a technique from Japanese poetry has been essential for him, and a story by Yasunari Kawabata that convinced him very short work can have outsized emotional wallop.

Stuart Dybek’s other books include I Sailed with Magellan and Childhood and Other Neighborhoods. A MacArthur Fellowship recipient, his numerous awards include the PEN/Malamud Award, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and four O. Henry awards. He is Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University, and spoke to me by phone from Chicago, where he lives.

Stuart Dybek: It goes way back. From high school on, I wrote these strange, varied, and very short prose pieces that didn’t seem to fit into any established genre. I didn’t have any literary pretensions about what I was doing—it was just one way I liked to work. I thought I was writing stories, but I learned quickly that I’d taken on a form without an easy category. At the time, you could only publish very short prose works, something editors uniformly regarded as “prose poems,” in poetry magazines. So I sent my stuff out that way—because there was no other outlet for it—even though, deep down, I felt I was fudging.

We still don’t have a good name for this kind of work. Today, it’s “flash fiction,” though I remember when people were calling it the “short-short.” (Grace Paley, who I loved and whose work I loved, once said to me, “Short-short sounds more like a stammer than a literary form.”) It makes sense the short form it lacks a sturdy name: It’s varied, shifting, and hard to define, and its parameters are continually up for debate. Flash fictions have a narrative quality that makes them different from classical prose poems; at the same time, they tend to have a strong lyric element that aligns them with poetry. This formal uncertainty can be an attractive quality: It helps create the possibility for formal and emotional surprise. But you also don’t want to have too much carte blanche. You never want to enter the territory where you think, “Well, I can write anything and get away with it.”

Because I write both poetry and fiction, and have never built a wall between the two, my desire has always been to blur the line between the more established forms. Writers who do this well tend to fascinate me. But they’re rare, I think, in part because of the way poetry gets overlooked in American culture. Poetry is basic to human beings, our love for it is deeply embedded in us, but there’s the sense at this moment that most people get it from other genres—popular song, hip-hop, rap. People argue about this—someone once told Paul Simon that he wrote poetic lyrics, and he said, “No, poetry is Wallace Stevens”—and yet songwriters like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and some hip-hop artists do clearly channel elements of poetry. In fiction, though, the poetic impulse is usually relegated to the end of the story, in the epiphanic moment we’ve come to expect since Joyce. At the end of a typical epiphany story, you do sense this sudden gearshift from the narrative to the lyrical; you start to feel that poetry is suddenly at work within the prose. But it’s usually because something big has happened that generates and justifies the gear change—poetry is warranted in these moments of extreme emotion, but otherwise its regulated to the sidelines of much of American fiction.

I’m interested in writers who are able to create a more blended kind of integration between the narrative and lyric drives—and I’ve noticed that in the short form, the lyric impulse becomes more pronounced. One of my earliest encounters with this kind of work was when I read Hemingway’s In Our Time, which caught my attention long ago. The stories in that book are interspersed with powerful, short “vignettes,” most no longer than a paragraph. The way he builds an emotional whole out of fragments is masterful in these pieces. But it always seemed to me that—as much as I liked them—they suffered somewhat outside the context of In Our Time. When I read them on their own, I don’t like them as much as when they appear as spacers, the way the book wisely uses them.

So I began to look for stories that flirted with the same notion of compression and fragmentation, but could stand on their own two feet a bit more. I wanted to find a master of the genre—someone who could write very short prose with the emotional impact we associate with longer work.

One source of inspiration was Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, though it’s tricky to separate that book’s short sections from one another (the work really functions as a novel). Isaac Babel, who is in many ways my favorite writer, demonstrates the extreme compression I look for in very short fiction—whenever a writer can compress that much into a short space, I always feel that what we call “poetry” is lurking close by. Primo Levi is another—his short piece “The Tranquil Star” is a great favorite. In college, I found a new model: I was among the hordes who were seduced by the beauty of the haiku. Fragmentary, complex, but ultimately satisfying works, the form contains many of the characteristics I was looking for in prose.

Now, in the United States, the haiku is so ubiquitous that it’s become almost a kind of joke. Here, haiku tend to function like snapshots: They’re a way kids learn to write images in fourth grade. That really isn’t what the haiku is about in Japan, where the form is taken very seriously—it’s part of their classical literature. One aspect of the haiku that has been mostly lost in its Western incarnation is a quality that translates, roughly, to “double vision.” It’s a way of talking about a certain form of juxtaposition. This concept was an enormous influence on Ezra Pound, who was of course more than a truly great translator: he wanted to bring effects from other literary cultures into English storytelling and poetic vocabulary. You can see double vision at work in Pound’s famous poem “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough. 

The way the poem juxtaposes a present moment—a crowded train station—with the image of the flesh-colored petals creates a kind of poetic double-exposure. Two images, two ideas, are layered upon one other simultaneously—and both are enhanced by the comparison. This kind of double vision is highly characteristic of the haiku.

Haiku aren’t prose, though, and they’re shorter even than most flash pieces; they didn’t really provide the model in prose I was looking for. But, in the end, my interest in Japanese literature led me to the person I feel is the supreme practitioner of understated, highly-suggestible language: Yasunari Kawabata, also a master of the kind of reflective double vision seen in traditional haiku.

The first thing I read by him was a book called The House of Sleeping Beauties. In this prose writer, I immediately encountered everything I liked about the Japanese poetry—a quality of simple but profound suggestiveness. I grabbed another novel—Snow Country—and though it wasn’t longer than 150 pages, there was just something there. And in his book of short works, The Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, I found an ideal model for one kind of work I wanted to do.

One common form of haiku double vision layers something from the past underneath something from the present. One of my favorite Kawabata stories, “The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket,” innovates on this idea: something in the present generates a vision of the future.

It begins with a man—we don’t know much about him—who’s walking one evening for his nightly constitutional. He comes upon a group of children, who are having some kind of spring festival. They’ve made paper lanterns—gorgeous, hand-made things cut so that they throw patterns of light. Some of them have cut their names, so the lanterns project Japanese characters into the night.

He watches the children, as they’re totally engaged catching insects in the light of the lanterns. Here, one needs to make a slight departure and say that in Japan, it’s common to go out and catch a cricket, praying mantis, or some other musical insect and put him in a little cage. It’s in the spirit of what children do with fireflies in the United States—suddenly, in the summer, the world warms up these beautiful insects make lightning in the darkness, so you go out with a mason jar and catch them, and watch them light until your parents say, now you’ve got to let them go.  In this story, a boy catches what he thinks is a grasshopper—a fine prize, which all the other children covet. When he gives it away to the girl he most admires—and she points out the bug is actually a bell cricket, an even rarer, more highly sought-after insect.

There’s a beautiful scene just after this exchange, where the two stand facing each other and—without their knowing it—lights from their lanterns, red and green, fall across their chests. The boy has cut his name into his lantern, and the girl’s cut hers—of course, you must envision that amazing brevity of a Japanese character, casting light in its shape—and for just a moment, the boy’s name beams bright on the girl’s chest, and hers glows red on his waist. They have no idea this is happening, and that’s the heartbreaking thing—it’s as though they have a connection they will never quite appreciate until it’s too late.

In the story’s stunning, unexpected ending, the narrator addresses the boy, knowing his name only because of the word projected on the girl’s body:

Fujio! Even when you have become a young man, laugh with pleasure at a girl’s delight when, told that it’s a grasshopper, she is given a bell cricket; laugh with affection at a girl’s chagrin when, told that it’s a bell cricket, she is given a grasshopper.

Even if you have the wit to look by yourself in a bush away from the other children, there are not many bell crickets in the world. Probably you will find a girl like a grasshopper whom you think is a bell cricket.

And finally, to your clouded, wounded heart, even a true bell cricket will seem like a grasshopper. Should that day come, when it seems to you that the world is only full of grasshoppers, I will think it a pity that you have no way to remember tonight’s play of light, when your name was written in green by your beautiful lantern on a girl’s breast.

Kawabata is obsessed with reflection—I remember one beautiful story where a man becomes attracted to a woman by glimpsing her face reflected in the window of a train—and there’s so much reflection here, so much of the literal and symbolic coupling characteristic of haiku’s “double-vision.” There is dark and light, boy and girl (whose names are layered on one another), adult and child, present and future, even the caged insect seems to reflect a kind of double nature.

But this is also one of the great moments of direct address. A narrator who just seems out for an evening walk, enjoying the distant presence of those children, who has absolutely revealed nothing about himself, can only have this insight because he’s experienced his own disillusionment as an adult. His council here—not spoken out loud—perhaps reveals the heartbreak in his own past, the chambers of his own “clouded, wounded heart,” a mature awareness he projects onto Fujio’s future. And what does he see? The premise we’ve witnessed previously—one kind of insect mistaken for another—becomes a powerful metaphor for the way we often can’t recognize a rare, true romantic match when we see it. He looks into Fujio’s future—and sees that he will not only mistake a common match for a great love, he’ll grow so disillusioned that he won’t recognize his great love when she arrives. So, in one brief passage, Kawabata juxtaposes present and future, adult and child, innocence and loss. All of them layered upon one another in within one single moment—and together, in a tiny space, these layers create a beautiful sense of the inevitable way childhood lapses into maturity.

What I love about the story, too, is that it’s a surprise ending—but not an “O. Henry ending,” not the kind that surprises us with a twist. Instead, the surprise here stems from the lushness of the language, the subtle layering of powerful themes. It achieves an emotional and poetic surprise, more than anything. “The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket” is a short, standalone piece that successfully conjures an epic amount of emotion—I regard it as a tiny masterpiece. For me, it’s confirmation that you can work in this short a form and still have something with many levels of dimension.

You sit down and write a book with various intentions—never knowing if they’re going to manifest themselves or not. But in Paper Lantern: Love Stories, I was definitely influenced by this kind of double vision I encounter in Kawabata. All the stories participate in the “love story” genre, but they are each layered with another genre, too. The first story, “Tosca,” plays off of opera, the grand, operatic feelings in that form. “Oceanic” plays off romantic poetry—Keats and Shelley and Byron. There’s a story that plays off of a grade B movie, another that plays with “Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones. This is double vision—I’m hoping that the reader will make the jump between the borrowed form and the narrative about the lovers in the story. The specifics of my characters and the broader genre being referred to are in constantly at play, an attempt at the kind of layered exposure I love in the haiku.

I think Kawabata’s gorgeous lanterns—one of his favorite images—have worked their way into my poetic vocabulary, too. When I chose the title Paper Lantern, I didn’t consciously have him in mind—but is Kawabata full of them? Yes. They are some of the primary images in Asian writing, along with umbrellas and those ever-famous cherry blossoms. For me, the paper lantern is a metaphor for literary art—for the way that meaning shines through the written page. Even though we all write on computers now, I still think of writing as words on paper. And when you write a story or a poem, it just illuminates. Meaning shines through words like light through cut paper, beaming out into the night, and projecting its image onto another person’s heart.