“It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book,” says Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols. Suck it, Fred: 21 contemporary writers have upped the ante in The Guardian's Twitter challenge (#140novel), unleashing emotion's full spectrum in 140 characters or less. The results are mixed, though there are some bright points: “Soften, my arse. I'm a geezer. I'm a rock-hard little bastard. Until I go mushy overnight for you, babe. #pears”
Where else have ultra-short stories been successful? If the tiny bars are any indication, my bet for world leader in creative conciseness is Japan. Here are five ways Japanese writers have pushed the form to strange new micro-horizons.
Twitter Shōsetsu: 140 ji no Monogatari (Twitter Novels: 140-Character Stories), the first Twitter anthology — featuring authors like @micanaitoh and @Talkingdogdays — debuted in 2009. It's no surprise the Japanese have an advantage, as 140 kanji/kana characters can convey tons more than Roman letters. A hashtag search yields nigh upon thousands of tweeted tales.
Deep Love and the cell phone novel
I'm convinced 96% of Tokyo's population own smartphones, and the ubiquitous elongated screens afford ample real estate for 80-120 characters — the ideal keitai-shōsetsu (cell-phone novel) chapter length. As The New Yorker reported, Deep Love, a sad story of “subsidized dating” and STDs, initiated mobile publishing in 2003. (To put this in perspective, back then I was using a Samsung SGH-C100 with a screen the size of a quarter.) Even with the advent of Twitter, keitai-shōsetsu remain popular, with phone-optimized sites dedicated to ranking, reading, and even publishing them.
Wraiths in the W.C.
Koji Suzuki defined contemporary J-Horror by authoring Ringu (The Ring), but in 2009 he moved the terror to ... toilet paper. Drop is a nine-chapter story printed on two-ply tissue and set in a public loo. Want to see if Dropwill scare the shit out of you? It's now available in English.
Brevity and wit / within non-rhyming verses. / I'm talking haiku.
Ah haiku, the Twitter-friendly progenitor and perfect encapsulation of emotion and economy. I'm no expert, but I understand that traditionalhaiku include kireji (like a verbal punctuation mark to separate thoughts) and kigo (seasonal reference), all in a 5-7-5 syllabic structure. Consider a famous example by Bashō:
furu ike ya / kawazu tobi-komu / mizu no oto
The old pond / a frog leaps in / water's sound
That's a lot of expression, particularly if you realize the frog is a harbinger for spring. Japan isn't alone here. Check this vibrant verse by Native Sonauthor Richard Wright:
My cigarette glows / Without my lips touching it, – / A steady spring breeze.
A word on the short story
Some of my favorite Western writers shine brightest in their briefest stories, like Chekhov (“Anyuta”) and Borges (“There Are More Things”). Though I treasure Haruki Murakami's massive pop-surreal novels, his short fiction brims with concentrated delights. In the story “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning” (reprinted in The Elephant Vanishes), the narrator segues from talking about the titular girl to being there with her, describing the auspiciousness of their encounter and shared future. Then he jerks it back to reality: “Yes, that's it — that is what I should have said to her.”
Bam. In 4,000 characters (1,454 words in the English translation), Murakami highlights my most sensitive proclivities, then uppercuts them. That's what I look for in a short story.
Image: author's Twitter feed set to #twnovel, overlaid with Bashō