THR Web Features   /   May 31, 2023

The Art of Compression

Conjuring a fiction out of almost nothing.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( Revenge Kid and Tengu Monster (detail), 1881, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Taiso) (1839-1892).)

At that moment, he splashed into the pond. The thin man, who had been holding his right hand, had suddenly let go.
“He fell!”
“He fell!”
The onlookers were all clamoring for a better view when they were suddenly pushed from behind and plunged into the pond, too. The thin man’s clear, high laughter could be heard above the uproar.
The thin man scampered across the bridge like a black dog and ran off into the dark town.
“He ran away!”
“Damn it!”
“Was he a pickpocket?”
“A madman?”
“A detective?”
“He’s the tengu of Ueno Mountain!”
“He’s the kappa of Shinobazu Pond!”

“The Hat Incident” (1926) by Yasunari Kawabata (trans. J. Martin Holman)


for summer     she needs
pretty dress     cotton

cotton                  nottoc
               tocnot               tocont

“Notes During Long Phone Conversation with Mother” (2014) by Lydia Davis

What exactly separates the short story from the novel? As the contemporary Scottish writer William Boyd has observed, the issue is more complicated than it might at first appear. Novelists and short story writers, Boyd points out, rely on the same “literary tools,” including character, plot, setting, title, and dialogue, and their outputs—sentences and paragraphs—look the same on the page. The tempting answer is to fall back on the obvious difference: short stories are just shorter than novels.

Already in the late nineteenth century, critics argued that that answer wasn’t good enough. In one of the earliest attempts to define the genre, “The Philosophy of the Short-Story” (1885), Brander Matthews made the case that the short story’s distinctive trait is not length per se. (“The story which is short can be written by anybody who can write at all.”) In Matthews’s view, the short story is defined by its originality, ingenuity, and, above all, “vigorous compression.” On the last point, Matthews stressed that every word matters in the short story in contrast to the novelist’s freedom to digress; the short story form required a degree of discipline—in both planning and execution—that he doubted many successful novelists possessed (and he explicitly names Anthony Trollope here). Although his name is now rarely mentioned, Matthews’s argument about “compression” has been echoed in anthologies, how-to books, and works of criticism for more than a century. Boyd, for instance, traces Matthews’s line (without naming him), pitting the short story’s “compression” against the novel’s “expansion.”

Writers, editors, and critics have long acknowledged that the audience exerts pressure, too. The short story has, from the beginning, been a thoroughly modern form: Originally published in newspapers and magazines and consumed on railroads and omnibuses, short stories have been ideal material for people who do not have the time or patience for a novel. A mentor memorably distilled this point to the writer Olivia Clare Friedman: With the short story, “the timer starts as soon as you read the first sentence.”

How long, though, should the timer run? Twenty pages? Thirty? Forty? Fifty? But for more than a century, writers have also gone in the other direction, exploring the short end of the genre. A crafty Cosmopolitan editor in the twenties, for example, experimented with stories that could be printed on a few pages, even on opposite pages, in acknowledgement of the fact that, as W. Somerset Maugham (himself a contributor) observed, “Magazine readers do not like starting a story, and, after reading for a while, being told to turn to page a hundred and something” in the back.

In the last forty odd years, writers have shown increasing fascination with brevity, producing a new taxonomy of very short forms, including  “microfiction,” “sudden fiction,” “nanofiction,” “hint fiction” (twenty-five words), “dribble” (fifty), “drabble” (one hundred), “trabble” (three hundred), and, of course, the staple of creative writing workshops, “flash fiction” (a category that may include all of the previously named species, depending on whom you consult). The appeal of the flash set for creative writing instructors is plain: Students can reasonably be required both to produce such minute stories and critique others’ flashes/dribbles/nanos in the space of a week or two. And, as critics have pointed out ad nauseam, flash fiction suits the age of the tweet and “tl;dr” in which writers can’t count on readers to hang in for long.

But very short fictions need not be concessions to workshop practicalities, the Internet, or shallow attention spans. They can also be—as my extracts show us—serious explorations of the formal possibilities of extreme compression. In the first passage, we catch the ending of one of Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s famous “palm-of-the-hand” stories, a phrase he coined in 1925. That timing is important. As in Matthews’s United States context a generation earlier, the Japanese literary scene of the early twenties was thick with magazines seeking slim submissions. Kawabata saw his miniscule outputs as a way to mediate between past and present. Though written in prose, often about modern life, very short fiction seemed to him a natural extension of the Japanese taste in literary minimalism evident in poetic forms such as haiku.

“The Hat Incident” shows immediate signs of the art of compression: The action consumes only three-and-a-half pages in English translation, lasts only a few minutes in the storyworld, and occurs in a single place, the moon-viewing bridge at Shinobazu Pond in Tokyo’s Ueno district. The titular incident concerns an unnamed young man who drops his hat in the pond and is goaded into retrieving it by a “thin man” with a “stern voice.” “Grasping the thin man’s hand with his right hand,” Kawabata writes, “and putting his left hand on the edge of the bridge, the man slid down the bridge pylon” in order to snag the hat with his toes. As the young man attempts to clamber back onto the bridge, the thin man releases his hand sending our hero and his hat into the pond. Onlookers “clamoring for a better view” are, in turn, shoved into the pond by the thin man, who disappears into the night.

In the closing lines, the crowd ventures several theories about the thin man’s identity. Notice that the first three suggestions are personality types known in the modern city: pickpocket, madman, and detective. The last two, meanwhile, are trickster figures from Japanese folklore: a tengu being a land spirit and a kappa a water sprite. Because the story cuts off here, readers are also at a loss to account for these curious events.

Should we favor a naturalistic explanation? (He’s crazy!) Or should we entertain a supernatural one? (He’s a demon!) This problem of interpretation sends us back with fresh eyes to the initial description of the setting. The moon-viewing bridge is a classic element of Japanese landscape architecture; the structure and the moon it reflects belong to the world of traditional symbols, along with the lotuses that dot the pond. Kawabata juxtaposes those attractions, however, with the intrusions of the modern city, most prominently “advertising lights” spilling brand names— such as “LION TOOTHPASTE”—on the water and distracting visitors from the moon’s gorgeous reflection (the ripples created by an evening breeze the make it appear “a fish with golden scales”). 

As critics have long observed, the compression of the “palm-of-the-hand” stories often creates sticky ambiguities; readers are not shown quite enough data to be sure about the motives of character or whether what we think happened actually happened. The basic rules of many stories’ realities are murky—a problem often exacerbated, as seen here, by Kawabata’s love of the fantastic and folkloric. In the palms of his reader’s hands, Kawabata presents a miniature portrait—as vivid and mysterious as haiku—of modernizing Japan.

My second selection, meanwhile, makes Kawabata’s palm-of-the-hand stories seem lavish. American writer and translator Lydia Davis is often named among the masters of flash fiction, but the title is anachronistic because the author was already writing very short fictions before the term (or other recent coinages) had any currency. Many of Davis’s stories are one or two paragraphs long, some only a sentence or two. Take “Companion”: “We are sitting here together, my digestion and I. I am reading a book and it is working away at the lunch I ate a little while ago.”

However, with my chosen text Davis outdoes herself in practicing the art of compression. Here the reader is given only the rudiments of a sentence (“for summer   she needs / pretty dress  cotton) followed by a series of rearrangement of the letters of “cotton.” One could legitimately ask—as you may be asking right now—whether these crumbs really amount to a story.

The question is fair, as Davis is overtly testing the minimal deposit required by the art of fiction. She has said so herself, writing of her first experiments with extreme austerity, “I wanted to see just how brief I could make a piece of writing and still have it mean something.” It is instructive to recall (as Davis notes) the legendary six-word short story—“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”—attributed by the literary agent Peter Miller to Ernest Hemingway. Miller claimed that Hemingway won a bet from his fellow writers on the strength of the tale. Arthur C. Clarke wrote to a friend that he could not “think of it without crying.”

Why? The story’s success relies heavily on the reader’s contribution. First, the reader needs to recognize that “For sale” is a formula from the classifieds section of the newspaper (the part where ordinary people posted their wants and wares). Then the reader must account for why the baby shoes were never worn. Here Hemingway’s taste for the tragic influences our judgment: The baby must have died! (In fact, there are lots of other plausible scenarios such as the possibility that the baby has large feet.)

Some assembly is required by Davis’s story too. The title provides an interpretive key—call with Mom—with which to decipher what follows. At the same time, the interest of the story comes from the way in which the title breaks down. After the first two lines, the jottings are not aides-mémoire but meaningless anagrams. On my reading, they are failed attempts to stave off boredom (it is a long conversation after all). Here, then, we are not so much reading a story as using the artifact—a page torn out of the “narrator’s” notebook—to create a plot. The art of compression is the triumph of inference.

For the short story writer, Matthews argued in 1885, “more than anyone else, the half is more than the whole.” That was a good early estimate. But our examples suggest that sometimes an eighth will do, or a sixteenth, or still less. Indeed, the virtuoso of the very short story can conjure a fiction out of almost nothing.