Short story vending machines: literary nutrition?

May 2016 - by Carolyn Dale

Very short stories can be delightful bits to consume, especially now that they're being offered in vending machines. A French company, Short Editions, is meeting the appetites of people in waiting areas by offering quick reads to ease the tedium. Consumers press a button to select a one-minute—or three, or five-minute—read, and out it comes, printed on paper, like a grocery receipt.

Maybe these quick snacks will prove to be nutritious for readers, writers, and society overall. Machines could be coming to the United States; you can go to Short Editions' website and vote for places where you'd like to seem them installed.

Britain is also enjoying the short-short story trend and is celebrating its fifth annual Flash Fiction Day on June 25. The official site hosts a contest, where anyone can submit a 100-word story.

Now, this is tempting; the appetite for snack food is voracious. Short Editions stocked its prototype machine in the city of Grenoble with 600 stories, and 10,000 copies were printed in the first month, according to an article in the New Yorker. The authors are paid, but not by the piece. Instead, they receive a portion of the machine's rental fee.

Short-short fiction has proved popular on the web, and I'm happy to see its appeal transferring to old-fashioned paper. Developers say people welcome a break from staring at their monitors, tablets, and phone screens all day. Plus, paper is light and portable, doesn't need recharging, is legible in sunlight, and can be shared with friends.

The short-short story—or nano, or flash fiction—is an experimental form, according to experts posting how-to's on various websites. They say aspiring writers don't have to reach best-seller stardom to be successful, and this encourages me to give it a try.

First, I do a bit of reading to collect instructions and advice. The material I'll work with is with is the shortest story I ever encountered in my journalism career. It was told to me by a newspaper editor who was probably trying to give me a different lesson.

I remember him standing over me and reciting: "Jim Jones leaned into the elevator shaft to see if the elevator was coming. It was. He was thirty-four." Then he asked if I thought any vital information was missing.

That shortest-of-all news story has 20 words, meaning I can add four more such sentences for my 100-word story. What to do?

1. The first bit of advice I glean, from an article by David Gaffney of The Guardian, is to start in the middle. I assume this means the middle of the action. Check.

2. The second bit, he writes, is to avoid using too many characters. Oops – this has only one, so I'll add a second: Sheila Stone, who worked with him in the city's planning department, gasped, and shouted a warning as she vainly tried to grasp his jacket and pull him back. That's 28 words, so I'm about halfway through.

3. The ending is not supposed to be at the end. OK, he dies before the end. Check.

4. "Sweat your title," Gaffney advises. Oh, a title. How about: Shafted by the fright? Or, should that be "freight"?

5. The last line needs to "ring like a bell." Daunting, but I'll try:

Sheila moaned as the man who'd bought her coffee earlier that morning was propelled into sudden, horrible death. She'd wakened up that day with a sense of dread that she'd been trying to shake off ever since. Now she knew she had to quit her job, for planning was merely an illusion. Life was far too unpredictable. Even someone like her, who had excellent foresight and intuition, could not pinpoint fate or stop its descent.

This adds 75 words to the previous 45, so it's 20 words over the limit, and it's time for Gaffney's final bit of advice, which is to edit the story way down. This will be difficult, especially because this draft lacks any dialogue, and the models I've been looking at rely a lot on conversation.

I can keep trimming and adjusting, and if I liked this story, I could enter it in the British contest. But, I don't like it. Again I imagine the editor hovering and can hear his disgust. He meant to add things like surviving family and funeral services, not ruminations about fate versus free will.

I fear that as quick literature, my attempt isn't even a wafer, a potato chip, or a mint. It's certainly not as dense and flavorful as those cheesy crackers glued with peanut butter that I usually get from vending machines.

Many adept flash-fiction stories are written by poets, so maybe it's better to start with lines of poetry that are luminous, concise, and rich, and then add elements of narrative.

Another drawback with my attempt is that it aims for less reading time than the vending machines offer, with their three-minute and five-minute options. Forbes magazine research estimates its audience can digest 300 words per minute. That's fast, compared to other studies showing American adults average 200 words per minute. So I'll strike a middle rate and guess at 250 words for one minute, 750 words for three minutes, and 1,250 words for five minutes.

That means a three-minute story can run three full double-spaced pages, and actually a writer can say quite a bit in that length. I'm feeling more hopeful, especially because good quality fiction has been shown to have redeeming social value.

A study published in Science found that subjects who were asked to read "just a few minutes of literary fiction, such as works by Don DeLillo or Alice Munro, performed better on subsequent tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence than subjects who were given nonfiction from Smithsonian Magazine or popular fiction like Danielle Steel or Gillian Flynn."

Apparently researchers don't know how "literary" the fiction has to be, nor how long the effects last, but at least this is a start at quantifying the benefits of good material. And the writers mentioned aren't known for creating works of just 500 words.

Still, it took only a few minutes of reading literary fiction to produce beneficial results. So if writers could pack a lot of humanism into short-short stories for these machines, we could elevate social progress by leaps and bounds. Well, maybe.

The idea of playing with very short forms, and having a market for them, is appealing. The New Yorker reported that Short Edition's website and app have published stories by ten thousand writers, at the rate of one hundred per day. The site claims more than 170,000 subscribers, and readers get to vote for the best stories, as well as poems and longer works, including novels.

So let's snack on! This is like discovering that chocolate, coffee, and wine are actually good for us. And at least the stories will ease us through those unbearable minutes of waiting.

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