As short stories go, this six-word, micro-fiction from Hemingway may be one of the shortest. Rumours, gossip, and speculation surround the origins of the story. Some report that Hem wrote it on a bet. Others maintain that he believed it was his best short story. Certainly it’s a rare gem.
To make sense of this, consider Hemingway’s “iceberg” notion of the story, which he mentions in various interviews and in his own writing. As we know, the visible part of an iceberg is roughly ten percent of its entire mass—most of which is out of sight, lurking below the surface. Likewise, a short story or novel that bears real heft will reveal only a portion of its substance in the words on the page. The impact will derive from what is left unwritten, and when it hits you the effect is deeply felt.
Some might imagine
Hemingway’s stylistic innovation is drawn from
Shakespeare’s oft-quoted advice to be sparing in
expression, since “brevity is the soul of wit.” But
Hemingway perfected his lean approach to writing
during his years as a foreign correspondent reporting
the news from Europe over the wire. Since every word
added to the cost of transmitting his stories, he
developed a talent for tight writing and economy of
When he adapted this line-by-line technique to a thorough-going narrative style in his stories and novels, he set down the foundations for a revolutionary literary standard: Minimalism. This new way of telling stories was echoed in a lot of detective and noir fiction in the 1940s and 1950s and taken to new heights in the short story collections of Raymond Carver in the 1980s. Over the decades Minimalism found an audience of readers who were busy and distracted, unable to dedicate hours at a time to the pleasure of reading.
What I find fascinating is that at the same place and time (Paris in the 1920s) where Hemingway was developing his literary style, another writer, James Joyce, was perfecting the style of interior monologues that led to stream-of-consciousness writing. Both writers developed and mastered new, unique styles and a century later, young writers continue to imitate and learn from them.
Speaking of imitation, the internet is full of writers trying to perfect the six-word short story. Are they up to Hem’s standards? You be the judge: click here for some examples.