Incongruity is the soul of humor, but it can also be the stuff of good, often painful prose. Twitter may be a recent development, but brevity is not. In combination brevity and incongruity create witty ‘one liners’. But they can also tell a powerful story. It matter which words are chosen, how they are set up and the context into which they are spoken, written or tweeted. If these are chosen well the story has appeal. This is what happens with good newspaper headlines. You can know what happened by the title. These qualities, whether found in nauseating puns from The Sun, or clear story-abbreviations in The Economist, have the almost unique gift of opening the imagination of the reader to levels that prescriptive prose never can, whilst also directing her imagination in a very specific direction.
Martin Amis’ new book is called The Pregnant Widow. What a title. It’s evocative and incongruous, but not funny. Recently, in conversation about Pregnant Widow my friend P. told me of the shortest novel or story, which according to legend, Hemingway wrote to settle a bar bet. Hemingway also said that it was the best prose he had ever written.
It goes: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
He is known as the writer of brevity in prose. Good use of the full stop, or rather the words before the full stop will give a novel the punchy hardness that makes it great. In this story he convinced me that there is something to the thought. However his newspaper style is just that, style. Take it or leave it. Some like to be wooed, or rocked, not punched. Many “super-shorts” as some have called them, remind me too much of the newspaper headline or radio announcement.
Take this novel: Englewood Entropy, by anonymous. Chapter 1. Dr. Blanton Tufford, a Stanford University physics professor who studied the structure of the universe, was killed on Sunday when a car crashed into the Englewood, N.J., coffee shop where he was sitting. End.
There are others which are fantastic, but perhaps too much like something you might hear at a stand-up session and not comprising prose begging to be dwelt on.
Taken from Story Bites, a webpage dedicated to shorts, this one entitled: A Clone clings to his fantasy: “I have got to be me.”
Wired Magazine took its example from the Hemingway story and asked a number of sci-fi and fantasy authors to come up with their own shorts. Many of these are good. Though wonderful, the stand-up comedy genre comes up a bit too much.
Husband, transgenic mistress; wife: “You cow!”
– Paul Di Filippo
And again the newspaper headline genre, though brilliant satire.
Starlet sex scandal. Giant squid involved.
– Margaret Atwood
Lie detector eyeglasses perfected: Civilization collapses.
– Richard Powers
This one is particularly related to the authors work and is perfect specimen:
Tick tock tick tock tick tick.
– Neal Stephenson
In the genre of SF however, I think the two most notable stories, and those which defy the newspaper headline trap and to some extent the stand-up comedy trap are as follows.
and Frederick Brown, produced a piece that is quite well known and a true masterpiece of horror entitled Knock: “The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…”
Then there is the quite humane shortest poem ever written entitled Poem for the Lonely: “Hello.”
Though I think the story-blitz which takes the prize from me is one by Augusto Monterroso entitled Dinosaur: “And when he awoke, the Dinosaur was still there.”
I hope the pregnant silence the Dinosaur evoked will fill in my comments page, and then lets twitter by storm.
And just for good measure Ill throw in Damien Hirsts production of Becketts Breath. A very short play.