Robert Olen Butler has published seventeen novels—The Alleys of Eden, Sun Dogs, Countrymen of Bones, On Distant Ground, Wabash, The Deuce, They Whisper, The Deep Green Sea, Mr. Spaceman, Fair Warning, Hell, A Small Hotel, The Hot Country, The Star of Istanbul, The Empire of Night, Perfume River, Paris in the Dark—and six volumes of short fiction—Tabloid Dreams, Had a Good Time, Severance, Intercourse, Weegee Stories, and A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Butler has published a volume of his lectures on the creative process, From Where You Dream, edited with an introduction by Janet Burroway.
The orb-weaver spider theatrically positioned outside my office window bounced on its web when Robert Olen Butler called. For anyone who’s friends with Butler on Facebook, this will come as no surprise: the Pulitzer Prize-winning author communes with insects and arachnids—from the eastern lubber grasshoppers who “LOVE doing selfies,” to the “spinybacked orbweaver” who “lets [Butler] converse with her.” It seemed as if my spider had been waiting for the call. As had I.
In my excitement to interview him, I had bombarded Butler with a list of questions about The Southeast Review’s World’s Best Short-Short Story Contest concerning the contest’s history and what he looks for in submissions. I also hazarded some observations on last year’s winning story, to see if I might elicit from Butler the kind of critical interpretation graduate school has taught me to practice. Fortunately, Butler is a patient man, and generous with his time.
Butler was less than a week away from a business trip to Europe, where he would participate in “Literary Death Match London,” attend a launch party for Paris in the Dark, sign books, and conduct interviews before “slipping over to Paris to attend the theatrical premiere of an adaptation of Severance.” He was also—as is almost always the case—at work on a forthcoming novel. We spoke about the questions I’d posed, he emailed responses to those worth responding to, and he suggested I include a condensed version of his essay, “A Short Short Theory,” which originally appeared in Narrative Magazine. It’s my pleasure to share that essay and his responses with you all.
A Short Short Theory
To be brief, it is a story and not a poem because it has at its center a character who yearns. Fiction is a temporal art form. Poetry can be exempt from time. The length of the line is characteristically a defining aspect of a poem. Even when the line runs on, creating a prose poem, there is a sense of object about the poem, that it is in some sense a thing, composed densely of words, existing in space. And a poem need not overtly concern itself with a human subject. But when you have a human being present in the literary object and you let the line length run on and you turn the page, you are, as they say in a long storytelling tradition, “upon a time.” And any Buddhist will tell you that as a human being (that is, a “character”), you cannot exist for even a few seconds of time on planet Earth without desiring something. Yearning for something, a word I prefer that suggests the deepest level of desire, where literature strives to go. Fiction is the art form of human yearning, no matter how long or short that work of fiction is.
James Joyce spoke of a crucial characteristic of the literary art form, something he called the epiphany, a term he appropriated from the Catholic Church meaning, literally, “a shining forth.” The Church uses it to describe the shining forth of the divinity of the baby Jesus. The word made flesh. In literary art, the flesh is made word. And Joyce suggests that a work of fiction moves to a moment at the end where something about the human condition shines forth in its essence.
I agree. But I also believe that all good fiction has two epiphanies. There is the one Joyce describes, and there is an earlier epiphany, very near the beginning of a story (or a novel), when the yearning of the character shines forth. This does not happen in explanatory terms but rather is a result of the presence of that yearning in all the tiny, sense-driven, organically resonant moments in the fiction, the accumulation of which reaches a critical mass which then produces that shining forth.
And because of the extreme brevity of the short short story, these two epiphanies often—even typically—occur at the same moment. The final epiphany of a literary short short is also the shining forth of the character’s yearning.
"A Short Short Theory" is adapted from an essay of the same title published in Narrative Magazine, republished here at the author's request.
Hi, Bob! Thank you for agreeing to speak to me about The World’s Best Short-Short Story Writing Contest—and, of course, a million thanks for the time you volunteer each year to judge this contest. I know our readers and submitters would be thrilled if I were to ask for the inside scoop on what you look for when judging, but first I was hoping you might speak a bit about the contest’s history. The “World’s Best” is, more or less, your baby, is it not? Could you tell us about its development?
It’s “my” baby only as a sort of attending physician. The contest was someone else’s brainchild but I’m the guy who pulls the baby out. Hmm. The metaphor breaks down a little bit there. Actually we have 15 babies but only one can come out and I choose which. There. That’s it.
This next question extends directly from the previous. Robert Olen Butler and The World’s Best Short-Short Story have historically been one and the same. Is this a forever relationship? If so, what direction would you like to see this contest take in the future? If not, what direction would you like to see this contest take in the future?
I will retire in a body bag. At that point it is my own future direction that will concern me. As for the contest, it’s doing just fine. Though I would like to see more actual stories submitted, certainly, as opposed to sketches, anecdotes, prose poems, or extended metaphors.