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.
This isn’t a “story” contest, it’s not a “short story” contest, it is The World’s Best Short-Short Story Contest. What does this form mean to you? Would you say the finalists and winner this year adhered to the form’s conventions, or did they expand on the genre?
I’d like to see the genre expanded INTO story, not away from story. This year was typical in that most of the entries were not stories at all.
When I read this year’s winning submission, one of the rhetorical maneuvers that struck me as particularly effective was Almeida’s use of repetition. (Perhaps not coincidentally, this is also the formal feature I was most drawn to in this year’s winner of the Gearhart Prize for poetry.)
Almeida’s story begins:
“My sister has forgotten her shoes. My sister has forgotten her white shoes and is furious. My sister has forgotten her white shoes and is furious at her good-for-nothing
I don’t understand “yearning” as well as you do, from a craft perspective, but I certainly felt an urgency in the way Almeida’s repetitions continue to build, from statement to statement, emotion to emotion, meaning, context, action, and characterization as the language unfolds.
I’m assuming you also found repetition effective in this story. Can you tell us why?
I agree that the repetition is a part of the organic whole of this voice and the narrative. Crucially so, Zach. Well done for leading us to that moment in this conversation. However, though we are certainly justified in speaking of the repetition as a “formal feature” we must keep in mind that we do so with the ex post facto artificiality of pedagogy. The repetition is better understood in its expressed humanity and its resonance into the human condition. It is a voice- and sense-driven expression of the emotional reality of Boris, our first-person narrator, and, more to the narrative point, it is a DNA marker of the character’s yearning. To say this overtly: the character is yearning—as I would contend virtually all central characters do in literary fiction—for a self, for an identity, for a place in the universe. His sister, as well, is in ardent yearning for her own identity, in her own narrative that Boris is observing and responding to so intensely because it agitates and engages his own. The white shoes are who his sister is to be on her wedding day. And thus, Almeida brilliantly has Boris focus repetitively on his sister’s agitation about her shoes to open the story and then has him express this yearning for himself through shoes in the final sentence, where we as readers experience the full epiphany of yearning of this perfectly crafted short short story. Let’s not quote that passage here. For a reader attuned to the art of fiction that would be a spoiler.
Again, thank you so much for this interview and your continued investment in The Southeast Review.
Zach Linge is the current Assistant Editor and former Online Editor for The Southeast Review. His critical essays are forthcoming or published in African American Review and [Inter]sections Journal, among others, and his poems appear or are forthcoming in Sonora Review, Nimrod International Journal, UnLost Journal, and Permafrost Magazine, among others. He lives and teaches in Tallahassee.