Short is in. Online Americans, fed up with e-mail overload and blogorrhea, are retreating into micro-writing. Six-word memoirs. Four-word film reviews. Twelve-word novels. Mini-lit is thriving.
Like traditional Japanese poetry, the new pop-culture haiku says a lot with few words. These days digital eloquence is defined by pithiness. Witness the rise of Twitter.com where more than a million users submit messages of 140 characters max (i.e., no longer than this sentence). In the book world, a surprise hit this year has been Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. The book, which features entries culled from more than 25,000 submissions on smithmag.net begins with children's advocate Robin Templeton's "After Harvard, had baby with crackhead" and includes superchef Mario Batali's "Brought it to a boil often."
Co-editor Larry Smith, who founded Smith magazine and signs his e-mails "Big hair, big heart, big hurry," says the collection was inspired by a six-word story Ernest Hemingway allegedly produced on a dare: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."
A second six-word collection, on love and heartbreak, will be out in January, followed by an edition of teen submissions. Smith, however, aware of the dangers of overextension, insists the micro-memoir won't become the next Chicken Soup for the Soul, which has dozens of iterations. "There won't be Six Words for the Pet-Food Lover's Soul," he says.
But the six-word meme is spreading. A North Carolina preacher encourages six-word prayers. A group of techies trade six-word e-mails. And the trend has sparked a revival, on YouTube, of "Weird Al" Yankovic's (This Song's Just) Six Words Long.
Of course, not everyone sticks to six. NPR's On the Media held a 12-word-novel contest, which yielded several gems, including listener Brenda J. Wolfe's "My sister had written Father's obituary. He is survived by one daughter." The contest was held last November in honor of National Novel Writing Month, a.k.a. NaNoWriMo.
London blogger Devon Dudgeon created Five-Word Reviews to match the length of gushing excerpts in theater ads ("Don't miss! Moving and memorable"). She says micro-writers crave linguistic variety. But not always. "For Jerry Springer: The Opera, I would have liked to include five synonyms for atrocious," she says. Instead, she went with "Hackneyed jokes and ghastly songs."
For Web developer Benj Clews, even five words are too many. Users submit four-word film reviews to his FWFR.com site--such as "Tense. Intense. In tents" for The Blair Witch Project and "This is Spaniel Tap" for Best in Show. "It's all about the sheer, honest bluntness the format forces," says Clews. But why four words? "Three words never seemed like quite enough," he says. "Five felt like overkill."