Hint Fiction (W.W. Norton & Company, 2010) is, as the title suggests, an anthology of fiction where each story is 25 words or fewer. There are 125 stories to be found in this anthology, divided across three broad themes: life and death; love and hate; this and that, which entails any story that fails to fit into the first two categories. The anthology boasts a series of celebrated writers, such as Joyce Carol Oates, Gay Degani, Stuart Dybek, among others. Robert Shapard, the editor of numerous flash fiction anthologies who has provided his views on the reverse of this anthology, believes that “some of these stories suggest entire novels in just a few words,” and, as became clear on reading, these stories really are microcosms of universes that become apparent once the penny drops.
Swartwood, in the introduction to this anthology, defines Hint Fiction as “an exercise in brevity, with the writer trying to affect the reader in as few words as possible”, stories in which the reader “is only given a hint of a much larger, more complex story”. The anthology Swartwood has produced stays true to his definition of the form. What remains interesting about these stories long after their consumption is how these hints are dropped; without the hints successfully landing, the larger implication of these stories are lost.
There are two types of hints given to the reader by the authors of these stories. The first involve a reader’s prior knowledge in order to establish the larger story. These stories often rework or offer a new insight into works or ideas that will be familiar to the reader, for example, ‘Cure’ by Kevin Hosey about a scientist in Hiroshima, or Val Gryphin’s ‘Insomina’, which offers an insight into Sleeping Beauty’s thoughts. With both of these examples, the reader will be able to see exactly where these stories might go; it is not exactly a case that the reader will know immediately where these stories are going, more that their final destination isn’t always surprising or shocking. This does not discredit the power behind these stories and the worlds that they evoke; their construction and language are no less precise than other stories that do not necessarily rely on the reader knowing something before they read.
The second is through the power of language itself and, though there is nothing wrong with the stories that makes use of previously established context, I find the stories that rely purely on their twenty-five words or fewer to have the greatest impact. These are the stories where, upon completion, you gasp, and you re-read to ensure you read it correctly the first time. Some shock, others amuse. The stories constructed in this way are the most powerful, which in itself is a real testament to this anthology; many authors write about the two main themes of this collection, and many authors fail to surprise their readers when writing about this theme. Particular standouts in this respect include Samuel J. Baldwin’s ‘Bigger Than It Looks’, Benjamin Percy’s ‘Impact’, ‘Chaste’ by Robin Hollis, and Ron Carlson’s ‘Breaking Labor News’.
The only downside behind this anthology of Hint Fiction is that the stories themselves, though evocative and insightful, may feel gimmicky to readers who are used to “longer” short forms. I felt this was to be expected with an anthology like this and, though it is not my personal feeling towards the anthology, it is something I was conscious of when reading; because I went into reading this anthology knowing these fictions are 25 words or fewer, I did not feel “cheated” of a satisfying ending by a device or twist that I may otherwise view as a gimmicky, such as reliance on a punchline, but others may feel this way.
Would I recommend this anthology to those readers who love short fiction, who admire the power of brevity, who believe less is more and are prepared to lose themselves in the worlds conjured by these tiny tales? Get the hint.