Condensation narratives on the comeback trail

Last week I did a presentation at one of our major universities. I spoke about the need to create content specifically for mobile devices. I will reflect more on this in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, as I was flying back home after the presentation, I mulled over the notion of small/short units of content. This led me to a delightful historical safari around the subject; here is my safari-log:

Short stories have younger siblings, known as short-short stories and even very-short short-short stories.

One day in 1976, Harlan Ellison, one of the most captivating, prolific writers ever, and an inspired master of short-short stories and very short short-short stories, sat in the window of A Change of Hobbit, an LA Sci-Fi shop, and wrote 26 very short short-short stories, one for each letter of the alphabet. The resulting work “From A to Z in the chocolate alphabet” an out-of-print collectors’ item, is a condensation-narrative masterpiece. Another Ellison special, a lovely 1100 word story called Susan is accessible online.

70-odd years before Ellison, another literary genius produced condensation-narratives in news format. Félix Fénéon (1861-1944) was a French art critic, a novelist and an anarchist. Some saw Fénéon as a cultural terrorist and, in fact, he has been accused, occasionally (but not convicted), of various criminal acts. The Anarchist Encyclopedia quotes an amusing story: 

When “anarchist Felix Fénéon (was) charged with illegally carrying a firearm, the judge said: “You know you had on you everything you need to commit a murder?” to which Fénéon replied: “Yes, but I also had on me everything I needed to commit a rape.”

An almost permanent resident of the Parisian artists’ heaven in Montmartre, Fénéon had painters, authors and performing artists among his close friends. Félix Fénéon wrote 1220 short Vignettes, all dealing with crime, and published them in a Paris newspaper under the title “Nouvelles en trois lignes” (news, or novels, in Three Lines):

  • At finding her son Hyacinth, 69, hanged, Mrs. Ranvier, of Bussy-Saint-Georges, was so depressed she couldn’t cut the rope.
  • In Essoyes (Aube), Bernard, 25, bludeoned Mr. Dufert, who is 89, and stabbed his wife. He was jealous.
  • In Brest, thanks to a smoker’s carelessness, Miss Ledru, all done up in tulle, was badly burned on thighs and breasts.
  • “What! all those children perched on my wall?” With eight shots, Mr. Olive, a Toulon property-owner made them scramble down, covered with blood.

Next came flash fiction, another form of short-short story. Ernest Hemingway’s 6 word short story: “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” Is classic FF, wow. Wired came up with a collection of 6 word short stories, my favourites are Arthur C. Clarke’s “God said, ‘Cancel Program GENESIS.’ The universe ceased to exist.” and Ursula Le Guin’s “Easy. Just touch the match to” — those Sci-Fiers knew how to write.

The 19th century Japanese poetic form Haiku is written in three lines (five syllables in the first, seven in the second and five in the last one) like this:

the first cold shower
even the monkey seems to want
a little coat of straw

Diehards will appreciate the Jewish Haiku (

Harsh Scrabble discord–
someone has placed “putzhead” on
a triple word score.

Condensation narratives are poised to take centre stage again, because they fit perfectly into SMS limitations. Would anyone like to contribute a 160 character SMS narrative (short story, poem, haiku)?