“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
So goes the famous, oft-lectured six-word novel of Ernest Hemingway, capturing in its compression, in the expanse of its implicit negative space, the full emotional impact of the form. According to lore, Hemingway composed it on a napkin, sometime during the ‘20s over lunch at the Algonquin Hotel, after having bet a couple of fellow writers $10 that he could write a novel in six words (this being Hemingway lore, he of course won).
As with other tales of Jazz age literary titans, however, this particular legend has been widely debunked. Garson O’Toole, the proprietor of the decidedly niche site, Quote Investigator, found scant evidence that Hemingway ever wrote the story. A literary agent named Peter Miller, who claims he heard the Algonquin anecdote some time in the ‘70s from a “well-established newspaper syndicator,” ended up publishing it in his 1991 book, Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing; it seems highly unlikely that this story would first come to the surface 30 years after Hemingway’s death, in 1961. To boot, O’Toole also discovered numerous advertisements closely resembling the Hemingway story in classified sections prior to the supposed bet. One such ad dates back to 1906, and was found in a section labeled “Terse Tales of the Town.” It reads: “For sale, baby carriage; never been used. Apply at this office.”
Regardless of whether Hemingway wrote the infamous six-word novel or not, it’s clear that a newspaperman penned a version of it first (to be fair, Hemingway was a newspaperman once, too, which many account for his clarified prose). This is slightly ironic: it’s newspapermen and women (of a sort) who have made the best use of the form in the digital age. I’m talking, naturally, about the Onion, the satirical newspaper whose anonymous headline writers have managed to generate a steady flow of pointed, poignant, strange and occasionally poetic “six-word” fictions, expertly tailored for consumption on our Instagram feeds.
I think it’s important to pause here and clarify just what I am and am not talking about, with regards to the Onion’s content. I am not talking about the actual stories they write; while funny, and short, and stories, as soon as they depart from the headline, they leave the realm of the potentially literary and enter that of definite satire. Nor am I talking about anything on the Onion’s related sites, either—Clickhole, for example, is hilarious, but its verbose and stylized Internet-ness makes it incompatible with the kind of concision for which its progenitor is famous.
Ergo: I am talking exclusively about the social headlines on the Onion’s Instagram newswire, for which the headline is the entire story—a thought-provoking diversion in the otherwise mindless, infinite scroll.
In this context, let’s look at a few recent headlines, which, appearing as they do on Instagram, amount to “Terse Tales of the Town” for our current moment: “Something About Captor Seems a Little Off”; “Homeless Diabetic Living on Venice Boardwalk Probably Has Seen Matt Damon”; and, perhaps the most Hemingway-esque I’ve seen lately, “Habit Kicked, Begged For Forgiveness, Drawn Closer.” Each tells a story. But more importantly, each sets a mood, establishes a tone, generates a specific feeling in the same way “baby shoes” bespeaks an enigmatic air of melancholy. All of them are funny, to be sure. Yet there is something intriguingly absurd about this offbeat captor, something profound in that uniquely LA juxtaposition between destitution and high-wattage celebrity, something authentically desperate in the truncated voice of the addicted narrator who appears to have kicked an unknown habit. By their very nature they elevate the mundaneness of the everyday to—if not the sublime—something worthy of a narrative, or the suggestion of one. (“Literature is analysis after the event,” the narrator writes, in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.)
As often as not, short stories are exercises or sketches, relatively unconcerned with plot, that explore a single idea, conflict or character. Their inherent limitations allow for formal experimentation, in ways that might (emphasis on “might”) descend into gimmickry if taken to the lengths a novel requires. David Foster Wallace’s “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” is just that; Roberto Bolaño’s “Labyrinth” is more or less a hypothetical analysis of a photograph. Lydia Davis, the preeminent master of the very short short story, has not infrequently made use of the Onion’s preferred style of fiction: the joke-qua-story. Consider “The Other”, from her 1997 collection Almost No Memory. It’s one-sentence long, and it goes like this:
She changes this thing in the house to annoy the other, and the other is annoyed and changes it back, and she changes this other thing in the house to annoy the other, and the other is annoyed and changes it back, and then she tells all this the way it happens to some others and they think it is funny, but the other hears it and does not think it is funny, but can’t change it back.
This is, in essence, a tragicomic gag. Without the actual details—with only pronouns—the story becomes less about the specific instance of changing one thing or another and more about the relationship between the two people for whom this issue may be emblematic of some greater turmoil. It’s this general specificity that lies at the heart of much of the Onion’s newswire headlines, too, as with “Coworkers to Hang Out After Work to Catch Up On What’s Wrong At Work,” which, in its universal terms, becomes a sort of incisive observation on the fallacious border between our work and personal lives.
In some ways, the Onion’s Instagram newswire is fiction’s de facto response to the so-called Instapoets sweeping the platform. Some, like Portland-based Collin Andrew Yost (21k followers), have been the subject of easy derision; his Instagrams consist of photos of short, typewritten poems staged next to cigarettes, and tend to resonate in the same key as this one: “I kind of want to choke on your cock right now, but I know F. Scott Fitzgerald needs me.”/God I love being a writer. Others, though, like Rupi Kaur (1.8 million followers), have successfully used Instagram as a vessel for putting their writing in front of the kind of readership no analog poet would ever dream of reaching. Her first collection, Milk and Honey, sold two and a half million copies. (For perspective, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet John Ashbery was lucky to sell 10,000.)
As critic Carl Wilson notes in The New York Times Book Review, Rupi Kaur’s poetry is often dismissed as “greeting-card verse”—the oft-aphoristic and easily digestible lines real poets would turn their noses up to. But poetry’s inscrutability and its weak grip on the culture go hand-in-hand. “It’s often said of Ashbery that his poems actively resist paraphrase of their meanings. These poets, on the other hand, print the paraphrase...[Their] directness suits their media, at their best disrupting never-ending streams of gossip, selfies and opinion-mongering with stark emotional clearings that aren’t entirely unlike the mental stillness and ‘othering’ fostered by poetry’s traditional techniques.”
At the worst, Wilson presents Kaur’s poetry as the best of a bad situation: it is far better to read her poetry than no poetry at all, as would assuredly be the case with many of her followers. Fiction, particularly literary fiction, while not in as deep a pit as poetry, is still unlikely to recapture the prominence it claimed as recently as a few decades ago. And though I would never suggest Onion newswire headlines on Instagram are suitable replacements for novels or legitimate short stories, it is irrefutably true that, like the Instapoets, “their directness suits the media,” while also fostering, if only momentarily, the same kind of critical thinking, empathy and introspection as the real thing—or at the very least, Hemingway’s fake-real six-word novel.
Taken together, the breadth of the Onion’s newswire headlines are staggering. They range from the innocuous to the political, from the irreverent to the fantastical, the blunt to the elliptical. Some are biting, exfoliating poignant truths from the morass of modern social or political life; others are merely true to themselves. This one, “Wet Dream About Porn,” is so wickedly smart as to become a kind of pseudo-poetic mind-fuck: for a minute there, I didn’t notice that “porn” should’ve been “sex”—that, subconsciously, I’d conflated the two. Show me another piece of writing, fiction or otherwise, that can elucidate so much in so few words—if you can, Hemingway’s ghost might cough up that $10.