Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Why So Serious?

For many the greatest example of flash fiction ever is this:

For sale, Baby shoes, Never worn.

It's attributed to Ernest Hemingway, but there's apparently dispute over that.  I've gone on record in one of my other blogs with saying this isn't a story at all.  It's a prompt.  It asks the reader to fill in everything to create a scenario.  But the thing is, everyone pretty much comes up with the same basic scenario:  something tragic must have happened!  The baby is dead!  Maybe it was stillborn or died shortly thereafter.

Whether this is a story or not is debatable, but what we should be more interested in is why everyone comes up with a negative scenario.  I mean, if you just look at those words, there's no logical reason to assume something horrible happened.  Maybe the parents bought too many shoes; if you have a baby you know how fast they go through them.  Maybe some colorblind relatives bought a really ugly pair of shoes.  There are plenty of perfectly ordinary scenarios.

My buddy Jay Greenstein said "The story is clearly a tragedy, and the denouement is inherent in the fact that it's an advertisement."  That's just silly.  There's no "clear tragedy."  There's no tragedy at all.  It's only because we imagine it a tragedy.  That says something about human beings, I think, that we instantly go to that place.  I wonder if any psychologist has studied the phenomenon?  If not, it seems like something for a grad student to do a paper on.

Maybe it's just that if someone asks us to make a story out of it, we assume tragedy because that's what makes the best stories.  Though you could make it a comedy out of someone giving the parents a really ugly pair of shoes and they try to get rid of them without the person who gave them to the parents finding out.  That'd make for a good episode of a sitcom.  But maybe like Monsters, Inc we assume screams are more powerful than laughter until we find out differently.


  1. Or the baby's feet grew too fast...but I wouldn't have a kid that does that lol.

  2. That's an interesting point. I never thought of it this way but you are right about the six words being a prompt.

  3. Most stories involve death, so I can see why people would assume the baby is dead. The title does make a good writing prompt.

  4. Hey Pat,

    Yep, that flash conjures up all sorts of baby possibilities. Of course, "flash" conjures up some other thoughts....

    As you were, dude.




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