“Adams,” from Life Is Short—Art Is Shorter: In Praise of Brevity


The following (very) short story by George Saunders and introduction by David Shields and Elizabeth Cooperman have been excerpted from Life Is Short—Art Is Shorter: In Praise of Brevity, forthcoming from Hawthorne Books in April 2015. Copyright © 2015 by David Shields, Elizabeth Cooperman, and George Saunders. Reprinted by permission of Hawthorne Books.


Introduction, by David Shields and Elizabeth Cooperman

Short Stuff

bobs, tempers, college rejection letters, kinds of love, postcards, nicknames, baby carrots, myopia, life flashing before eyes, gummy bears, the loser’s straw, Capri pants, charge on this phone battery, a moment on the lips (forever on the hips), caprice, velvet chokers, six months to live, penne, some dog-tails, how long I’ve known you though it feels like a lifetime, even a complicated dive, tree stumps, a shot of tequila, breaking a bone, a temp job, bobby socks, when you’re having fun, a sucker punch, going straight-to-video, outgrown shoes, a travel toothbrush, just missing the basket, quickies, some penises, lard-based desserts, catnaps, staccato tonguing, a sugar rush, time-outs, Tom Cruise, a stint, brusque people, stubble, the “I’m sorry” in proportion to the offense, fig season, grammatical contractions, bunny hills, ice cream headaches, dachshunds, -ribs, ‑stops, -hands, -changed, . . . but sweet.


Failing the Test of Literature

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of . . .” [1]

Imagine, for a moment, that you have fallen asleep while reading a great book. Suppose that the book is War and Peace or Crime and Punishment or Moby-Dick; it doesn’t matter, as long as the book carries with it a crushing weight of cultural prestige. But somehow, toward the middle, your attention flags, or you’re not up to the challenge, or you’re tired and irritable. Whatever the cause, you’ve fallen asleep. The huge book you’ve been reading falls to the floor. Because it’s a big book, it makes a resounding thud when gravity finally has its way with it. The sound shocks you awake. You look up, dazed. You feel guilty (again). You have failed, at least temporarily, the Test of Literature. Something is wrong (you have always known it) with your attention span. [2]

The world of remarkable individuals making moral decisions across a long span of time is often what passes for profundity in literature. Greatness, we in America especially think, has to do with sheer size, with the expansion of materials, but one is entitled to have occasional doubts. [3]

What if length is a feature of writing that is as artificial as an individual prose style? [4]

As it happens, in the tradition of Western literature we have come to believe that, at least with the novel, length is synonymous with profundity (this is a confusion of the horizontal with the vertical, please notice) and that most great literature must be large. But what if length, great length, is a convention not always necessary to the materials but dictated by an author’s taste or will, a convention that runs parallel to expansionism, empire-building, and the contemplation of the heroic individual? It may simply be evidence of the writer’s interest in domination. [5]

Get fat and you will call hunger one of the virtues. [6]

I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead. [7]

All work is the avoidance of harder work. [8]

Try painting a landscape on a grain of rice. [9]

If you don’t know the whole truth, you might as well keep whatever you have to say short. You might as well puncture the pretense of sheer size. [10]

It is as if the titanic ego of fiction itself has been brought down to a human scale. [11]


The Invention of Brevity

What if very short short stories are products of mass societies in which crowding is an inescapable part of life? The novel is, spatially, like an estate; the very short story is like an efficiency on the twenty-third floor. As it happens, more people these days live in efficiencies than on estates. [12]

It is as if all the borders, to all other realms, have moved closer to us, and we ourselves are living in tighter psychic spaces. [13]

In college I was once accused of owning only six objects. [14]

In my dating days, as soon as I anticipated going to bed with someone, I found it absurd, irrational, to further resist the inevitable. [15]

One common contemporary approach: cut to the quick.

Jettisoning content—temporal, material, or textual—makes me feel good all over. [16]

At this point, I must make a sort of confession: I, too, have fallen asleep over several famous authors. And I have woken up feeling that the fault must be mine and wondering, vaguely, about the convention of length in literature. [17]

I’m bored by plot; I’m bored when it’s all written out, when there isn’t any shorthand. [18]

If there’s a good line in a book, I’ll happily copy out the line and sell the book to the Strand. [19]

Value yourself according to the burdens you carry, and you will find everything a burden. [20]

The short-short story isn’t a new form; it’s not as if, in 1974, there sprung from the head of Zeus the short-short story.

Think of the shortest story you know. [21]

Perhaps it’s just an anecdote. [22]

Or a joke.

“A wife is like an umbrella,” says Freud, citing an Austrian joke; “sooner or later one takes a cab.” [23]

Short-shorts are similar to algebraic equations or lab experiments or jigsaw puzzles or carom shots or very cruel jokes. They’re magic tricks, with meaning.

Many people’s reaction nowadays to a lot of longer stories is often Remind me again why I read this, or The point being?

If you don’t know the whole truth, you might as well keep whatever you have to say short. [24]

Quite a few critics have been worried about attention span lately and see very short stories as signs of cultural decadence—bonbons for lazy readers, chocolates stuffed with snow. [25]

No one ever said that sonnets or haikus were evidence of short attention spans. [26]

Kafka, who was unusually susceptible to textual stimuli, read only a couple of pages of a book at a time, he read the same relatively few things over and over, his reading habits were eccentric, and he wasn’t a completist. [27]

The short-attention-span argument seems to have been invented by Anglo-centric critics who are nostalgic for the huge Victorian novel as the only serious form of literature, and talking about the short attention span is a form of blaming-the-reader. [28]

Duration of attention doesn’t seem as important as its quality. [29]

Many undergraduate writing students have an admirable impatience with the Dickensian model; they want, instead, to be commanded by voice.

We are all mortal. We are existentially alone on the planet. We want art that builds a bridge across that abyss. We want to read work that shows how the writer solved the problem of being alive.

Tell a story about the relation between literature and life, between art and death.

The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when all your arrows are spent. [30]

In the best short-shorts, the writer seems to have miraculously figured out a way to stage, in a very compressed space, his/her own metaphysic: Life feels like this or at least Some aspect of life feels like this.

Isn’t what grips us emotional and intellectual depth-charge? What else matters?

Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan are antiquarians; they’re entertaining the troops as the ship goes down. Their writing is pre-modern.

On or about December, 1910, human character changed. [31]

Whether it’s a story, a short lyric essay, or a prose poem, there is something about the very nature of compression and concision that forces a kind of raw candor.

The short stories, lyric essays, and prose poems gathered in this volume seem to gain access to contemporary feeling states more effectively than the conventional story does. As movie trailers, stand-up comedy, fast food, commercials, sound bites, phone sex, bumper stickers, email, texts, and tweets all do, short-shorts cut to the chase.

Let us merge criticism and imagination, fact and dream.

Let us obliterate the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction and create new forms for a new century.

Here, in a page or a page-and-a-half, I’ll attempt to unveil for you my vision of life . . .

Let us create an explosion on every page, in every paragraph.

I don’t want to be bogged down by the tangential, irrelevant, or unnecessary. Stick a spear straight to my heart—stick it straight to my brain. [32]

The Fascinating Question of Art: What Is Between A and B?

One good thing about my impending death is that I don’t need to fake interest in anything. Look, I’m dying! [33]

We are all getting tired of the Village Explainers. Explanations don’t seem to be explaining very much anymore. Authoritative accounts have a way of looking like official lies, which in their solemnity start to sound funny. [34]

Exposition is a very windexed window. [35]

We say: begin or end in the middle; begin at the ending or end with the beginning, but do not, do not begin at the beginning or end with the ending. [36]

In these stories, there are no prolonged, agonizing reappraisals, disquisitions on psychology. The situations don’t permit it because both time and space have run out simultaneously. [37]

I like to imagine a brush fire, deep inside a national park. The reader is a firefighter, and the writer’s job is to drop that reader directly at the edge of the blaze to encounter the flames and smoke immediately. There is no time for the long hike in. [38]

—the turn without the long straightaway, the take-off without the mile of runway. [39]

How much can one remove and still have the composition be intelligible? This understanding, or its lack, divides those who can write from those who can really write. Chekhov removed the plot. Pinter, elaborating, removed the history, the narration; Beckett, the characterization. We hear it anyway. Omission is a form of creation. [40]

The fascinating question of Art: What is between A and B? [41]

Two prisoners told each other the same jokes so many times that they resorted to numbering the jokes and just mentioning numbers to each other. One prisoner turned to his bunkmate and said, “Hey: number 27.” The other one didn’t laugh. “Why didn’t you laugh?” “I didn’t like how you told it.”

The line of beauty is the line of perfect economy. [42]

I say: when you dip a single toe in cold water, a shiver runs through your entire body. [43]

What the detail is to the world of facts, the moment is to the flow of time. [44]

Perhaps it is the nature of small things to flow together, forming something larger. [45]

In the very brief works collected here, there is precious little time between beginnings and endings, between entrances and departures.

Brevity is unluxurious. It can’t afford to lose the point, unless, of course, losing the point is the point.

The ending of a short-short is crucial. It should provide “retrospective redefinition”—that is, it should force the reader to process anew what she has just read.

The whole thing again, but with a difference.

The river we stepped into is not the river in which we stand. [46]

The pressure to lift great weight in a short span resembles the work that must be done in the final couplet of a sonnet—the two-line volta or “turn” that should flip the poem, disorient the argument.

Because, by the end of the story, poem, or essay, it becomes fairly transparent whether or not the writer can “perform,” the short-short is highly nervous-making.

There’s no time to relax in a short text. It’s like resting during the hundred-yard dash. It’s ridiculous even to consider. One should instead close the book and just watch television or take a nap. [47]

When students write very short compositions (as opposed to, say, a fifteen-page story that’s flawed from the get-go and flounders on and on in that state), the author has nowhere to hide. Instructors can much more effectively critique—both in class and in written comments—these shorter works.

So, too, in an hour-long class, a teacher can identify and trace for students the way in which each gesture or silence adds up in one or more of this book’s 47 essays and stories.

Intelligent intensity has nothing to do with scale. It has to do with the quality of a person’s attention. [48]

I like the focus that working on small things brings. I must be exact and careful and pay attention to nothing but the little stuff in front of me. I don’t focus on details in most areas of my life, but here is one place I must pay deliberate, patient attention. [49]

There is the night a student reads a fictive description of a plane crash . . . the torn limbs pile up . . . [50]

A simple hair across a scoop of ice cream will do much to repel people. [51]

A reviewer said about a collection of linked stories, published twenty years ago, that if the author kept going in this direction (i.e., toward concision), he’d wind up writing books composed of one very beautiful word.

The reviewer meant it as a put-down, but to the author it was wild praise.

Dissect, disassemble, break the short-short down.

Discuss it word-for-word, as if it were a geometric proof.

These stories provide an observable canvas that can be held in the hand and examined all at once.

Your mind can encompass a very short story in the way it can’t grasp a novella or a novel—like a hand closing over a stone with the word sadness painted on it. [52]

It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book—what everyone else does not say in a whole book. [53]

What is creation made of, and what do we make of it? [54]

The sun is one foot wide. [55]

A bow is alive only when it kills. [56]

Practically every week, physicists proclaim the existence of a subatomic particle that is smaller and shorter-lived and more elusive than the particle thought to be the fundamental building block of matter the day before. [57]

It is the space that defines the words, the skull the kiss, the hole the eye. [58]

Ah, what can fill the heart? But then, what can’t[59]


“Adams” by George Saunders

I never could stomach Adams and then one day he’s standing in my kitchen, in his underwear. Facing in the direction of my kids’ room! So I wonk him in the back of the head and down he goes. When he stands up, I wonk him again and down he goes. Then I roll him down the stairs into the early-spring muck and am like, If you ever again, I swear to God, I don’t even know what to say, you miserable fuck.

Karen got home. I pulled her aside. Upshot was: Keep the doors locked, and if he’s home the kids stay inside.

But after dinner I got to thinking: Guy comes in in his shorts and I’m sitting here taking this? This is love? Love for my kids? Because what if? What if we slip up? What if a kid gets out or he gets in? No, no, no, I was thinking, not acceptable.

So I went over and said, Where is he?

To which Lynn said, Upstairs, why?

Up I went and he was standing at the mirror, still in his goddam underwear, only now he had on a shirt, and I wonked him again as he was turning. Down he went and tried to crab out of the room, but I put a foot on his back.

If you ever, I said. If you ever again.

Now we’re even, he said. I came in your house and you came in mine.

Only I had pants on, I said, and mini-wonked him in the back of his head.

I am what I am, he said.

Well, that took the cake! Him admitting it! So I wonked him again, as Lynn came in, saying, Hey, Roger, hey. Roger being me. And then he rises up. Which killed me! Him rising up? Against me? And I’m about to wonk him again, but she pushes in there, like intervening. So to wonk him again I had to like shove her back, and unfortunately she slipped, and down she went, and she’s sort of lying there, skirt hiked up—and he’s mad! Mad! At me! Him in his underwear, facing my kids’ room, and he’s mad at me? Many a night I’ve heard assorted wonks and baps from Adams’s house, with her gasping, Frank, Jesus, I Am a Woman, You’re Hurting Me, the Kids Are Watching, and so on.

Because that’s the kind of guy he is.

So I wonked him again, and when she crawled at me, going, Please, Please, I had to push her back down, not in a mean way but in a like stay-there way, which is when, of course, just my luck, the kids came running in—these Adams kids, I should say, are little thespians, constantly doing musicals in the back yard, etc., etc.—so they’re, you know, all dramatic: Mummy, Daddy! And, O.K., that was unfortunate, so I tried to leave, but they were standing there in the doorway, blocking me, like, Duh, we do not know which way to turn, we are stunned. So I shoved my way out, not rough, very gentle—I felt for them, having on more than one occasion heard Adams whaling on them, too—but one did go down, just on one knee, and I helped her up, and she tried to bite me! She did not seem to know what was what, and it hurt, and made me mad, so I went over to Adams, who was just getting up, and gave him this like proxy wonk on top of his head, in exchange for the biting.

Keep your damn, I said. Keep your goddam kids from—

Then I needed some air, so I walked around the block, but still it wasn’t sitting right. Because now it begins, you know? Adams over there all pissed off, saying false things about me to those kids, which, due to what they had seen (the wonking) and what they had not seen (him in his underwear, facing my kids’ room), they were probably swallowing every mistruth, and I was like, Great, now they hate me, like I’m the bad guy in this, and all summer it’s going to be pranks, my hose slit and syrup in my gas tank, or all of a sudden our dog has a burn mark on her belly.

So I type up these like handbills, saying, Just So You Know, Your Dad Was Standing Naked in My Kitchen, Facing My Kids’ Room. And I tape one inside their screen door so they’ll be sure and see it when they go to softball later, then I stuff like nine in their mailbox, and on the rest I cross out “Your Dad” and put in “Frank Adams” and distribute them in mailboxes around the block.

All night it’s call after call from the neighbors, saying, you know, Call the cops, Adams needs help, he’s a goof, I’ve always hated him, maybe a few of us should go over there, let us work with you on this, do not lose your cool. That sort of thing. Which was all well and good, but then I go out for a smoke around midnight and what is he looking at, all hateful? Their houses? Don’t kid yourself. He is looking at my house, with that smoldering look, and I am like, What are you looking at?

I am what I am, he says.

You fuck, I say, and rush over to wonk him, but he runs inside.

And, as far as cops, my feeling was: What am I supposed to do, wait until he’s back in my house, then call the cops and hope he stays facing my kids’ room, in his shorts, until they arrive?

No, sorry, that is not my way.

The next day my little guy, Brian, is standing at the back door, with his kite, and I like reach over and pop the door shut, going, Nope, nope, you know very well why not, Champ.

So there’s my poor kid, kite in lap all afternoon, watching some dumb art guy on PBS saying, Shading Is One Way We Make Depth, How About Trying It Relevant to This Stump Here?

Then Monday morning I see Adams walking toward his car and again he gives me that smoldering look! Never have I received such a hateful look. And flips me the bird! As if he is the one who is right! So I rush over to wonk him, only he gets in the car and pulls away.

All day that look was in my mind, that look of hate.

And I thought, If that was me, if I had that hate level, what would I do? Well, one thing I would do is hold it in and hold it in and then one night it would overflow and I would sneak into the house of my enemy and stab him and his family in their sleep. Or shoot them. I would. You would have to. It is human nature. I am not blaming anybody.

I thought, I have to be cautious and protect my family or their blood will be on my hands.

So I came home early and went over to Adams’s house when I knew nobody was home, and gathered up his rifle from the basement and their steak knives and also the butter knives, which could be sharpened, and also their knife sharpener, and also two letter openers and a heavy paperweight, which, if I was him and had lost all my guns and knives, I would definitely use that to bash in the head of my enemy in his sleep, as well as the heads of his family.

That night I slept better until I woke in a sweat, asking myself what I would do if someone came in and, after shoving down my wife and one of my kids, stole my guns and knives and knife sharpener as well as my paperweight. And I answered myself: What I would do is look around my house in a frenzy for something else dangerous, such as paint, such as thinner, such as household chemicals, and then either ring the house of my enemy with the toxics and set them on fire or pour some into the pool of my enemy, which would (1) rot the liner and (2) sicken the children of my enemy when they went swimming.

Then I looked in on my sleeping kids and, oh my God, nowhere are there kids as sweet as my kids, and standing there in my pajamas, thinking of Adams standing there in his underwear, then imagining my kids choking and vomiting as they struggled to get out of the pool, I thought, No, no way, I am not living like this.

So, entering through a window I had forced earlier that afternoon, I gathered up all the household chemicals, and, believe me, he had a lot, more than I did, more than he needed, thinner, paint, lye, gas, solvents, etc. I got it all in like nine Hefty bags and was just starting up the stairs with the first bag when here comes the whole damn family, falling upon me, even his kids, whipping me with coat hangers and hitting me with sharp-edged books and spraying hair spray in my eyes, the dog also nipping at me, and rolling down the stairs of their basement I thought, They are trying to kill me. Hitting my head on the concrete floor, I saw stars, and thought, No, really, they are going to kill me, and if they kill me no more little Melanie and me eating from the same popcorn bowl, no more little Brian doing that wrinkled-brow thing we do back and forth when one of us makes a bad joke, never again Karen and me lying side by side afterward, looking out the window, discussing our future plans as those yellow-beaked birds come and go on the power line. And I struggled to my feet, thinking, Forget how I got here, I am here, I must get out of here, I have to live. And I began to wonk and wonk, and once they had fallen back, with Adams and his teen-age boy huddled over the littlest one, who had unfortunately flown relatively far due to a bit of a kick I had given her, I took out my lighter and fired up the bag, the bag of toxics, and made for the light at the top of the stairs, where I knew the door was, and the night was, and my freedom, and my home.


[1] Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

[2] Charles Baxter, Introduction to Sudden Fiction International: Sixty Short-Short Stories, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas (New York: Norton, 1989)

[3] Baxter

[4] Baxter

[5] Baxter

[6] James Richardson, Vectors: Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays (Keene, NY: Ausable Press, 2001)

[7] Blaise Pascal, Provincial Letters

[8] Richardson

[9] Jay Ponteri, “On Brevity,” unpublished manuscript

[10] Baxter

[11] Baxter

[12] Baxter

[13] Baxter

[14] Sarah Manguso, conversation with David Shields, Believer, June 2010

[15] Manguso

[16] Manguso

[17] Baxter

[18] Conversation between Janet Malcolm and David Salle, from her profile of him, “Forty-one False Starts,” New Yorker, July 11, 1994

[19] Manguso

[20] Richardson

[21] Baxter

[22] Baxter

[23] Heather McHugh, Broken English: Poetry and Partiality (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1993)

[24] Baxter

[25] Baxter

[26] Baxter

[27] Manguso

[28] Baxter

[29] Baxter

[30] Emerson

[31] Virginia Woolf, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1924), in The Virginia Woolf Reader (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), 194

[32] Tara Ebrahimi

[33] Manguso

[34] Baxter

[35] McHugh

[36] Ponteri

[37] Baxter

[38] Dinty W. Moore, “On Brevity, and Parachuting into a Literary Brush Fire,” Creative Nonfiction 27 (2005)

[39] Richardson

[40] David Mamet, “Writers on Writing; Hearing the Notes That Aren’t Played,” New York Times, July 15, 2002

[41] Mamet

[42] Emerson

[43] Ponteri

[44] Baxter

[45] Pagan website, quoted by Ponteri

[46] Heraclitus

[47] Manguso

[48] Baxter

[49] Card designer Bekki Witt, quoted by Ponteri

[50] Amy Hempel, “Captain Fiction,” Vanity Fair, December 1984

[51] Gordon Lish, quoted in Hempel

[52] Ponteri

[53] Nietzsche

[54] McHugh

[55] Heraclitus

[56] Heraclitus

[57] Bernard Cooper, “Train of Thought,” in In Brief: Short Personal Takes on the Personal, edited by Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones (New York: Norton, 1999)

[58] McHugh

[59] Richardson