Reviewed: Hint Fiction, Edited by Robert Swartwood

Review by Tobias Carroll

Hint Fiction: An anthology of stories in 25 words or fewer
Robert Swartwood, editor
W.W. Norton, 188 p.

The first thirty pages of the Robert Swartwood-edited collection Hint Fiction consist of an essay by its editor expanding on a definition of its titular phrase. That definition: “A story of 25 words or fewer that suggests a longer, more complex story.” Swartwood argues that it’s more than simply flash fiction of a certain length — that, critical to the idea of “hint fiction” is a sense of a larger canvas, of a much larger narrative conjured up by a shockingly brief story. His territory is a welcoming one, encompassing everything from 1940s science fiction to the textual experimentation of Lydia Davis.

The stories that follow his introduction, arranged into three sections (“Life & Death,” “Love & Hate,” and “This & That”), occupy a wide stylistic and emotional range. Among the highlights: Peter Straub, L.R. Bonehill, and Joe R. Landsdale embracing the pulp potential of the form, with, respectively, “The Endless Mystery,” “Cull,” and “The Return.” Other stories that achieve that resonance of which Swartwood writes include Benjamin Percy’s “Impact,” Camille Esses’s “Peanut Butter,” Stuart Dybeck’s “Ransom,” and Roxane Gay’s “The Copper Miner’s Sad Sad Song.”

Some of the applications of this style are not without problems. A few of the stories suffer from overly-clever titles, in which the relationship of story and title seems to be not dissimilar to that of setup and punchline. Elsewhere, certain devices reappear: explosions wrack cities, myths and legends are revised, unpleasant visitations occur. And in the end, Hint Fiction is a sometimes contradictory collection, veering wildly in terms of tone and mindset, yet drawing its greatest strength from the diverse and evocative approaches taken to these strikingly brief works.