Dirty Realism and Very Short Fiction

Over the years, many people have ended up at this blog because of some posts on dirty realism.  A definition of the style from Wikipedia, circa 2009:

“Dirty Realism is a North American literary movement born in the 1970s-80s in which the narrative is stripped down to its fundamental features.

This movement is a derivation from minimalism. As minimalism, dirty realism is characterized by an economy with words and a focus on surface description. Authors working within the genre tend to eschew adverbs and prefer allowing context to dictate meaning. The characters in minimalist stories and novels tend to be unexceptional.

Dirty realism authors include the movement “godfather” Charles Bukowski (1920-1994), as well as the short story writers Raymond Carver (1938-1988), Tobias Wolff (1945), Richard Ford (1944), Frederick Barthelme, and Pedro Juan Gutiérrez (1950).”

My favorite line from this description is: “The characters in minimalist stories and novels tend to be unexceptional.” 

When I was thinking about this a dozen years ago, flash fiction was not as well-established across the literary internet as it is today.  The flash fiction I was writing was almost exclusively in the dirty realist voice.  In my way of thinking, the stories weren’t really about what happens in them as much as what the actions (or lack of) and the urgency of shorter forms evoke.  Compulsions of style and length dovetailed by default.  For me, realism was (and maybe is) the natural voice of very short fiction, and very short fiction is a natural expression of the realist voice.

These days, I think there’s much more to it.  But there’s still a kernel of truth to these connections, at least for me and for my shorter work.  The trick is not to be too clever or too pithy, and sometimes that’s much harder than it sounds.

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