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.


Another early piece. This was published at elimae when Cooper Renner was the editor. It was a very good journal. This story is 100 words long.


Thaddeus, age 3, set the Evensong in shallow water. Small waves rose and fell, and, retreating, carried Thad’s small ship further from the shore. Squealing and on pigeon toes Thaddeus retrieved it, and, safely back, he cast the tiny schooner headlong into the sea. His father’s strides were long and easy and for a moment Thad was sorry for the rival ocean and the fight he’d picked. His father bent low and pressed Thad to his chest and from tall grass on the bluffs above, they watched a red sun sink behind the green and Thad said, “Bring it back.”

I Love You When You’re Pretty

This piece was published maybe 10 years ago at a venue that no longer exists. When I first started publishing short fiction, there were many new, experimental web journals. Many of them were very good. Many good ones still exist, but many are, as David Thomas might say, now ghost-towns.

This piece also appeared in the first edition of my chapbook, What Other People Heard When I Taught Myself to Speak. That manuscript is going through some new revisions with a second edition coming sometime in the spring.

I Love You When You’re Pretty

When you said hi, I didn’t see you in her fitted polka dots and your hair like a USO girl and your legs in heels. Everyone is beautiful in your grandma’s pictures but we dress with conscience now, buffing out your curves or the square cut of my shoulders with fair-trade cotton. What right do you have, anyway, in eye shadow and stockings, wearing lipstick I can only see close? What right do I have, now, to closeness, to feel like cigarettes won’t kill me and sex is not transaction? What right to be pretty? And to love you when you are?

Story: A Winter Ascetic

A Winter Ascetic

The house is cold at 60 and January lies. Outside everything’s washed bold under bright sun and heavy light but the air’s still cold like New Year’s. The shadows are crisp, too, I can see without my glasses, but the lines of my hardwood floor run together at the door. I won’t go outside today.

The dog got walked twice on Tuesday and yesterday the same. He’ll be fine for now with the city paper in the basement. I don’t give him the free paper, though – that I save that for kindling. It’s not as good a grade and burns much cleaner than our subscription rags.

I teach here in the Valley, English at the county’s liberal arts college, and we’re still on what my editor and the administration insist on calling Break, but I don’t get much done. They brought me here after my dissertation because of the exciting work I was doing on cognizance and the nonnegotiable particulars of a working Kantian regime in British Lit. I scrawl it out in pencil or pen on blue lined sheets of paper with thin red ledger lines. They’re curling on my curio and they blur together, too.

The dog comes in with my fedora. The fedora is for Thursday walks, he knows, with the beret and scarf for Sundays. I scratch behind his ears and tell him not today. “I’m working on the ending, Scout, and then I will be finished. Once more through the ending and then the intro after that.” No one reads the middles so I don’t even bother. Better authors put their real points there, buried in a paragraph or single sentence, buried in the middle where no one reads. To me it’s just a vehicle, an excuse for clever starts and pithy, pithy ends and I think maybe I should have been a poet.


Publication notes:  This is another of those pieces that is so old that it was published at one of the early online microfiction journals, in this case, a venue called Thieves Jargon. Like elimae and Tuesday Shorts and others from those days, the Jargon is no longer.  “A Winter Ascetic” was published there in December of 2007.  Copyright Chris Cocca 2007 – 2018 and in perpetuity.