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.

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.

Admit two, please

I just got the galley proof for next month’s issue of AdmitTwo which will feature a hundred-word piece by me that I combined with a creative commons licensed picture from Flickr (with appropriate credit and permissions from the photographer.  It’s the Dylan story some of you have read.

Now that that’s ready, I’ll be getting in touch with those of you that wanted to work on some pieces for future submission to this unique venue.


A Winter Ascetic


My piece, “A Winter Ascetic,” is included in today’s update at Thieves Jargon. I’m in the company of Douglas I. Thompson, Thomas Boulan, Steve Finbow, Jacob McArthur Mooney, Andy Riverbed, Zachary C. Bush, Mark Baumer, Joel Van Noord, Lyn Lifshin, Nora C. Gruenberg, Rowan Carter, Timothy Gager, TygerLilly Ernst and Edward Cowan. Check it out.

Six Sentences

I came across Six Sentences via a link at One Sentence Stories a few days ago and have really been enjoying the site. Six Sentences publishes stories exactly six sentences in length and is a fantastic venue for flash fiction. I submitted an edited version of my short piece Rain Dance and I’m proud to say that editor Robert McEvily has accepted it for publication. My piece goes up on October 29; in the meantime, check out the other work at Six. What can you say in six sentences?