The architect Mies van der Rohe encapsulated his aesthetic principles in the dictum "less is more" - and he influenced a generation of designers who transformed American cities into spiky cemeteries of glass-box skyscrapers.
Mies may have been talking about an architectural style, but his words have always seemed to me to have more lasting application to other art forms, especially writing.
Take, for instance, a timeless poetic form such as the Japanese haiku: An infinite ripple of image and emotion is captured in 17 syllables. And Shakespeare could compress a life's-worth of passion into the 14 lines of a sonnet.
The power of "less is more" isn't limited to verse, however. The stripped-down prose of short-story masters such as Chekhov and Raymond Carver manages to find the universal within the mundane, while the essays of a Barry Lopez or a John McPhee are models of clarity and precision.
But how much can be done in a single page of fiction? What can you create in a short short story of 250 words?
For seven years, Florida State University's English department has been trying to find out. Since 1986 they have sponsored the World's Best Short Short Story Contest, a competition that draws 2,000 entries from every state and as far away as Australia.
This year's winner is Natalia Rachel Singer, who teaches at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., and who explains "vegetables entered my fiction" when she worked as a prep cook in Seattle. Here's Singer's winning story, for which she received $100 and a box of Florida oranges:
Mrs. Stick stood breathless in her kitchen stirring rutabagas and pigs' knuckles into a heavy stew. She was expecting Mr. Mann, who had a produce stand in the next district where every day a gang of quarreling farmers came to weigh their squash and sugar beets on the dusty scale in his pickup. Mr. Mann was lean and oily, with black bristles of hair that could paint her belly honey yellow in flat wide strokes. She wanted him to want her but she knew he liked his women meatier, with thick toenails that could click against his like castanets. Mrs. Stick hummed the score from "Oklahoma!" and waited, feeling desire part her like a comb.
When the stew was ready, she skimmed off the scum and tossed it onto her mulch pile beneath the only living elm tree in the county, two paces from her baby's grave. She thought of those eyelids less yielding than a doll's, that unbearable silence, felt the old hollow ache as wind rushed up her ash-colored skirt. When she opened her eyes again there he was, as real as grain, riding across the valley, the dust fluttering behind like a cloud of worker bees. His truck kalumphed; there were mounds of squash pounding up and down just for her. "How much does a baby weigh?" he'd ask her when she exclaimed how big they were, how perfectly whole. After their meal they'd walk to the river while the last of the sun spit honey, their clasped fingers shortening the stretch of empty fields.
I'm not sure what it all means, but I like it. Notice how each sentence takes you beyond itself, how images build, releasing your imagination in unexpected directions. A stew "scum" is tossed on a mulch pile, which just happens to be under the county's sole living elm tree - a mere "two paces from her baby's grave."
As in a good poem, the merging of language, image, and detail evokes endless possibilities. "Honeycomb" rolls around deliciously in your mind, the relationship between Mrs. Stick and Mr. Mann energizing your imagination.
"I think we might have helped revive something," says Jerome Stern, director of Florida State's creative writing program. "(T)he short short story hasn't been taken seriously for a long time. Writers are now rediscovering the possible depth of an intensely concentrated narrative."
The deadline for the 1993 contest is next Feb. 15; entries are limited to one one-page story per writer. Contact Stern at FSU's English department in Tallahassee, ZIP code 32306.
Less, indeed, can be more.