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SDSU Professor's New Book Is An Experiment In Fiction For The Twitter Generation

August 19, 2014 1:10 p.m.


Harold Jaffe, is a San Diego State University literature professor and author of 22 books. His most recent book, "Induced Coma," is a compilation of 50- and 100-word short stories.

Related Story: SDSU Professor's New Book Is An Experiment In Fiction For The Twitter Generation


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MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Twitter has taught us that it does not take many words to make a statement rumors, condolences, arguments, celebrations, can be exchanged in brief bursts of information. But could a powerful story be told in a very short format? What would a reader gain or lose in a story made up of 100 words or less? San Diego State University literature professor Harold Jaffe is experimenting with a short story form in a collection called Induced Coma. Welcome to the program. I would like to start by asking you to read one of the stories from your book, so we can get a sense of what you're talking about. Perhaps you could read the title story, Induced Coma.

HAROLD JAFFE: Induced Coma is increasingly common in medical procedures. Patients lapsing back to real-time say it's a sweet space, comaland, parallel world, noiseless, zero technology. You can hang there for a long time, like Jesus without nails. But isn't this coma land just a degraded version of Nirvana? Absolutely.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That is Induced Coma, the short story from Induced Coma, by Harold Jaffe. Some people will hear a story like that, it's short, thought-provoking, and they will think it's a poem. Why don't you call this poetry?

HAROLD JAFFE: I think the genres are being aligned. Because of the speed of culture, and the busyness of culture, and all of the shorthand, you think of people's names now, A-Rod, Ice-T, K-Rod, etc., there's a sense that discourse has become in chained from one genre to another. I don't think the clear-cut distinctions between poetry and prose are attained in short units.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've heard this kind of literature, this very short story format called flash fiction. It has been called terror fiction. Do you subscribe to any of those names?

HAROLD JAFFE: I think it could be called any number of things. A terror is a little more problematic, but terror can be used in the number of ways. I actually have something that I speak of terror briefly, with in question format. Some people think of flash fiction as being comprised only of stories as such with a plot and as much development as you can mention 150 words. I don't think of it that way, I think of it as language turned in different ways. Sometimes if you work with the received texts that are already printed, you don't have to change much. You could keep the figure as it is, and just change the setting, or the ground, and sing it in a new setting, which defamiliarizes it and turns it into a story. I mentioned before that one of the archetypal instances of this is Marcel Duchamp's urinal, which he called fountain. He found the urinal thrown out in the street close to Paris, he cleaned it up and added a funny name, and he exhibited it. He really didn't do anything to the figure, he just changed the setting and it suddenly became art.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Everyone who writes short copy knows that it can be harder to write short copy than long form. Do you find yourself struggling? Most people might think it's just a couple of paragraphs, how long could it take anyone to write that? But if you want to craft this it takes some time, doesn't it?

HAROLD JAFFE: It takes time. I think a lot of it has to depend on the subject. Right now, because of circumstances, the speed of the culture, the development of culture, and the anti-development of culture, the eradication of natural space, I think they're subject more and more as information and disinformation, much of it is not copyrighted. You will notice in Induced Coma, I have a list of sources at the end. That is all I really need to pass the copyright. But if you are working with the received text, sometimes the lineaments of the story already there, and you only need to tease out some aspect of it or emphasize a certain aspect of it and you have a text.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What you are talking about is the source material that you use often comes from news stories. I will ask you if you would read another of your short stories. This one is called Marius, and I have it here for you. This was also inspired by a published media report.

HAROLD JAFFE: Right, I have a sequence on animals, because animals, it's not just people who are suffering as this particular endangered moment in culture because of global warming and the wars, animals are suffering as well, they are being displaced and so on. This rather surprised me because it took place in Denmark, although Denmark has been surprisingly in other ways as well. Mary is, what I did is every time I use Copenhagen Zoo, I bold and capitalize it so the reader can see it immediately and that forces the reader outside of the story somewhat so they have to think about it rather than inhabit it. Copenhagen Zoo murdered Marius the giraffe with a bolt pistol, as horrified schoolchildren crowded around to watch the cadaver be butchered and fed to lions. Copenhagen Zoo received more than 20,000 petitions to spare the healthy giraffe. Copenhagen Zoo was informed by the European Association of zoos EAZA that Marius the giraffe was genetically similar to the zoo's other giraffes, hence expendable. Copenhagen Zoo received offers from other zoos to adopt Marius, and from individuals to purchase and donate the giraffe to animal parts. Copenhagen Zoo insisted that animals cannot be transferred to institutions not strictly adhering to rules of breeding programs.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That is a short story from Harold Jaffe's collection called Induced Coma. Harold, there is a comedy performance format called short attention span theater. One of the things you have said about writing like this is that it coalesces with the kind of busyness and short attention span that people have these days because they are multitasking and doing so many things at once. But is it a good thing to feed people's short attention spans?

HAROLD JAFFE: I think it's probably the only thing we have left. Paradoxically if you are working well or deftly, with short text, you can do a number of things with them, which merged sometimes with poetry. For example, you can get away with lists. You can get away with the same word repeated as I do with Copenhagen Zoo. You can get away with certain line breaks. If you were writing a longer story, it would not be as easy to do this, because there would have to be some modulation. There would have to be some variation. But if you're writing fifty words, it allows you this kind of leverage. One of the key things is that students who want to get published, the problem with putting out a journal, I added fiction international. Journals twenty years ago routinely came out twice a year, three times a year, now journals routinely come out once a year. That means they do not have enough space to print as many stories or texts or poems as they would like to. So they are more susceptible to printing very short works, so they can get more authors included.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering if I could prevail upon you to read one of the shortest stories in this book, and that is Undead.

HAROLD JAFFE: Undead. A ninety-one-year-old male has been refused flight out of Liverpool's Ringo Starr airport, because he was dead. The old dead male in a wheelchair was wheeled to the gate by two middle-aged females. Airport staff became suspicious while patting him down and noting his lack of body warmth.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Each of these very short stories creates an image in your head that is somehow like a news story, but not exactly like a news story. How does that change, how do you change the stories?

HAROLD JAFFE: One of the things I try to do is tease out the subtext. We know that news is not quite news in most instances. It's a kind of entertainment. Every country protects itself by projecting its own ideology. So China is producing news about Japan, it will be China's version of Japan. When I use, with your permission, I use a question format, there is a lot of room for formats in which I speak about terrorism. It's something that I got from the news, but I just change it into a question format. It's simply called define. A seventeen-year-old girl with munitions strapped to her body boards a crowded bus. A squadron of jets consult monitors as they bomb from above the cloud line. One act we habitually define as terrorism, the other as righteous assault. Who is doing the defining? Whose purpose does the definition serve?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Another of the ultrashort stories in the collection, Induced Coma. I'm wondering, could you see this format ever being used in a novel form? In other words, with chapters being connected to tell a complete story?

HAROLD JAFFE: It's a good question, and to some extent it has been used that way, not so much with fifty, but with 150 or 200 words. Other people have worked with that, although often not as precisely as I try to work with it here. I have imposed constraints on myself by either using fifty or 100 exactly, but Thomas Bernhard, an Austrian novelist, he wrote this way in one book. A French writer who originally worked with newspaper stories, he did something he called novels in three lines, where there is some connectivity.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have to end it there. Thank you, I appreciate it.