The Plot Thins – Frank McNally on France’s latest contribution to civilisation: the short-story dispenser

The concept is best suited to urban commuters: captive but fleeting readerships

Among the facilities on the campus of Maynooth University these days is a small machine that looks it might sell bus tickets to Dublin.

In fact, it dispenses literature, in short-story format. Customers can choose from a menu of printed out stories lasting one, three, or five minutes.

And unlike most vending machines, this one doesn’t charge.

The short-story dispenser is part of France’s latest contribution to civilisation, promising to do with creative fiction what the Vélib free rental scheme did for bikes.


It started a few years ago in Grenoble, the brainchild of a company called Short Édition, and has since spread to several continents, most notably North America, which increasingly rivals France for dispenser numbers.

The concept is best suited to urban commuters: captive but fleeting readerships. But apart from railway stations, the machines have also been installed in airports, hotels, libraries, and shopping malls.

Some public offices use them to shorten the time for queuers. Instead of (or as well as) taking a number, people take a story.

It’s not all about readers. Short Édition uses original content, submitted to its website by aspiring authors. Fees are paid for material used, including royalties per download.

Although stories are randomly dispensed, readers can vote for favourites, boosting their reach. The system also lends itself to localised competitions, like one held recently on San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (Bart) network.

The Bart, by the way, predated its near namesake in Dublin. And just to confuse matters, it too serves a Dublin, a small city and Bay Area suburb founded in the 1850s by Irish emigrants.

Unlike the Dart, it is not credited with creating a new accent. In its struggling early years, however, innovations considered by management to increase custom included the idea of fitting each train with a bar. Luckily, saner counsel prevailed.

Anyway, the still-sober Bart celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Celebrations included a movement-themed short story competition, inspired by the dispensers, in which 30 finalists won publication and $200 each.

Perhaps the Dart will do something similar in time, although it has not yet caught the literature dispensing bug.

Ireland in general has taken to the concept tentatively. According to Real Édition’s world map, Maynooth is one of only two places to have the machines so far, alongside Bray.

The city of Joyce and Beckett, in which “What’s the story?” is a typical conversation starter, remains virgin territory.

Speaking of rapid transit, the literature dispensing scheme may already be in a race against time and artificial intelligence, with the likes of ChatGPT now threatening to produce literary and artistic content to rival the human kind.

But then again, the concept’s success to date marks a surprise comeback for the printed word against the smartphones that seemed to have a monopoly in entertaining commuters and other members of the bored.

The typical Real Édition story veers towards the longer end of the prescribed spectrum, at between three and five minutes. An exception is a one-minute piece I read somewhere, translated from French, called “Drowned”.

This seemed at first to be a stoic, Hemingwayesque account of the disposal of a litter of pups or kittens, until a late comic twist revealed that the author had instead been describing the submergence of cereal pieces in milk.

No, it wasn’t Hemingway. But nor is a famous short story widely credited to him and indeed often cited as the shortest short story ever written.

The tragic vignette reads in full: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” And it appears to have roots in old US newspaper ads, one of which (from 1910) stretched to 12 words, no less desolate: “Baby’s hand made trousseau and baby’s bed for sale. Never been used.”

A few years later, a similar plot was mentioned in a 1917 essay on writing by William R Kane, who suggested the title: “Little shoes, never worn.” Not until 1991, decades after his death, was Hemingway first publicly named as the author.

Persistent repetition of the credit has since seen him acclaimed as a father of the extreme-brevity genre known as flash fiction.

This although his last book, The Dangerous Summer, was a notorious example of overwriting. Commissioned to produce a “crisp 10,000-word” piece for Life magazine, Hemingway instead turned in a sprawling 120,000-word first draft, which he was incapable of cutting until the publishers did it for him, slashing it in half.

As for his authorship of the famous six-word tragedy, alas, that seems to be just a story.