Sudden stories – I recently (about two weeks ago) received an email inviting me to be part of a “flash fiction” project. It sounds like an interesting idea, and I wish the organizer the best of luck, but I’m probably not going to participate (for one, the project is utopian in bent, and I am definitely not a utopianist writer). But if you’d like to check it out, drop by Laurie’s website for more details. What got my attention, though (and what prompted me to write this entry), was the term “flash fiction.” I’d never heard the term before, but in her email Laurie described it as “ultrashort stories.” That was interesting because it was nearly the title of a long entry I wrote a couple of months ago, called “ultrashort narratives” (and that’s probably why I got this email in the first place).
I feel a bit silly about that title (and that term) now, to be honest. When I wrote the entry I wasn’t too familiar with very short fiction and was simply working from my knowledge of short stories, which tend to be anywhere from a few thousand words to a few dozen thousand words. I did a survey of popular American short stories and discovered that only one story in the collection I looked at was under 2,000 words—and that story was a written version of an oral narrative. So I started using the term “ultrashort narrative” to describe narratives under 2,000 words in length.
Not long after I wrote the entry, though, I became aware of other, much shorter, types of narratives. The Big Hominid, for example, occasionally posts narratives that weigh in at under one hundred words. It’s a bit embarrassing, but I never realized what they were until he spelled it out one day. Even the “100 Below” series title failed to tip me off. Had I realized what they were beforehand, I probably never would have used the term “ultrashort narrative” to describe my attempts at sub-2k narratives (I originally called them “sub2k” narratives, but my internal grammar Nazi has been yelling at me since day one, so now it has a dash).
OK, so I’ve got a bit of egg on my face, foolishly assuming that anything under 2,000 words is short enough to warrant the designation “ultrashort.” After receiving Laurie’s email, though, I looked up the term “flash fiction” on Wikipedia. Here’s the relevant excerpt:
Flash fiction, also called sudden fiction, micro fiction, postcard fiction or short-short fiction, is a sub-genre of the short story characterized by limited word length. There is no "official" or exact word limit, but flash fiction stories are generally less than 2,000 words long, and tend to cluster in the 250 to 1,000 word range.
Wikipedia also notes that “flash fiction differs from vignettes in that the works contain the classic story elements...”. This is the reason why I insisted on using the word “narrative” in my own term. But “flash narrative” doesn’t sound nearly as catchy as “flash fiction.” And I’m guessing that catchiness is one of the main reasons that the term gained popularity.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t like the term. “Flash” (like “sudden) is a primarily temporal term rather than a spatial term—that is, it indicates something that is very sudden or brief. It also, at least in my mind, draws a connection with flash mobs. For flash mobs, the word is appropriate, as these events happen very suddenly and (generally) last only briefly. But I don’t like the term when applied to fiction. If you take it as meaning that the story is written in a flash, you do a disservice to the writer’s care and effort. If you take it as meaning that the story is read in a flash, you do a disservice to the attention of the reader. Let’s take a look at a definition of flash fiction offered by the Vestal Review (a flash fiction magazine):
A good flash, replete with a cohesive plot, rich language and enticing imagery, is perhaps the hardest type of fiction to write. A good flash is so condensed that it borderlines poetry. A good flash engages your mind not only for the short duration of its read, but for a long time after.
This definition would seem to go against the idea of flash fiction being either written in or considered for only a flash. I especially like the comparison with poetry, and I like the idea that flash fiction makes you really think. Interestingly enough, though, most of the stories featured in the latest issue of the online Review didn’t seem to live up to this definition. Maybe I’m just a philistine who wouldn’t know good flash fiction if it stabbed him in the chest, but some (though not all) of the stories were rather trite. They certainly didn’t approach anything like poetry, and they certainly didn’t engage my mind long after I finished reading them. (Amusing note: I just realized that this magazine is based in the town where I went to university—although the school bears the name of Binghamton, it is actually located in the small town of Vestal.)
On the other hand, I recently read a story in The Morning News entitled “Jeff Barnosky and I.” It tops out at 909 words, so while it may not fit some of the more strict definitions of flash fiction, it fits the Wikipedia definition I quoted above. Now that was a good story, and it definitely engaged my mind long after I finished reading it. In fact, it is still engaging my mind now. I have my own theories as to what it means, but I wouldn’t want to spoil it. Go read it for yourself.
So what makes (in my mind at least) “Jeff Barnosky and I” a good flash fiction and others failures? I won’t pretend to be an expert on a genre I’ve only recently discovered, but there are some things I wonder about. For one, how much of the crappiness stems from the relatively low barrier to entry? Ironically, despite being “perhaps the hardest type of fiction to write,” flash fiction is also one of the easiest types of fiction to write. After all, who can’t pump out a few hundred words in service of a story? But is this necessarily a good thing?
Take publishing on the internet, for example. Not that there hasn’t always been crap on dead trees, but when the internet came around and people realized that they could publish whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, the floodgates of crapland were opened and the deluge doesn’t show any signs of slowing. There is some very good writing on the internet. But there is also a lot of very bad writing. Writing so bad that it will make your eyes bleed. Writing so trite and hackneyed that you will want to kill something just to relieve the overwhelming banality of it all. In a word, the kind of writing your mother warned you about.
The same principle can be applied to flash fiction. Not everyone has time (or should I say “makes the time”) to write a full-length novel—although plenty of awful writers still manage to do so—but anyone with a mind to can string together the few hundred words required for flash fiction. But flash fiction, like poetry, requires an immense amount of effort for a relatively small result. It’s like pedaling a ten-speed bicycle uphill in first gear—you may be pumping your heart out, but the gears will concentrate this effort so that you only move a relatively short distance for every rotation of the pedals.
Yet many would-be poets throw a bunch of angst-ridden words onto the page, giving them as much thought as they might give to, say, brushing their teeth or watching the evening news. Is what they produced poetry? No, it’s crap. Verbal diarrhea. They think that simply because they poured their hearts out onto the page it is poetry, but it isn’t. Poetry is a very sublime, nuanced art form. The same goes for flash fiction. I tried to write a couple of 100-word narratives once, inspired by the Big Hominid, and was dismayed at the results. It’s a lot harder than it looks.
Whether you’re writing 2,000 words or 200, every word counts. And the fewer words you write, the more each one of those words counts. When you get down to one hundred words or fewer, those words are worth their weight in gold. You have to think about every syllable that goes in. There is no haphazardness. This is why flash fiction is (or should be) like poetry—it is a sculpting of language, and the slightest mistake with the chisel could ruin the entire work. Fortunately, with words we can always continue to polish until we get where we need to be. It’s recognizing where we need to be that can be tricky.
I will admit that this entry has been little more than a meandering rant, ostensibly on the subject of flash fiction. I’ll come right out and say it: I don’t think I’m ever going to be that big of a fan of the genre. It just strikes me as way too much noise for far too little signal. There are no barriers to entry, and this isn’t always a good thing in art. Is that an elitist way of thinking? You bet it is. Am I justified in thinking this way? Probably not. It’s somewhat hypocritical to criticize people for writing crap flash fiction when I haven’t proved that I am capable of producing anything even remotely decent. At least, it feels hypocritical for me, since I often pretend to be a writer.
For this reason, I’m setting myself a challenge. The Vestal Review is publishing it’s next issue on July 1, 2006. The submission period for this issue ends on May 31, and an author is allowed to submit two pieces. They only accept up to eight pieces per issue, and given the nearly non-existent barriers to entry, I imagine they get quite a few submissions. What are the chances that I could get a piece in the Review? Probably not too good. But if I did, I’d feel a little more justified in my criticisms of flash fiction writers. Watch this space, and I’ll let you know if I’m actually any good at this or if I’m just another one of those hacks I spent 1,500+ words lambasting today.
(Oh, by the way, the Review accepts no reprints, and they will not consider material published on the Web, so my attempts will not be appearing on the Workshop. I will probably post them in the Writings section if and when they fail to be published. Nothing like some good old positive thinking, huh?)