Protean Miniatures: The Adaptability and Sustainability of Flash Fiction

By Sean HooksJune 12, 2017

Protean Miniatures: The Adaptability and Sustainability of Flash Fiction
BREVITY MAY BE the soul of wit, but it’s not intrinsic to good storytelling. The epic can marshal a fan base every bit as loyal as the finely told compact tale. Modern literature is defined by the novel, and the great novelists — from Proust to Pynchon — have not been exactly terse. John Irving, in a 1989 interview, offered a defense of this discursiveness:

I have a very simple formula, which is that you’ve got to be more interested on page 320 than on page 32 […] These days […] I see most novels 120 pages long printed in type large enough to be for the blind, and I don’t think those are novels. I don’t think there’s enough story in them or enough character or enough intricacy to hold my attention for the first 20 pages, much less to drag myself through all 120 pages […] Let no one forget […] that when I say I’m only a storyteller, I’m not being humble.

Two 20th-century pillars of the American novel — Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye — are slender texts, and most of the finest novelists — from James Joyce to Philip Roth — have also written brilliant short fiction. In his 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe — often identified as the originator of the short story form — argued that the perfect story should be consumable in a single sitting, should end with a climax, and should achieve a unity of effect (i.e., contain only one “mood”). Masters of the art — Chekhov, Cheever, Flannery O’Connor — have developed and refined this basic formula in the century and a half since Poe wrote.

But life has gotten busy, more and more “content” competes for readers’ attention, and as a result, over the past few decades, a new subgenre of the short story has emerged. “Flash fiction” has become the dominant term of choice for this subgenre, as alternatives like “micro-fiction” or “short-short” have moved to the periphery. Flash is a visual thing, and flash fiction needs to ignite the senses quickly and compellingly. It is distinguished from the full-fledged short story as the one-act play is from a full-length theatrical production.

The history of flash fiction is cornute and meandering prior to the 1980s, but it came into its own in the 1990s and early 2000s, due to two factors: the increased availability of the internet and the proliferation of MFA programs. The eye gets stressed scanning a screen and the attention span is tested by the web’s farrago of distractions, while the academic workshop model is easier to apply to poetry and short fiction than to novels or book-length nonfiction.

The progenitors of flash fiction are numberless. The Brothers Grimm have in their folkloric arsenal standalone works the length and style of flash fiction. There are more obscure dust gatherers in the timeline as well, such as The Best Short Shorts of 1932, edited by Paul Ernest Anderson and Lionel White; Anthology of Best Original Short-Shorts, compiled by Robert Oberfirst in 1952; and Short Shorts: An Anthology of the Shortest Stories, co-edited by Irving Howe in 1982. Scouring the international scene, one can find notable harbingers of flash fiction from Europe to Asia, from Colette to Yasunari Kawabata. The postmodern minimalism of Barthelme — Donald and Frederick — is also a significant precursor.

Among the genre’s anthologists, Tom Hazuka is an important figure. Along with James and Denise Thomas, he edited Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories for Norton in 1992. Hazuka also helmed Flash Fiction Funny: 82 Very Short Humorous Stories for Blue Light Press in 2007. (The comedy skit is a predecessor of the flash genre that dates back at least to vaudeville, and Woody Allen’s and Steve Martin’s riffs in The New Yorker could surely constitute a form of flash fiction.) Journals that specialize in the form include Smokelong Quarterly, run by Tara Laskowski, herself a noted flash-fictionist; FORTH Magazine out of Los Angeles, a sharp-looking online journal that also covers the visual arts; and Vestal Review, the oldest and most established magazine publishing purely flash, their limit for contributions being 500 words. If speculative fiction is your thing, 365 Tomorrows has specialized in sci-fi flash since 2005, while the controversial Narrative Magazine, headed by Carol Edgarian and Tom Jenks, includes a regular feature called “Six-Word Stories.”

Major independent publishers have also invested in flash fiction. Portland’s Tin House offers Flash Fridays via their online feature “The Open Bar.” Brooklyn’s Akashic Books provides regular, 750-word, genre-related fare under such banners as “Mondays are Murder” (noir), “Terrible Twosdays” (writing about young children by parents), and “Duppy Thursday” (Caribbean-themed ghost stories). The nonprofit Dzanc Books’s online arm, The Collagist, features a goodly amount of flash fiction as well.

Single-author collections of flash are too numerous to mention, but emerging writers include Amelia Gray, with her 2009 debut AM/PM and her 2015 gothic collection Gutshot, and Alissa Nutting, best known for her edgy novel Tampa (2013), whose 2010 collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls offers a superlative gathering. Joy Williams’s Ninety-Nine Stories of God (2013) contains a number of brilliant and visceral flash-fiction pieces, while Robert Vaughan and Kathy Fish’s 2015 collaboration Rift has been hailed as a new classic of the genre, attracting the sort of warm reception afforded authors like George Saunders, himself no stranger to extreme fictive compaction.

Flash fiction is best performed rigorously, retaining the sonic qualities of poetry while remembering the dictates and essentials of the short story — namely, character and plot. Plots in flash fiction tend to be more aphoristic, and the character counts need to be kept low, but a fluid, cinematic milieu can be rendered vividly in a brief compass. What the cutoff should be for the form is debated, but 1,000 words is a generally acceptable limit.

Flash fiction is highly adaptable, as likely to evoke Raymond Chandler as Raymond Carver. Some critics link flash fiction with Hemingway, whose possibly apocryphal “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” is often cited as the most extreme example of the flash form, but it can be just as reflective of Faulkner — not the Faulkner of Absalom, Absalom! (some of whose winding sentences exceed the length of a single piece of flash fiction) but the hardboiled Faulkner of Sanctuary. Flash fiction is the descendent of haiku and Oulipo, and cousin to modern-day experiments such as David Mitchell’s and Jennifer Egan’s use of Twitter to tell a story.

Despite its diminutive size, flash fiction is not one note. It can incorporate elements of noir and feminism, film and theater. Flash fiction is something different from just a short story writ small. Flash fiction, while not shallow, does not draw the reader into the proverbial deep end. It is not immersive in the way that the best short fiction is immersive; the audience simply does not inhabit the piece long enough. Evocation, however, is as crucial as ever, as are craftsmanship and gamesmanship. The writer of flash fiction has to commit, to take big swings in a small room. It’s like playing pool in an alcove instead of a billiard hall: different choices have to be made in the execution of one’s shots. At the structural level, the author must make choices: drama or craft, symbolism or directness, flashback or chronology. With flash fiction, the mood is direct, even directive. Decisiveness is key.

Borges has said that, “Unlike the novel, a short story may be, for all purposes, essential.” Indeed, some critics trace flash fiction back to Borges’s mini-essays on time and identity. Others cite Cortázar, Barthelme, Calvino, and the usual suspects of late 20th-century postmodernism, with its break-it-all-down, fractured, splintered, simulacral, collaged/bricolaged brand of micro-sized composition. Still others argue for the primacy of the 19th-century “vignette” — literally, a “small vine” that dwells on the margins of a page, a decorative flourish, a garnish; figuratively, a brief literary narrative, a sketch.

David Galef’s Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook, released last year by Columbia University Press, is a fine source for chronicling the genre. Galef’s first chapter is “Vignettes,” his second “Character Sketches.” Galef limns further delineations of flash such as “Lists,” “Fables,” “Anecdotes,” “Perfect Miniatures,” and “Mass Compression,” among other classifications. In Hemingway’s In Our Time, there is a story entitled “A Very Short Story.” Inevitable inquiry follows. What is the difference between flash fiction and the very short story? What do we make of something like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Lost Decade,” a 1,100-word effort originally published in Esquire in 1939? Is Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” apropos here as well? Papa’s workshop staple is alternately known as “the theory of omission,” the notion that little should be said by the writer, much inferred by the reader. Flash fiction essentially attempts to omit as much as possible without leaving the domain of fiction, without becoming prose poetry or quote-unquote “merely” a sketch.

A flash precedes and accompanies a photograph, and there is a certain sepia-toned, photogravure, tintype/daguerreotype quality to the late 19th-century American idea of the sketch — e.g., Stephen Crane’s “New York Tales and Sketches” — that is a forebear of, and influence on, the flash fiction genre. Flash, however, differs from Crane’s sketches in that its perceived intentions are more inventive, more necessarily flamboyant, competing as it does for attention in a saturated marketplace of words and images.

There is something a bit brazen about the flash form, something redolent of legerdemain and prestidigitation, a gumption, moxie, and chutzpah that is, in the best way, polarizing. One flash piece might “get through” to one reader, while it bounces off another with little effect. Some say this makes flash a shallow and subjective genre, just another example of consumer niche-ification and ultra-specificity. Perhaps, but perhaps that’s why the genre is flourishing. Not because it’s easy, but because reaching anyone, connecting to anyone, finding the time to reach or connect to anyone, is increasingly hard.

Contemporary masters — and exemplary starting points for exploration of the genre — include Lydia Davis, Stuart Dybek, and Amy Hempel. Eclecticists like Jonathan Lethem, Aimee Bender, Lynne Tillman, and Gary Lutz also dip a toe into the flash pool from time to time. Jerome Stern, director of the writing program at Florida State University, is credited with inaugurating the first flash fiction contest back in 1986. One of the most oft-repeated mantras of both the freshman composition class and the MFA workshop is: “Show, don’t tell.” In flash fiction, you don’t really show or tell; you gesture, you suggest.

In the anthology Best European Fiction 2010, Irish writer Julian Gough wrote,

My generation, and those younger, receive information not in long, coherent, self-contained units (a film, an album, a novel), but in short bursts, with wildly different tones. (Channel-hopping, surfing the Internet, while doing the iPod shuffle.) That changes the way we read fiction, and therefore must change the way we write it. This is not a catastrophe; it is an opportunity. We are free to do new things, which could not have been understood before now. The traditional story (retold ten thousand times) suffers from repetitive strain injury. Television and the Internet have responded to this crisis without losing their audience. Literary fiction has not.

Though this may come across as a bit cynical, even defeatist, Gough is not without a pragmatic and relevant point. We all borrow, we’re all influenced by the present as well as the past. Gough also offers developing writers the following piece of advice: “Steal from The Simpsons, not Henry James” — an epigram excerpted from Robert Shapard’s essay in World Literature Today, “The Remarkable Reinvention of Very Short Fiction.” Shapard is the editor of Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories, released by Norton in 2015, another potentially seminal text emerging in recent years. Shapard’s influence on the field dates back to the mid-1980s, most notably in his anthology Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories (1986), co-edited by James Thomas, founding editor of Quarterly West.

Flash fiction is a self-aware form. It is a form that allows and admits adaptation to a changing world, a world that seemingly privileges the momentary and eschews posterity. But the increasingly (or perhaps superficially) technocratic literary world we’ve all been thrown into is more fertile for the likes of a Henry James than Gough perhaps would admit. Maybe James was just ahead of his time. Hence, I find it fitting to allow Henry James the last word, in the form of a flash nonfiction, if you will, from the preface to the New York Edition of The Portrait of a Lady, published in 1908, 28 years after Portrait’s first appearance:

The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million — a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other.


Sean Hooks is a writer living in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Sean Hooks has been an English professor in North Texas since growing up in working-class New Jersey and perambulating west through stints in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. His writings have been published in a variety of venues, and he continues to look for both inspiration and succor in human art.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!