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The Writing Life
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by Pamelyn Casto
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Defining or stating exactly what flash fiction is would be comparable to defining or stating exactly what a poem or novel is. It just cannot be done to anyone's satisfaction. The main thing about flash fiction, however, is that it is short. Randall Jarrell once pointed out that a story can be as short as a sentence. And there are some fine flash fiction examples where stories, one or two pages long, are comprised of just one or two (sometimes quite long) sentences. But the number of sentences such work contains will not get us very far in defining or describing it.
Nor will trying to determine the number of words in such pieces be particularly helpful. That is because editors, critics, and writers will also differ on just how short (or long) it is. In general, flash fiction runs from as few as 100 words up to 1,000 or even 1,500 words (some more and some even much less). Flash fiction, of course, goes far beyond a mere word count.
To complicate matters even further, flash fiction also carries many names. Other names for it include short-short stories, sudden, postcard, minute, furious, fast, quick, skinny, and micro fiction. In France such works are called nouvelles. In China this type of writing has several interesting names: little short story, pocket-size story, minute-long story, palm-sized story, and my personal favorite, the smoke-long story (just long enough to read while smoking a cigarette). What's in a name? That which we call flash fiction, by any other name would read as bright.
There is yet another complication in trying to produce a satisfactory definition or description. The term 'flash fiction' can be used to describe several genres or modes of writing. Such writing can include traditional or mainstream short-short stories as well as various other types such as American haibun, ghost stories, monologues, epistles, mysteries, myths, tall tales, fables, anti-fables, parables, romance, fairy tales, horror, suspense, science fiction, prose poetry, and more. It can also embrace several "isms" such as magical realism, dadaism, futurism, surrealism, irrealism, and postmodernism. Charles Baxter notes that these short-short stories occupy many thresholds --"they are between poetry and fiction, the story and the sketch, prophecy and reminiscence, the personal and the crowd."
Flash fiction can also embrace highly experimental writing that pushes the boundaries of traditional reader expectations. For instance, some flash fiction stories are told through such seemingly mundane methods as a magazine quiz, a survey questionnaire, acknowledgments to a scholarly biography. Such stories can be created from bulletin board messages, classified ads, or telephone answering machine messages. Some are written using only one or two sentences, others have dialogue only, while yet others use the rare second person point of view. These small flashes are also often identified by the surprising twists that take place; twists throughout the story, or stories that have a twist at the end which turns what came before on its head. The writers of flash fiction also have a hand in helping to refine it, define it, and extend it, and such writing is constantly reconfiguring and metamorphosing before our very eyes. Works falling under the rubric of flash fiction are like Daedaluses who refuse to stay put.
By whatever name you might prefer, flash or short-short fiction covers a large range of forms and styles. It runs the gamut: it can be clever, whimsical, and entertaining or can be literary, ironic, satirical, or sublime. It is sometimes funny, and sometimes controversial or unconventional. It can be troubling, unsettling, and unpredictable. Sometimes it is enigmatic, elusive, ambiguous, and is quite often paradoxical. This type of story is often rich in implication and is tight and precise, compressed and highly charged. The best stories often speak to us obliquely, and speak of the human condition in a profound way--in truths that cannot be seen as clearly in other ways. The best flash fiction lingers in the mind long after the story has been read--the way of all great literary works of art.
Some claim that the proliferation of the short-short story is due to modern readers' attenuated attention spans, our shortened sound-byte, text-byte mentality. Others think it is because of the "asthmatic" conditions under which we live--our fiction is reflecting the out-of-breathness of modern life. Some suggest that it is due to increased printing costs and the way in which editors can include more variety and less length in their publications. And some think it is because so many have lost faith in the traditional way of telling stories at great length. Such readers and writers realize that "truth" comes only infrequently and only in flashes.
Who are the renowned writers of these very short fictions? Ancestors to this short type of work would have to include Aesop's fables, some of the stories from Ovid (in his Metamorphoses), Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekov (who once said "I can speak briefly on long subjects."), O. Henry, and Franz Kafka (especially in his Parables and Paradoxes).
Foremost in my mind among more contemporary writers is Jorge Luis Borges. Many consider him one of the finest writers of the twentieth century. Some of his pieces run only a half page long, and some even less. Yet within these tiny and dazzlingly brilliant flashes are philosophical, thought-provoking, and often highly unsettling stories, the kinds of stories that remain in the mind and continue to haunt.
Other fine writers of very short pieces (though not all mentioned write exclusively in this form) include Barry Yourgrau, Bernard Cooper, Donald Barthelme, Thaisa Frank, Daniel Boulanger, Elizabeth Bishop (her fables), Italo Calvino, Yasunari Kawabata, Richard Brautigan, Russell Edson, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and Raymond Carver. Other exceptional writers include Julio Cortazar, Dino Buzzati, Juan Jose Arreaolo, and Agusto Monterroso. In fact, there are far too many fine writers of this type of work to even begin to name them all. And there are more up-and-coming writers on the horizon.
Writers of short-short flashes are not only turning out pieces that stand complete on their own and which are published as discrete stories, but some are also using them in other ways. For instance, some are using them to create longer stories and even novels. One such writer is Italo Calvino, who wrote his novel, Invisible Cities, with flash stories that are one or two pages long. Another is Alan Lightman, a physicist-author, who wrote his Einstein's Dreams using short-shorts. Roberta Allen also used the flash fiction form for her novel The Daughter, and Sandra Cisneros wrote in a similar fashion in her House on Mango Street. Taking yet another direction, Barry Yourgrau turns his stories into performance art, reading them in clubs, theaters, and on radio. These writers show that even more can be done with this already versatile and protean type of writing.
The writing and reading of flash fiction is presently a worldwide phenomenon. It is rapidly increasing in popularity in the United States and Canada where it is offered in more and more fine literary journals. Further, translations are pouring in to English speaking journals from all around the world. In Latin America, where such work has a long tradition, it continues to thrive. It is also flourishing in China where it appears in magazines, journals, and daily newspapers. In Italy it is enjoying renewed life under the influence of futurism and prose poetry. I find it especially exciting that in Cyprus it comes in just behind poetry as the predominant mode of published literary writing.
Flash fiction is clearly a worldwide phenomenon, a mode of writing which seems particularly well-suited to our current fast-paced, often breathless lives, in which we still crave the insights good literature can bring. Further, flash fiction is particularly well-suited to Internet publications, and the Internet will have a large part to play in the proliferation of this exciting type of writing. Flash fiction is not only fascinating reading in its own right, but its size is also perfect for computer screen reading. Short works are so much easier to read on screen, and many people no longer bother with long unbroken chunks of text. I predict that soon we will also be seeing a lot more of what the multi-media artists can do with flash fiction on the Internet.
The wedding of flash fiction and the Internet seems to have all the ingredients for a happy and prosperous relationship. In print, or on the web, the future of this art form seems assured. There will always be a need for good, tightly-written flash fiction pieces-- miniature condensations that open out the world for and with us. They can show us, as Keats said of poetry, "infinite riches in a small room."
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Pamelyn Casto publishes (online and free) Flash Fiction Flash: The Newsletter for Flash Literature Writers (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/FlashFictionFlash). Her articles, stories, poems, and essays have been published in numerous print and online publications, including The Toastmaster Magazine, The Art of Haiku 2000, Potpourri, Perihelion, Ship of Fools, Mindprints, E2K: The New Literary Paradigm, Suddenly III Sudden Fiction and Prose Poetry, and Suddenly V: Sudden Fiction and Prose Poetry. Visit her blog at http://flashfictionblog.blogspot.com/.