What is Flash Fiction?
One should never begrudge deletions. The length of a work is irrelevant, and the fear that not enough is on paper, childish. –Theodor Adorno
Though I am being featured here as a fiction writer, I am by training a sociologist, and therefore much given to flights of theory and abstraction. I hope that readers will accept me as I am, and permit me to offer an “artist’s statement” that is really a set of assertions about the social world of educated young Americans:
Recent years have seen a growing interest in very short works of imaginative prose, variously called short-short fiction, sudden fiction, flash fiction, or other names. The common sense understanding of these terms involves word count: such pieces are under 1,000 words in length. This understanding seems to me inadequate. In this statement I advance a more ambitious claim for flash fiction, my own preferred name for this kind of writing. I argue that flash fiction is a genre, by which I mean that flash fiction (1)has a specific place in literature, (2)has emerged in parallel to important historical changes, (3)has defining formal properties other than length, and (4)may offer distinctive challenges and pleasures for its readership. Defining the demands and possibilities of the genre is a key task for current writers of flash fiction.
Though the acknowledged masters of the form are well into their careers, it is my sense that most of the authors and readers are younger. Moreover, the boom in flash publishing is occurring mostly outside of the traditional magazines and channels of American letters—flash fiction is building for itself a parallel set of institutions, rather than mounting an aesthetic insurgency. Even if these claims about youth are not objectively true, my bias, as a young person, is to the concerns of the young and unsettled.
Literary Antecedents and Affinities. Several older literary forms plausibly contribute to contemporary North American flash fiction.
The fairy tale, though archaic, is familiar to most current writers, and its archetypal character, psychological superficiality, and flimsy plotting are analogous to certain approaches to flash fiction. Given that many of us have encountered fairy tales from childhood onward, this form may make a deep impress even when it is not regarded as important.
Key strains of European literary modernism also bear strong affinities with contemporary flash: the exaggerated psychological involution of Hamsun and Kafka; the causal and syntactic disruption of Stein, Kharms, Artaud, and Beckett; the prose-poems of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé; and the brutal vignettes of Fénéon, Roth, Walser, and Kraus all spring to mind.
And, of course, the postmodernism of Barthelme and the Oulipo and the various practitioners of minimalism are obvious proximate influences on many writers of flash.
My claim here is not that contemporary flash fiction is the same as these other kinds of writing, or even that writers of flash are consciously influenced by these other forms. Rather, I want to suggest that flash fiction is in many ways a work of translation and importation, a direct or indirect elaboration upon literatures unconstrained by the psychological realist norms of the traditional Anglophone short story. My sense that flash fiction has a foreign ancestry is central to my belief that flash is obeying rules very different from those that still govern most of the short stories written in North America today.
Historical Determinants. Of course, literature does not develop free from the rest of social life, and if flash has begun to suggest itself as a suitable approach for many writers, this owes to factors other than contestation between highbrow and middlebrow, Europe and America, or experiment and realism.
In the past generation the short story has mostly disappeared from high-circulation periodicals. This has been taken as evidence of the exhaustion or anachronism of the traditional short story form, or as a sign of the demise of middlebrow culture, or both. Whatever the reasons, the confinement of short fiction to literary magazines certainly contributed to the emergence and development of flash fiction.
To begin, the small audience for short fiction is educated and aesthetically sophisticated. Most short stories are read by other writers or by a group of omnivorous, avid cultural consumers. Such a readership is prepared to tolerate, and enjoy, the ambiguity or incompleteness of flash fiction. This readership, which is less reliant upon aesthetic or dramatic formulae, can also be fickle. Preferences and enthusiasms can appear and disappear rapidly.
The restricted market for short fiction thus creates a competitive and unpredictable environment for writers. The growing number of aspirant writers and explosion in unsolicited submissions intensifies this competition. Flash fiction is somewhat protean, can be written quickly, and takes up little space, all features that give writers a better chance of publishing their work. This may be especially appealing for young writers, as previous success is in many ways a key determinant of future success. In this respect, flash fiction may be a response to an economy of scarcity as much as a logical elaboration of existing aesthetics.
The conditions in the literary field are in many ways analogous to the situation for young, educated people more generally. Flash fiction is growing in popularity, in part, because it is legible to a group of readers whose lives seem uncertain and incomplete. These readers, described coarsely, attend college, have distant or non-traditional relations to their families, are slow to settle into permanent romantic partnerships, will likely never settle into a permanent professional situation, live or wish to live in cosmopolitan settings, regularly encounter unfamiliar things, spend a great deal of time in introspection, and care about culture. It is for this sort of reader, above all, that the genre exists.
Flash Fiction as Genre. Though any fictive prose work of fewer than 1000 words has been understood as flash fiction, it is notable that works of flash fiction are typically much shorter. Several American journals where flash fiction is prominently or exclusively featured—NANO Fiction, SmokeLong Quarterly, Vestal Review, Gigantic, Bateau, the lately-demised Quick Fiction—set word limits as low as 300 or 500 words, and others such as elimae, Opium Online, Hobart, and PANK also tend to publish very brief pieces. If actually-published flash fiction clusters around a length between 200 and 500 words, then one is lead to believe that this length best suits the aesthetic ends of the genre.
I believe that incompleteness, indeterminancy, ambiguity, and undirected play are the key ends of flash fiction. If I may suggest a crude and provisional typology arrived at from my reading, works of flash tend toward ludic, lyric, and narrative approaches. Ludic approaches take language or literary form as the primary object, and a work is a game or an experiment. Lyric approaches describe a moment or an instance, very often with lush language, but without a well-defined narrator or plotting. Narrative approaches carefully describe either occurrences or an introspective response to those occurrences, but rarely both with any meaningful elaboration. In this approach the prose is often spare, even purposively inelegant. Fabulation and absurdity, common features of flash, fit comfortably into each of these approaches. In all cases, flash fiction lacks elements that are foundational for traditional short stories or novels. But omission is not deficiency, and short is not a synonym for minor or ephemeral. Absences may provoke the reader to self-recognition, or offer consolation.
I will take myself as an illustration. My attitude toward the world shifts quite frequently. Sometimes I find my city, Chicago, to be unbearably beautiful, and at other times unbearably funny. Sometimes I protect myself from the world with caustic irony, and at other times I confront it with a self-serving pragmatism. Often I feel oppressed by the burdens of work, uncertainty about my career, my body and assigned gender role, the dishonesty of others, the difficulty of mastering my own emotions, and many other annoyances and torments. In short, I am, at the same time, upset by the fixity and the unfixity of my place in the world.
This is why I read and write flash fiction. I may read and write in order to learn something about my life, to recognize, in writing, something that I cannot find in introspection. Or I may read and write to pursue something radically outside of myself, to find my way, for a paragraph, into a different state of being, a different body of a different flesh, or a body entirely of words. Often I feel that I am made of my words.
The Task of Flash Fiction. My own experience with flash fiction informs my understanding of the task of flash fiction more generally, and to some this leap from subjectivity to generality may seem unwarranted. But I will state my position anyway: flash fiction should enable, or compel, a self-recognition, and thereby make people of a certain generation understand that they are each only half a person, and also understand why they are so. It should also take some of the sting from this recognition, tempering bitterness and anxiety with humor, cerebration, or delight.
I am asserting that the most effective flash fiction requires total, historically visionary honesty coupled with formal brilliance. It is obvious that my own writing is not adequate to this task; here I have hardly even described it. No other writer, alone, is any more adequate. A social problem—the upheaval and uncertainty of the lives of a generation of talented young people—demands a social response. The self-recognition of flash fiction as a distinct form with distinct possibilities, advanced by magazines, intellectual groupings of writers with shared purpose, and attentive and searching readers, may be the beginning of such a response.