Tuesday, July 18, 2006

In Defense of Flash Fiction

Yesterday I posted a blog entry on the Metaxu Café litblog site. Another blogger posted a short piece after mine called “Geopolitical Flash Fiction: The Odd Couple”. This entry discussed the blogger’s thoughts on George Bush’s utterance of an expletive at the G8 conference. At the end of the post, this blogger wrote a post-script, “I just noticed that the post below is from a site entitled Flash Fiction. No offense is intended in the title of this post.”

This blogger was referring to my site, and I do not take offense at the title of his post; however, I do think he may be using the term “flash fiction” in a way that distorts the understanding of flash fiction as a literary form. His title and post also highlight why flash fiction still falls in a "sub" status as a literary art (flash fiction is commonly referred to as the "short short story"). After reading the "Geopolitical..." post carefully, I understood that this blogger seemed to suggest that the choppy, blurb-like quality of the news flash is somehow akin to flash fiction. The news flash and flash fiction are very different and should be understood as vastly distinguishable from one another, and not just because of the fiction/non-fiction difference.

In this essay I also wish to defend, or demonstrate the merits of, flash fiction because my own writing buddy recently attempted a piece of flash fiction herself; and although I enjoyed her piece, she insisted that she still dislikes the form because she feels that most flash fiction writing tends to be too blurb-like or is merely a novel synopsis.

I have been practicing flash fiction for four months now. By no means have I mastered the form, but I have found writing flash fiction to be useful in my growth as a writer. I appreciate the way flash fiction can correspond to and inform the challenges of writing the novel.

Definitions differ, but this is how I define flash fiction: Flash fiction rises out of a writer's attempt to write as epic a story as possible in as few words as possible. Word count is not necessarily important to me, but some writers attach word count to the definition of flash fiction, for instance “a story of no more than 750 words.” But for those who are serious about their word craft, it is not advised to get too hung up on word count. What is important in flash fiction is the relationship that this form cultivates between writer and reader.

The flash fiction form stresses the writer’s trust of the reader. I regard flash fiction as the most intensely interactive kind of reading experience. That means that the writer must respect what the reader will bring to the table. In flash fiction, a writer is able to make larger leaps between sentences. Or years may pass within one sentence. Flash fiction offers enormous challenges to a writer who wishes to concisely convey the passage of time. Also, the writer may wish to convey ideas that are merely suggestive, and it is up to the reader to fill in the rest. Another challenge is trying to develop a character in three words or fewer. To tell the truth, I found this to be a refreshing way to write after spending months working on a sprawling novel. The novel holds higher regard for the verbose.

Though they appear to be opposites, the novel and flash fiction should be regarded as more akin than flash fiction and poetry. Why? Because good flash fiction should convey a sense of rubbing up to epic narrative, like a "three-penny opera" version of the novel form. Writing flash fiction helps with the problems I am having with my novel, mostly character development and dialogue. Flash fiction encourages a verbose writer to trust the reader so the novelist can move away from the urge to write exposition and description and move toward an urge to write prose that reveals the story through action and subtext.

Here’s a link to the title of a useful book Writing Realistic Dialogue and Flash Fiction. I am most interested in practicing flash fiction to improve the writing of dialogue.

You’ve heard the expression someone utters when they’ve experienced a near-death trauma, “My life flashed before my eyes.” Though it’s a cliché, this expression aptly represents what a powerful piece of flash fiction might be able to attain. It should be as though readers experience that sense of a whole life passing before the eyes or through the mind. I don't know if that is really attainable, but it is marvelous to imagine and aim for that kind of artistic possibility. I've found flash fiction to be a form that helps me celebrate the humanity of all the strangers I encounter as a city dweller. These days, while walking through the city streets, if I should happen to catch and hold a stranger's gaze, I like to whisper to myself, 'your entire life flashed before my eyes.' It's a phrase that helps me enter my imaginative space as I silently greet a real stranger on the street while contemplating that he or she embodies one, whole lifetime in all its sorrow and glory. I suspect that this little chant, this practice of imagining a stranger as a whole life force, fuels much of the writing that I have been attempting on this blog. Flash fiction suits an urban rhythm and saved this city dweller from the burden of feeling "alienated."

Flash fiction is suitable for blogging because of its shorter length; the reader is able to see the entire story in one computer screen without scrolling down. Some flash fiction enthusiasts consider it the “next frontier in writing.” This site, 365 Tomorrows expresses the common attitude that flash fiction fits with a “breakneck-paced” contemporary society. I argue that flash fiction is more of a nod, a recognition of the idea that there is an Internet world culture out there. To be an effective writer, one must read a lot. At this year's PEN World Voices conference in NYC, Egyptian writer Alaa Al-Aswany answered one of my questions with a piece of advice that an ancient Egyptian poet gave to him: "Read everything; then forget it." Nowadays there are so many fascinating individuals sharing their words online that reading time interferes with writing time. But this should not frustrate writers. Always keep a pen and paper close at hand; it's delightful and necessary for a writer to take notes and jot down words and ideas as she reads.

There is so much information and so many people sharing their ideas online that it seems very unrealistic to assume anyone spends more than two to five minutes on any one site. With flash fiction it is hoped that at least a reader will get to read an entire story before moving on. I never lament the assumption many people hold that we modern beings generally have shorter attention spans. I still have confidence that any artwork that does its job to hold interest will be able to hold a person’s attention for at least fifty minutes. But if there is a tendency for us to spread ourselves too thin then we may as well have art forms that suit our sensibilities.

I am also inspired by my studies in Chinese literature because in the Chinese literary tradition there is such a form called the classical tale; this is very short fiction written in the literary language, i.e. the language that is written but not spoken. I studied literary Chinese as a foreign, dead language and found short short fiction most satisfying because I could comprehend it much more quickly and easily than the enormous, canonized Chinese novels written in colloquial Chinese. Pu Songling wrote such tales during the Ming dynasty (17th Century), and his tales remain popular in China today. I'd argue that Pu Songling mastered flash fiction, and flash fiction has a literary tradition that reaches all the way back to the Taoist masters. I am only recently becoming re-acquainted with the Western ancient examples, but Aesop's fables stand out.

But for an accessible discussion of a Chinese writer who wrote short short non-fiction, see Scott McLemee's column that discusses the Chinese writer Lu Xun, a writer of 1920s ans 30s China. McLemee describes Lu Xun's later non-fiction style by cheekily claiming, “Lu Xun invented the blog entry.”

There are some good anthologies and growing interest in flash fiction, but still not much written about the craft. It isn’t a short story; it isn’t poetry, nor is it subordinate to either of those. Flash fiction is a serious literary genre that demands a writer's conciseness and precision in dealing with epic drama. As a fiction writer who loves a good writing challenge, I have quickly grown smitten with this literary form and hope that someday it receives regard that lifts it out of its "sub" status.


LK said...

Thanks for the essay. I am a writer, confused about flash fiction. An editor actually asked me to submit some, but I am not sure it is a legitimate form in and of itself. You raise good points, Rebecca, and I think I have a somewhat better understanding after reading your essay. And I agree, not much has been written on the form and craft of FF, though editors seem to be demanding it to fulfill a market need. Now, legitimate art may arise from a market need, but in my opinion, won't last if that is all it does. If FF works as FF, then it works as Fiction, no? Then it is either Fiction or it's not, in my opinion -- why qualify it? Those are some issues I am struggling with. And I will attempt to write, because like you, I agree that writers should attempt to stretch writing as a craft and their own talents as a practice. Anyway, I will keep on the lookout for essays such as yours that may shed more light...

Yang-May Ooi said...

Hi Jane,

You raise some interesting points and make a good case for flash fiction. Some thoughts occur to me (in no particulary order of importance) as a verbose novel writer with two books at 180,000 words each:

# I admire anyone who can convey story, character and plot with so few words as 750!

# It's a great exercise to help perfect one's craft. One has to be ruthless to prune down one's work especially if it's especially self indulgent. I tend to write pages of verbiage and then cut it and cut it and cut it. With dialogue, it's very exciting to pare it all down to a few lines and suddenly find that you've conveyed a whole load of things re character and plot and subtext in a short exchange.

# One of the stylistic points that gives a novice writer away is exactly that inability to be ruthless - with dialogue, with adverbs, with adjectives.

# Two of the greatest novels in my view are The Great Gatsby and The Heart of Darkness - different in subject matter but both very short but very powerful

# There's a lot of hand wringing about what are legitimate artforms these days in the face of new media technology - and pooh-poohing among well known writers (average over 50 or 60) about the merits of blogs versus Tolstoy etc. On my part, I think that these are exciting times for writers and other creative artists. New technology democratises art and writing and empowers everyone, not just the elite. It is of course in the interests of the old elite to safeguard their "special" status so the pooh-poohing on their part will continue. For the rest of us, flash fiction, blogging, youtubing, podcasting etc - it's all about the freedom of making your own art: how much more exciting than merely being passive consumers (as the old elite would wish us to remain)! I don't think Picasso or Dickens or James Joyce cared much for what was "legitimate" art in their day - that's why they are great artists.

Keep up the flashing (so to speak)!

Yang-May Ooi

YB said...

Interesting -- the idea of flash fiction. I've been doing something like that fer a while now, from time to time. But instead of writing it with the flash, as it were, I'd let it sit, percolate in me noggin' fer a while, but then I'd write it in a flash, one steady push to the end, no going back. Funny thing -- you'd think you have it all worked out, know the whole story, doing it my way, but still, the act of writing turns so different from the act of thinking that the stories always surprised me, no matter how thought out I thought they were before setting to type.

I'm new to this computer stuff, but I have posted a few examples on my little blog.

genevieve said...

Great post, Rebecca! thank you. Will link to this sometime soon.

Guy Hogan said...

Dear Rebecca: click on issue 8 of Chick Flicks (www.chickflicksezine.com) and read "Compressionism: The Future of Flash Fiction." I think you will be happily surprised. I also have a free seminar on the theory and writing of flash fiction at www.flashfictionnow.blogspot.com. Guy Hogan (gy_hgn@yahoo.com).

Bob Thurber said...
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