09/06/2012 by Stephen Silke
“Flash,” as those in the know refer to it (don’t worry, I won’t call it that) is a relatively new genre, aparently invented by James Thomas and Robert Shapard, who lay claim to helping define the form in 1996, when Thomas published the popular Flash Fiction anthology.
Since then, the two have been able to make a career, teaching writing and editing the Sudden Fiction series, elevating themselves to a high enough level to present themselves as authorities on the form. What you can glean from their very convoluted and ultimately vague conclusions about flash fiction from the “Editor’s Note” in their 2006 book Flash Fiction Forward is that years later, they cannot pinpoint any one element other than the obvious for a piece to be considered part of this genre.
Because the book is a collection of stories, I guess I shouldn’t have expected much from the “Editors’ Note,” and just enjoyed them. I should have known from my own graduate level experience that the quickest way to arrive at confusion on a topic is to consult a university trained mind, paid-by-the-word to supply a simple definition to a simple topic, and thus are almost guaranteed to obfuscate.
But don’t let the “Editors’ Note” put you off, the eighty stories presented within the book are worthy for an initial survey of the genre, even though their conclusion as to what makes flash fiction is rather jejune (more than a third of a page, but less than three pages).
Also, disappointing was the failure to document the forms shorter than 350 words, such as “hint fiction” (25 words or less) or micro-fiction, since they do not put micro in its place. Oh yeah, and there is one more bit of criteria for a piece to be flash fiction, “it should be memorable.” This teased out means, subjectively, it “should move the reader emotionally or intellectually, [and] it should be well written” and then the editors add, controversial–because no one on this project could I guess, agree on what exactly makes a story memorable to them.
Now with those relatively short and memorable guidelines in place—duh—(and can you tell yet that the Editors’ Note to this book should be skipped completely?)—we delve into The Rose Metal Press’ Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction so that we can be more significantly informed. In the introduction to the book, there is a proper history of the form, which prepares us more suitably to write within it, than just an off-the-cuff email-length response that Thomas and Shapard provide to start their book.
“Field Guide” points out that though there may have been a resurgence of popularity around flash fiction inspired by Jay Thomas and Robert Shapard’s work–“flash fiction” has been around much longer. Some of the confusion comes with the name change. Flash fiction and micro fiction may be new names to what was simply called the short short story by magazine editors as early as 1926, and by others to name Baudelaire’s earlier prose poems (see Paris Spleen).
Tara Masih’s field guide runs through the genre, citing short story writers from China and Japan, though puts perhaps a bit too much emphasis on Indian and Japanese miniature paintings operating as the genesis of short shorts. Despite this, Masih wants to debunk the myth that the short story was a distinctly American invention, though contradictorily gives credit to Washington Irving and Edgar Allen Poe, and then points over them to other western writers such as Guy de Maupassant, Colette, Kafka, and Baudelaire. This confuses. She is not clear who the first were.
Masih does seem to linger a bit on a topic that is curious. She focuses on efforts to compress time as a theme common and of utmost importance in modern short shorts. There is no discussion as to why this is so important to her, and while it may be an theme in modern short shorts, why all the focus and fuss? This is not answered in her history of short shorts.
But what Masih does end up doing in the section “The Early Manuals and Anthologies” is of great interest to actual writers. There are tips culled from editors and writers on how to write a short short, as well as examples of the antiquarian and bygone American market for them. In this we see the history, skill and marketing side all at once, which is of great interest to a working writer because it shows that styles and methods change, and that writing within the modes of the current time period and about topics of interest to current readers is as necessary as crafting clean sentences (in order to be published).
After Masih’s history chronicles the dip in short story reading with the advent of television, she ends her essay with the short short reemerging as flash fiction in the 80’s, cemented with the many short short anthologies edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas, and others, featuring the experiments of writers such as John Updike, Octavio Paz, Julio Cortazår, Pamela Painter, Stuart Dybek, Joyce Carol Oates, Donald Barthelme and many more that are left out for space. And this history is short, as it should be, and though heavy on editors and periodicals to the exclusion of the actual writers, it casts a strong net around what made the short short into what may eventually be called flash fiction: a short short story that leaves a long, long impression.
Flash Fiction Forward (2006) is a collection of 80 very short stories and it edited by James Thomas and Robert Shapard. Read it for the stories, not the Editors’ Note (3 of 5 stars).
Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (2009) contains various essays on the genre and is edited by Tara L. Masih. (4 of 5 stars, and really good as far as writing text books go—there are prompts, exercises and short short fiction samples).