Before writing this piece, I’ve offered a prayer that flash fiction isn’t in the process of becoming fossilized by literary criticism and what Harold Bloom talks about in The Anxiety of Influence. This is because flash fiction has enjoyed marginalized obscurity, and critics have left it alone. Flash fiction has been the backwater and refuge of many writers: For me, it’s an explorer who bivouacs vacant buildings, a harbor welcoming unknown countries, an insomniac who talks to shadows. Flash fiction is free—very free—and exalts in its protean nature.
Flash fiction isn’t new, but has become increasingly visible because the online world has given birth to journals that publish it almost exclusively. This visibility makes both readers and writers ask new questions about flash. Among them: Do more men than women publish flash, or is it the other way around? What is flash fiction? And isn’t it easier to write than a novel?
There are so many forms of flash fiction that no definition is complete: Its one stricture is brevity: Flash is 1000 words or less—and often as short as 100 words. The brevity makes flash an urgent letter that must reach a reader quickly. There’s no time for complicated transitions, flashbacks or connective tissue. Writers of flash fiction must cut to the chase.
Although flash is its own form, it overlaps with poetry and fiction. Like poetry, flash is characterized by a distinctive voice, more reliance on subtext than plot and elliptical leaps of language. Like fiction, flash usually deals with at least one character and involves that character’s transformation (or lack of it). The transformation can be slight, but is always surprising.
Flash has also taken some of its inspiration from a short, language-driven form called the prose poem. Aside from its brevity, the prose poem deserves mention because flash has continued the prose poem’s tradition of startling, elliptical leaps in language and surprising twists of imagery. (Bows here to Russell Edson and W. S. Merwin, both prose poem masters and partly responsible for the blossoming of the short form.) Flash, however, has taken the short form to explosive possibilities and the distinction between the prose poem and flash fiction has become blurred. Flash is sometimes call “micro-fiction” or “nano-fiction” and even “smoke-long fiction” (i.e. long enough to finish a cigarette.) But the term “flash fiction” has become an umbrella that encompasses most short work.
I came to flash fiction after a hiatus in writing during which I reconfigured my brain by studying logic and philosophy of science. Because I was so cerebral, I imagined flash would be easier than longer forms and spent two years writing short pieces with clever images. These were fun to write and people found them amusing. But I never felt I’d reached the indisputable stopping point that defines a good story or a poem—a stopping point that takes me by surprise and turns the sentences into a story that’s larger than the sum of its parts. When I finally wrote my first piece of flash I knew, on a visceral level, that I’d found a stopping point that was indisputable.
The first piece I wrote was the kind of flash fiction I’d never read—a five-sentence story about Gogol who was a notorious gambler. It had never occurred to me that flash could be about historical figures. And I mention this only because each writer’s version of flash fiction turns out to be as unique as a thumbprint. Unlike the novel and short story, flash doesn’t have narrative templates. Its only template is its restriction on size. The story itself must be reinvented.
Once I had an intuitive understanding of flash, it was easier to write more of it. But many times I return to a piece again and again to get it right. Flash looks easy because there are so few sentences. But individual sentences—no matter how beautiful or clever–don’t necessarily coalesce into a story, far more elusive than individual lines. Each writer of flash discovers his or her story differently.
I speak about flash fiction, then, as a writer who’s had to discover—and rediscover—its subtle nature. I also speak as a novelist and short story writer and am sure that flash is its own form, not a mutant novel or a short story without growth hormones. Novels begin like sad amphibians with missing phalanges and often depend on a tsunami that crashes into characters’ lives. Flash fiction depends on finding, obscure footholds, unexpected openings, and eventually surrenders to a seizure of language. Ironically, it’s often easier to find the tsunami than the footholds.
Although flash fiction can take time to write, after it’s finished it has the sense of a story told in a single breath. And whenever I write a story in a single breath, I feel intense surprise that something so small has its own mysterious wholeness and is wonderfully separate from me. Flash is brief, complete, and teems with protean forms. I hope it remains renegade and continues to evolve and astound.
In conclusion, I find writing about flash, as opposed writing it, feels a bit like temping the gods of literary criticism. And as I write, I keep putting myself into a piece of flash fiction about someone writing about flash fiction, which begins: “When she told her miniature horse she was writing about flash, he stamped a hoof and spoke to her sternly…..”
Thaisa Frank’s most recent books are Enchantment, a collection of short fiction and Heidegger’s Glasses, a novel that has been translated into ten languages. Her flash fiction has been anthologized and her earliest flash fiction was cited in Pamelyn Casto’s piece, Flashes on the Meridian.
For more about the prose poem and gender issues, see flash notes below.
1] There aren’t any statistics about whether men or women write/publish more/less flash fiction. The fact that the question comes up is proof that flash has become part of the contemporary conversation. Whatever the answer, I hope that Men’s Flash Fiction and Women’s Flash Fiction will never become marketing niches.
Some notes about the prose poem and its relation to flash fiction.
Prose poems often involve a pure transformation of an image. An example of pure transformation of image can be found in Ana Hatherly’s prose poem, Tsianas #82:
Once upon a time there was a country where there weren’t any clouds. To make rain, it was necessary to wash the horizon with feathers.
Translated from the Portuguese by Jean R. Longland
The elliptical writing of the prose poem has been consider a vehicle for dissent –a kind of politically radical newspaper. One of the most famous of such writers is Danhil Kharms, who was shot during the Stalinist era. Although he called his pieces prose poems, he managed to write a Russian novel in a few sentences. Today, many people would characterize this as flash fiction. The piece is called
Once Orlov ate too many ground peas and died.Krylov found out about it and died too. Spirindov up and died all by himself. Spririndov’s wife fell off the cupboard and also died. Spirindov’s children drowned in the pond. Grandma Spirindov took to drink and hit the road. Mikhailov stopped combing his hair and caught a skin disease. Kruglove drew a picture of a lady with a whip in her hand and lost his mind. Perekhrestove was sent four hundred rubles and put on such airs that they fired him at his office.
Good people, but they don’t know how to take themselves in hand.
Translated from the Russian by George Gibian
The first prose poem is attributed to Baudelaire and but I’ve found it in much earlier works, like The Pillow Book by Sei Shonogan, written in the 2nd century.