Join Masters Review editors Kim Winternheimer and Sadye Teiser as they discuss one of their favorite forms.
Flash fiction is one of my favorite forms and I think it’s because in spite of how short the story is, an entire world unfolds. On an emotional level, I’ve felt just as much impact by flash as I have entire novels. I remember one in particular, a story by Neil Gaiman (who I mention here proudly as he is a writer who spans so many genres) titled, “Nicholas Was…” This piece is only 100 words but I remember being so moved by the power and imagination behind it. I understood so much in such a short space. This got me thinking about how flash is actually quite broad, as humorous as it may sound for fiction that is so short. To some, it is any piece under 300 words and to others it can be much longer, 1000 words or more. At The Masters Review, we don’t have a strict word count, but we do have a strong history of publishing what I would consider flash fiction. When do you think a story stops being flash? And do you have any favorites that really pushed you to explore/appreciate this genre?
I agree that flash fiction holds a particular intensity. The best flash stories are complete, concentrated worlds that point to complexities outside of themselves. Broadly, I tend to think of flash as a story of 1,000 words or fewer. And there are all these subsets, like nano fiction, which is 300 words or less, or hint fiction, which is 25 words or less. As you say: I know flash when I see it. The writer who first sparked my interest in the genre is Lydia Davis, which is interesting because her work is not, as far as I know, overtly marketed as “flash” fiction. Her story “The Cedar Trees,” a fable-like tale about the women of a town turning into trees, has a strange cadence that has never quite left me. A new favorite writer of mine is Ashley Farmer, whose stories all communicate a feeling, a particular state of mind, with that economy of language that makes flash so powerful.
These examples illustrate what I love most about flash fiction: its extreme variety in terms of form. Every piece of flash invents a new form for itself; it decides how it will take you from point A to point B, and then it fulfills that promise. Of course, this can be true of all kinds of fiction, but I see a lot more variety in these very short stories. In flash, you can easily have a story that is all questions (like Donald Barthelme’s “Concerning The Bodyguard,” which actually inspired your “Concerning the Housewife”), that is made up of (surreal) dialogue (like “How The Water Feels to The Fishes,” by Dave Eggers), or that is a meditation on a single, cooked fish (“The Fish,” Lydia Davis). It’s so interesting how flash can often focus on a single fictional element: it is all plot, all setting, all interiority — but, more often than not, it tells a full story. Do you feel that, in looking at submissions and in your own writing, there is a certain freedom that comes with this shorter form? Are there any flash stories in particular whose forms have surprised you?
I absolutely think a freedom of sorts is offered to a writer by confining the space he has to work in. And you said it yourself in what you like most about flash fiction: it’s extreme variety in terms of form. It seems contradictory, doesn’t it, that by confining a story to a small space you increase the number of forms in which that story might be told? I think and agree, therein lies the magic behind flash fiction. You would tire reading an entire novel composed entirely of questions, to use your Barthelme reference, and yet reading a collection of flash fiction stories, is entirely refreshing. This reminds me of how the book AM/PM by Amelia Gray is successful. It is an entire, albeit short, collection of 50-100 word short stories. I think reading the prose/poetry style of these flash pieces as a novel would be impossible, but in flash form it’s dazzling. In this way AM/PM is the perfect example of freedom within a short form and a group of stories that surprised me in terms of how well they worked in concert.
Another specific story that impressed and surprised me in terms of form is Kyle Minor’s, “Q & A.” In this story, Minor interviews himself about the other stories in his collection. He uses this format to address mixing fiction and autobiography, and to comment on the larger themes in his book. It is immensely clever. I just loved it.
In thinking about some of my favorite pieces of flash, many of them contain fantastic or surreal elements. What do you think it is about flash that allows it to include fantasy so well? Intuitively one might guess you would need a lot of space in order for a world to feel fully lived in.
I do think that flash is a great container for the surreal and fantastic. Inherent in the flash form is a confidence that’s necessary to tell a story in such a small space: every word has a firm purpose. It takes a similar authority to successfully introduce a surreal conceit. I guess the more cynical way to look at it would be to say that in a shorter story a reader is more willing to suspend her disbelief, to accept a surreal premise and see where the story takes her. For some reason, readers seem more willing to enter pieces of flash as separate, strange worlds. But the surreal and fantastic are used in flash in so many different ways. Sometimes, the story unfolds from a single surreal conceit, such as Amelia Gray’s “Babies,” about a woman who gives birth overnight. Sometimes the surreal slips in and out of the story in the span of a few sentences, such as when the rain turns into snow that turns into tiny women who melt in a man’s hand in Ashley Farmer’s “The Women.”
Of course, it also works the other way: the surreal is a good choice when you want to say a lot, quickly. In flash, the author is trying to communicate a story that resonates in under 1,000 words. It has to be pithy; the whole story is the core of the story. And the surreal, when it is used well, is just so powerful: it conveys a visual image and emotional truth at once. If placed correctly, it can say so much about a character’s emotional state, his whole emotional life.
The line between flash fiction and the prose poem has been the subject of much debate. As far as I know, there’s still no consensus. But it’s interesting to think about a piece like “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché, which has actually been published in both a poetry anthology and a flash fiction anthology. Where do you think this line is drawn? Do you think this is an important distinction?
I love what you say about there being a confidence necessary to tell a story in such a small space, because I agree. It contradicts the viewpoint that writing shorter pieces is “easy,” which it most definitely is not. I’ve heard established writers discuss the idea that a short story has the ability to be “perfect” wherein a novel, due to its length, will inevitably have flaws. Of course, a truly flawless short story is elusive and could potentially be a myth altogether, but I think flash fiction holds that promise, especially in hint fiction and the very short forms. What a fun idea to chase and exercise as a writer! It takes a great deal of confidence and precision to achieve or come close to this, and I think it is this feeling readers react to when flash fiction is successful.
I do find it curious how unlikely booksellers are to label work as flash fiction. And I wonder, in this communication age where sharing information and attention spans are becoming so brief, if it will encounter a renaissance of sorts, at least among the general public. But this is a different discussion altogether. Is twitter flash fiction? Sure. Writers like Elliott Holt and Jennifer Egan have done some interesting things on that platform (though it was used to tell longer pieces) and it speaks to the varied and broad nature of flash fiction we’ve applauded in this discussion, but I won’t go there now.
To answer your question specifically, I think our desire to label stories permeates all forms. Is it genre or literary? Is it a prose poem or flash? Categorizing stories helps us understand what we’re reading and is helpful in teaching, so in this way I understand the urge, but I tend not to think about it, especially if I’m enjoying a piece. To me, a story is or isn’t working. It’s that simple. I think writers — and Ashley Farmer references this in her interview — shy away from strict definitions because a label restricts a story, and a story can be many things all at once, especially in a form as varied as flash fiction.
We’ve covered a lot of ground, anything else to add? Any thoughts you want to share that we haven’t yet touched on?
I think we’ve covered it well. I enjoyed the discussion.
Me too, thanks Sadye. Looking forward to next week, where we examine literary and genre fiction with a critical essay, written by you, a piece of fiction that might be difficult to label, and an interview with Kevin Brockmeier. Join us then!