Robert Shapard

A Note on Flash Fiction

A won­der­ful­ly short essay on the his­to­ry of very short fic­tion. Must read­ing for all. Ed.

I like Jane Ciabattari’s piece, “The World Wide Web at 25: Changing Literature Forever.” It’s fun and informative—but she does make the mis­take that so many peo­ple these days do, under­stand­ably. She assumes the Internet has caused the short sto­ry form to grow ever short­er with a flood of micro and flash fic­tion. It’s much truer to say the Internet has reflect­ed the trend.

I remem­ber Fred Chappell com­plain­ing in the 1970s about lit­er­ary mag­a­zines demand­ing short­er and short­er word lim­its for sto­ries. Already some were fea­tur­ing what we now call sud­den or flash or micro fiction—for exam­ple, TriQuarterly’s famous “Minute Stories” issue, in 1976, or North American Review’s reg­u­lar one-page sto­ries. The first two Sudden Fiction antholo­gies came out in the ‘80s, and the first Flash Fiction anthol­o­gy in 1992, a year before the World Wide Web was made avail­able to the pub­lic. These antholo­gies, and oth­ers, like Jerome Stern’s Micro Fiction, which fea­tures sto­ries under 250 words, are still in print and sell­ing. In Latin America, which prefers its micros under 100 words, the inter­est in very short fic­tion began even ear­li­er than in the U.S.—also before the Web.

Of course, the pop­u­lar­i­ty of very short fic­tion has grown great­ly since the Web began. The advent of high-qual­i­ty online lit­er­ary mag­a­zines con­tributed to this, and Mississippi Review Online was in the fore­front. Now, thanks in part to the Web, flash fic­tion has become pop­u­lar world­wide.

I can attest to this hav­ing just coedit­ed an anthol­o­gy for W.W. Norton, Flash Fiction International, due out next spring. The trend abroad has been sim­i­lar to that in the U.S., though mixed. Very short fic­tions have long been com­mon in some coun­tries, espe­cial­ly in news­pa­pers. Literary influ­ences include the likes of Kafka and Kawabata, or, in the Arab world, Zakaria Tamer, who is still writ­ing. In oth­er coun­tries where short-shorts are now show­ing up online, like Kenya or Korea, there was no tra­di­tion in them that I know of. However, there’s been anoth­er tech­no­log­i­cal influ­ence in Asia espe­cial­ly, and that’s cell phone text mes­sag­ing. Remember how Japanese cell phone sto­ries mor­phed into cell phone nov­els like Deep Love in 2003? They’ve had mil­lions of read­ers. The chap­ters are super short—we might say those 6-word sto­ries in Wired, in 2006, were influ­enced by tex­ting.

But now the role of the Internet may be chang­ing, not just reflect­ing the larg­er trend, but cre­at­ing new forms of very short fic­tion, or, as Ciabattari says, influ­enc­ing “the struc­ture and pub­lish­ing mod­el of new work.” I’m out of my depth here but judg­ing by her descrip­tion of Elliott Holt’s Twitter fic­tion the pos­si­bil­i­ties seem intrigu­ing. I think of “crowd­sourc­ing fic­tion,” but that sounds large and expand­ing, so then I think of small sto­ries that don’t expand yet some­how remain in motion—as in that say­ing by Heraclitus, “No man ever steps in the same riv­er twice”; there would be the Initial Tweet, as the con­trol­ling idea, always in mind, while the replies and retweets nev­er cease. (Or maybe the bet­ter image is the stone in the pond with ever-expand­ing rip­ples.)

But the prac­ti­cal ques­tion may be, Can fic­tion keep up with rapid­ly chang­ing tech­nol­o­gy? The nov­el arose in response to (among oth­er things) the tech­nol­o­gy of the print­ed book, but took its time doing it, about 200 years. If a writer is still inter­pret­ing soci­ety (as Halimah Marcus says she should) in tweets ten years from now, she may find her read­ers have already gone on to oth­er tech­nolo­gies. Still, it’s a good bet the appetite for very short fic­tion will still be with us.

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Robert Shapard is edi­tor, with James Thomas and Christopher Merrill, of Flash Fiction International, due next year from W.W. Norton. He lives in Austin.