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.
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.