Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 1 September 2008

Is flash fiction a joke?

The thoughts we can understand are very little thoughts... – Jerome K. Jerome

I don't write flash fiction. Okay, I've written two stories that you could call flash fiction and that's it. I even had one of them published so there. But their brevity was more a matter of circumstance than intent. I never sat down to consciously write a piece of flash fiction. I just said what I had to say and got off the page.

If I were to sit down and make up my rules of writing – which I have no intention of doing – one of them would be that: Say what you have to say and get off the page. It surprises me that I haven't been drawn to shorter prose forms because I do write short poems. I think part of it has been that I have never thought about flash fiction as a form in itself. I didn't imagine there were any different rules to writing a flash fiction – Is that correct English? – than there were to writing any story.

I suppose a flash fiction is okay. You have a novel, a novella, a novelette, a short story … and, a flash fiction. Doesn't sound quite right though, does it? Apparently the French call them nouvelles – I like the sound of that – la nouvelle. Other names for this type of writing are: short-short stories, sudden, postcard, minute, furious, fast, quick, skinny, and micro fiction and I have no doubt that there are others but that will do for right now.

There are of course types of flash fiction that have acquired unique names. Wikipedia mentions three:

One type of flash fiction is the short story with an exact word count. Examples include 55 Fiction, the Drabble and the 69er. Nanofictions are complete stories, with at least one character and a discernible plot, exactly 55 words long. A Drabble is a story of exactly 100 words, excluding titles, and a 69er is a story of exactly 69 words, again excluding the title.

Now, I have a problem with these. It's the same problem I have with the clerihew, the grossblank, the lento, the pantoum, the etheree and all other such contrived poetic forms. As an exercise it's interesting to challenge oneself but that's about it. Anyway, I think that's a subject for another time.

The bottom line, as regards flash fiction or the 'short-short story' as Collier’s magazine in the 1930’s described it, is an arbitrary editorial decision. Collier’s started a new feature and asked for stories that would fit on one page of their magazine (no actual word count was specified but it was easy enough for writers to work out a rough limit); the maximum for most magazine is 1000 words; the editors of the original Flash Fiction anthology decided that they would include only stories that would fit on a two-page spread of the typical literary magazine, or 750 words; MicroHorror draws the line at 666; Right Hand Pointing won’t consider work over 500 words; Jerome Stern who edited MicroFiction, drew the line at 300 words or less; The Abilene Writers Guild Annual Contest sets the limit at 250; Dogzplot define 'flash fiction' as anything up to 200 words … and then there are the Drabble, the 69er and the Nanofiction magazines and, finally, the e-zine OneSentence publishes stories that are exactly that, one sentence long. Here's an example:

My dog is nineteen years old and I just taught him a new trick.

Okay, so we have a sort of length. So the next question is: How does a piece of flash fiction differ – if indeed it does – from a regular short story? The basic elements of most stories are a protagonist, some kind of conflict, obstacle or complication to overcome and a resolution to that encounter: i.e. the chicken was knocked down whilst crossing the road. That's nine words and it covers all the bases but I wouldn't call it a story and yet more can be said with less as Hemingway aptly demonstrated:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

So where's the protagonist, eh? He or she isn't there in fact the only noun in the piece is 'baby shoes'. The fact is the protagonists are all implied. If there are 'baby shoes' then logic dictates that there once may have been a baby. That the shoes are for sale suggests an owner or owners who have the right to sell the shoes. That there might be a relationship between the child and the owners of the shoes is not an unreasonable one to make.

In his short essay, Awww!, Randall Brown says: "Great flash pieces have that “centerlight pop”; without it, the flash does not burn brightly enough to justify its brevity, its suddenness." 'Aw' might be the effect – and in some cases it will be – but in other cases I suspect it might be an 'ah', 'oh', 'argh' or even an 'err?' – in other words a climax, a … punch line.

In an article on George S. Kaufman, Woody Allen provides the following anecdote:

[Moss] Hart has written about Kaufman's ability to edit and pare to the bone, to throw out jokes should they dare to impede the plot -- to kill his children. Kaufman felt that while a drama could survive with a bit of slack, a comedy had to be airtight. The story is told of a playwright suffering with his opus in Philadelphia who asked Kaufman how he could improve it. Without seeing the failing play, Kaufman replied, ''Make it shorter.'' – New York Times

Flash fiction is about as short as it gets.

Q: So how does a piece of flash fiction differ from a joke?
A: I'm not so sure that it necessarily does.

For three years, the young attorney had been taking his brief vacations at this country inn. The last time he'd finally managed an affair with the innkeeper's daughter. Looking forward to an exciting few days, he dragged his suitcase up the stairs of the inn, then stopped short. There sat his lover with an infant on her lap!

"Helen, why didn't you write when you learned you were pregnant?" he cried. "I would have rushed up here, we could have gotten married, and the baby would have my name!"

"Well," she said, "when my folks found out about my condition, we sat up all night talkin' and talkin' and decided it would be better to have a bastard in the family than a lawyer."

What makes this not flash fiction? Is it intent? Jokes are common. Stories like to think they're not. There is a trick to writing good comedy and that's not to treat the audience like a fool; the comedian can be the fool, his subject can play the fool but the audience has to be placed above all of that looking down. In an interview, the writer Barry Yourgrau – who has achieved some level of fame as a flash fiction author – said this:

I find very short items, when good, expand in the reader's imagination. I sometimes, say, like to break off a story right before it's resolved - at a surging cliff-hanger. Let the reader finish things up. – The Millions

Now, the joke above is not a very good joke but it does respect its audience. It doesn't explain itself and relies upon a certain degree of worldly experience from them. Flash fiction is the same. It doesn't have the time to explain things. The thing is, when I look at the story about the dog I'm reminded of the humour of Steven Wright who is famous for his one-liners like:

The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

There is a protagonist, an obstacle, a resolution, even a moral but is it flash fiction?

What makes a good joke? That is a good question. Simply put, although I don't think there's anything simple about it, the best jokes are often those that put ideas together in original or unexpected ways. It's also about the relationship between the setup and the punch line. Often this involves misdirection and I think that is something that the best stories do too:


"It's very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who's learning to play the violin." That's what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

Richard Brautigan – from Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970

The setup and the punch line is just one way of looking at the structure of a story. Most traditional stories have a plot that leads to its climax or dénouement and the best of these are where they're unexpected.

This was something that the long-running television show The Twilight Zone did very well. The stories would typically end with an ironic twist that would often see the guilty punished but sometimes the innocent too, if I can summarise 'Time Enough at Last':

Henry Bemis is a man who loves books and yet is surrounded by those who would prevent him from reading them; his wife even defaces one of his books at one point as a joke. A bank worker by pure fluke Bemis survives the end of the world in the safety of the bank's vault and finds himself alone with enough food to last him a lifetime but no one for company. Just when he thinks he can tolerate the loneliness no longer he stumbles across the ruins of the public library with all of its books still intact and readable. Every book he could ever hope for is his for the taking, and he finally has all the time in the world to read – and no one to stop him.

Organising the books he plans to read by month, Bemis proclaims he has enough to last several years and time enough at last to read them. Just as he reaches to pick up his first book, he trips and his glasses fall off and shatter. In tears, he picks up the remains of his glasses and sobs: "That's–that's not fair. That's not fair at all. There was time now. There was, was all the time I needed! It's not fair! "

Now, as was often the case, this was actually an adaptation of a short story. I doubt it was a piece of flash fiction and there's a reason for that. In this story we need time to get to know Bemis and to empathise with him. It's only once we have something invested in him that his loss becomes ours. It is also the kind of cliff-hanger that I believe Yourgrau was on about because we don't know what happens to Bemis. He might go out and find an opticians and see what lenses they have lying around and be back with his books the next day or his might just pull his gun out of his pocket and blow his head off there and then.

If you think about it, the best stories – long, short or middling – always have scope for more. Life is full of ups and downs. George kills Lenny and a few pages later the book is done but what happens to George afterwards. In truth he probably ekes out an existence as best he can and dies quietly sooner than he might have liked but not soon enough for him to get the bitter taste of murdering Lenny out of his mouth. But that's another story and one day someone may well have a crack at writing it.

Compression is not everything. Look at the synopsis I provided above of 'Time Enough At Last' – with, I hasten to add, the assistance of Wikipedia – it's not very good. You get the idea but it's lacking, isn't it? I did toy with the idea of trying to rework it as an exercise but I have enough on my plate at the moment.

It's often said that in poetry you need to make every word work overtime and the same can be said for flash fiction. Take the example by Hemingway – even his spaces are crammed with meaning. It's not poetry. It doesn't pretend to be poetry but it does what the best poetry does and, in most cases, without resorting to poetic language and being accused of being prose poetry.

The first time I heard the expression 'prose poem' was in 1976 when I bought a collection of short stories by Solzhenitsyn. It included at the end a number of, what it called 'prose poems' and here is my favourite:

translated by Michael Glenny

I threw a rotten log onto the fire without noticing that it was alive with ants.

The log began to crackle, the ants came tumbling out and scurried around in desperation. They ran along the top and writhed as they were scorched by the flames. I gripped the log and rolled it to one side. Many of the ants then managed to escape onto the sand or the pine needles.

But, strangely enough, they did not run away from the fire.

They had no sooner overcome their terror than they turned, circled, and some kind of force drew them back to their forsaken homeland. There were many who climbed back onto the burning log, ran about on it, and perished there.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn – from Matryona's House and other stories

I read it over many times to try and work out in my head why it wasn't simple a very short story especially since it had the feel of a fable about; it was just lacking the moral at the end. I kinda thought it was a bit like Animal Farm, saying something political that I wasn't getting.

Since then I have read flash pieces that come perilously close to being poems which leads me to suspect that the definition has moved on from 1971 when these stories first appeared in English.

The question that's begging to be asked is: Why the explosion of these now? It's not a hard question to answer but I like how Pamelyn Casto put it:

Some claim that the proliferation of the short-short story is due to modern readers' attenuated attention spans, our shortened sound-byte, text-byte mentality. Others think it is because of the "asthmatic" conditions under which we live--our fiction is reflecting the out-of-breathness of modern life. Some suggest that it is due to increased printing costs and the way in which editors can include more variety and less length in their publications. And some think it is because so many have lost faith in the traditional way of telling stories at great length. Such readers and writers realize that "truth" comes only infrequently and only in flashes. - Flashes On The Meridian: Dazzled by Flash Fiction

What she didn't mention is that flash fiction fits new media. It's why they're so popular in China where they read whole novels on their phones these days. I like the convenience of them myself. When one appears in my FeedReader I know it's not demanding that I make a cup of coffee and settle down in a comfy chair for an hour. I can stop what I'm doing and take a story-break of a couple of minutes.

This is not meant to trivialise the format either, far from it. Like all forms of writing it has its good and its bad exponents. I don't believe that flash fiction is a joke – in the bad sense of the word – but I do believe in its most straightforward expressions it owes a debt to the humourists of the past.

Humour has moved on and so has the art of story-telling. Let me leave you with a few from the books on my shelves to have a think about.


She bought the stuff and gave him an eight dollar bill. He didn't have change. All he had was a three.

Sherril Jaffe – from Scars Make Your Body More Interesting & Other Stories


She would always sleep with her husband and with another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting, "French film, French film."

Amy Hempel – from Tumble Home: a novella and short stories


For years after our mother's death, the post office continued to deliver letters that were addressed to her. The post office had taken no notice of her death.

Thomas Bernhard – from The Voice Imitator

My next post will be an interview with the flash fiction writer Adrian Graham and a look at his collection The Revelation and a hundred other stories.


Anonymous said...

Flash fiction is a passion of mine, and I was once a member of Pam's online crit group. (It's late and this is my last stop, but I'll send you the link later, if you don't have it already.)

Flash fiction is like a finely crafted jewel (although I will say there's a LOT of pebbles out there -- people think it's easy and are not discriminatory at all about their flash.)

The publication "flashshot" contains stories in under 100 words. There are few that are striking enough to remember, but those stories that are like bright flashes of light. I love getting the stories in my in-box everyday, and roll them around on my tongue.

Interesting read. I'm biased, so I'm curious to read about your feelings.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for your comment, Netta. It's interesting that today in his blog, Adrian Graham (the bloke I'll be interviewing on Thursday), has finally stopped limping on two different opinions and come out as a writer of flash fiction. The whole point to this article and the ensuing interview was to ask if 'flash fiction' had a specific format different to a short story. I never sit down to consciously write anything. I suspected that Milligan and Murphy had the makings on a novel but it could just as easily ended up a short story. I write till the words come to a natural end. What got to me, and what prompted the post in the first place, was Adrian's ability to churn out quite different pieces of flash fiction that all ran to circa 250 words. I can't do that.

I think you express it perfectly but I think your illustration could be applied to all forms of writing: there are gems and there are pebbles. Personally I like pebbles. I have a jar full of them that I brought all the way back from America and I hand-picked every one of them. Gems are, to my mind, very samey. I've never been one to get excited over them. But I get your point. I think a story like 'The Scarlatti Tilt' is exceptional. To my mind the real skill in writing flash is knowing what to omit. I find that some of them leave out the wrong bits. At least for me.

Frances said...

A fascinating post Jim. I enjoyed the examples, particularly that of the lady in the studio with the violin player! I love short forms, writing and reading them.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comment, Frances. I do too. I just wish I was better at writing them. I quite often think up a few lines or a paragraph in my head but dismiss it because it doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Maybe I should have a play around with them and see what develops.

Anonymous said...

@Frances If you like the really short ones there are 22 you might like here:

@Jim Yes, 'flash fiction' - and proud! :)

Anonymous said...

I will say that writing flash fiction is a good discipline. It forces you to weigh each and every word, each and every placement. It does carry over into longer works -- I think it gives you a better eye and ear for flow.

I have the opposite problem -- I have a hard time sustaining a longer work. I've been trying to address that.

Flash has been around for centuries. I'm not sure it's so different from a short story -- you still need a beginning, middle end, and some sort of conflict resolved by the end. However, there's also room for "experimental" stories, those that don't tie up all the ends into a neat bow by the end.

Ah, I'm babbling. Sorry! I love flash, to read and write, and this discussion is my perfect morning cup of tea.


Jim Murdoch said...

Babble all you want, Netta. It's lovely to see someone who enthuses so. Maybe because I was a poet for so many years before I began writing prose it has had the same effect on me. I hate writers who don't get to the point. I have to force myself to add a bit of background colour, I really do.

Art Durkee said...

It's hard to take the genre very seriously, for me. For one thing, most flash fictioneers seem ignorant of their ancestors. Fredric Brown was a master of the short-short story, complete with a surprise twist at the end. Arthur C. Clarke wrote two or three utterly brilliant short-shorts which could be considered flash; of course, they usually ended in atrocious, witty puns. So in one way "flash fiction" is hardly a new thing, as you point out with the classic Hemingway example. In another way, it's just another micro-genre that's grown glands and become another sub-genre; fascinating while it's fresh, but not durable.

I find a lot of these new genres, like flash fiction and flarf to be, well, a little full of themselves. Again, it could just be Enthusiasm For New Things.

It reminds me of what I've called the "gee, whiz!" factor in other media; it may be a product of web-new-media, and nothing more. It happened when synthesizers were first available commercially to the average musician: a lot of really bad music was made, while people were in the gee whiz! phase. It took awhile for people to get over the coolness of the new things, and incorporate them into their regular musical work—in other words to start making real music with the new tools rather than just etudes. Whenever new artistic tools get developed, a similar thing seems to happen.

I haven't really seen anything so new or fascinating in flash fiction so far. Then again, The New is in itself enough to attract some folks. Me, I like to find some real art in The New.

Avant-gardism for its own sake is usually hollow. The great poet and critic Octavio Paz once wrote, and I find myself in agreement with it:

"Many have commented on the disappearance of a true avant-garde and its replacement by avant-gardism... I see this as a prolongation of experimentation usually leading further on from collage and montage into ever-increasing fragmentation and eventually into a degenerative disease which, adapting an already common usage, I call 'disjunctivitis.' The argument, used by some producers who, correctly locating the seats of available power in the academy, have ensconced themselves therein every bit as much as the establishment 'mainstream,' to the effect that the disruption of the common linguistic coin is part of a war against 'late-capitalist' discourse is singularly inept. I do not see oppressed workers of any kind devouring the products of avant-gardism. The death-of-the-author thematics, as commonly adapted, are another inanity: when society does its very best to homogenize us, what is wrong with a strong, knowledgeable, and responsible ego crying in the darkening wilderness?"

There's a lot there to chew on, in that quote, but I do think it speaks directly to the gee whiz! factor.

Dave King said...

I guess a lot depends on the motive for writing it: if it is simple to write a piece of so many words or lines or whatever, it is a bit of fun, an intellectual challenge or a way into something more serious. Way, way back I blogged about The Oulippo group of writers, they set themselves all kinds of restrictions to overcome, including length - even down to one letter poems. Much of it a bit dotty, but some worht a bit of exploration. Italo Calvino was one of theirs.
A really entertaining post with a lot of interest. I enjoyed reading it.

Fiendish said...

I don't often post here, because I am under-read and so rarely have anything to add. And in flash fiction, as in so many things, I lack pretty much the most basic knowledge.

I write it - quite a lot of it, well, loads of it, and I'm having one story published - but I write it with absolutely no prior knowledge of the genre. I get an idea for a story, I write it, and when it's finished being written, it's less than a page long.

I believe many flash groups write to specific guidelines and would probably tear many of my stories to pieces for not exhibiting characteristic X or format Y. It is entirely possible that my stories suffer for this. These guidelines exist for a reason usually.

To be honest, I was writing flash fiction in complete ignorance of the classics of the genre before I even knew it was a genre. It has nothing to do avant-garde - even if I did think writing slightly fewer words was avant-garde, which seems ridiculous - it just so happens that short short stories are the stories I want to tell.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I think you're right: flash fiction owes something to humor. One thing that is often looked for is a twist at the end (or so say some; the rules seem fairly fluid).

But on the other hand, it shouldn't sacrifice characterization, either. Humor often does.

At any rate, this conundrum is why I don't label my blog fiction as flash fiction. I'm taking moments from my characters' lives and writing them. That's all.

But I'd love it if you sat down with a cup of coffee and lingered, yeah. That's about the highest praise a writer can get.

Art Durkee said...

Dave, the setting up of limits to be overcome is a good process, an exercise that goes back millennia, or at least centuries, in literary history. The problem is when the gimmick, or game if you prefer, takes over the artistry. A lot of flash and similar forms are, frankly, gimmicky. That's the "gee, whiz!" factor i was talking about.

As for the limits of compression, that too is nothing new. I'm an experienced, who has been writing haiku and haibun in English (and other languages) for decades now. I appreciate compression. I like compression and concision, actually. There are great lessons to be learned from writing compressed and concise.

But again, the problem becomes, is it an exercise or a finished piece? Far too often in these genres we are presented with pieces that are lightweight, are etudes, are exercises. They may be good, but they don't go to that next quantum level where they become memorable, art, significant, resonant, expansive. The best haiku explode outwards, and expand one's horizons—and that's a very very compressed form. Bad haiku just sit there. I think it's the same with flash fiction.

But then again, Sturgeon's Law also applies, here as in SF, which is where he first coined the principle: 90 percent of everything is crap.

Anonymous said...

Flash fiction is hardly a "flash in the pan," if you'll pardon me the awful pun. Its roots go back as far as Aesop's Fables, but I'm not here to detail the history.

Flash has enjoyed a resurgence in the internet age, that's true. Busy lives, concise content, blah blah blah. I think the misconception is flash is easy to write because of its brevity -- not so. Many people can write bad flash, and there's a lot out there, but good flash is very difficult to pull off.

(Some people think poetry is easy to write. Heh. I'm not one of them.)

It really doesn't matter if people think it's not an authentic genre. It's been here for a long time, and I don't think it's going anywhere. Ray Bradbury, O. Henry, even Ernest Hemingway wrote flash.

For some great examples, I would recommend Flashquake. And, look up Pamelyn Castro -- she's fabulous.

I can't wait to see your interview.


Jim Murdoch said...

I see where you're coming from, Art, and I think one reason why flash isn't taken seriously is because a lot of the writers don't. That said my Thomas Bernhard collection is not a light read despite the length of his stories, nor were Sherril Jaffe's despite the example I provided. And this is where I think you've got a point, Dave. I think intent is everything. As I've said I've only written two stories that you could classify as flash but I never set out with a word limit. I simply wrote until I stopped. It was not an exercise nor an intellectual challenge. I think the whole "gee whiz!' factor is that suddenly it's as if people have suddenly been allowed to write tiny stories as if there had been some prohibition in force that stopped earlier generations and that's simply not the case. I see it very much as a fashion thing and hopefully flash will simply be absorbed as just another form of the story.

As for posting, Fiendish, try and get in early and you've got the first say. I normally post just after midnight on Sundays and Wednesdays unless I've had to fit in an 'Aggie and Shuggie' which throws me off a bit. What I like about what you had to say here is that I don't believe there should be guidelines to flash anymore than there are guideline to writing any story. A site I visit regularly is Down in Me where Ani Smith posts the most intriguing short prose pieces. I doubt if she cares if they're flash or prose poetry or what. In fact I suspect she might even take the hump if you did try and label her work.

What I would like to hear about are the "classics of the genre" as you put it because, the Brautigan aside, I can't think of any and that's something I'll be asking Adrian about in Thursday's interview.

So, Susan, you've yet to come out have you? Perhaps what you think you're writing are vignettes. I'm more inclined to think that if you call your work 'flash fiction' then your readers will automatically expect a certain something, something formulaic perhaps that you're not up for.

And, Netta, I did have Aesop's Fables in my notes for this piece but you just can't include everything. I did think of splitting it but really what I was looking to do was prompt responses – which I have done. I'm well aware of the fact that decent authors have written very short prose works – I read a lot of O Henry growing up – and also abridged works which show what can be done when all the decoration is stripped away from great works.

As for how easy it is to write, oh, no, I'd never suggest that for one minute. I've written very short poetry for all my life and I know full well how much care you need to take picking exactly the right word and what you can afford to leave out.

I found the 'interview' with Adrian interesting because he gave thoughtful answers to my questions and then, after I'd top-and-tailed the piece I sent it to him and he expanded on some of his first answers. I'm quite pleased with how it turned out.

Dominic Rivron said...

Some jokes are definitely flash fiction. I remember reading ones when I was a student, years ago, where the story was better than the punchlines. Often they're full of all kinds of surreal stuff: one about a travelling monastery springs to mind.
I was going to post a longer comment, but it turned into a post on my own blog instead (I've never managed to get links to work in comments)...

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Dominic.

For those people interested in reading his post it's here:

And the Barman read Dostoevsky.

Jena Isle said...

Hi Jim,

Again, thanks for your generosity for the book. I appreciate it a lot. I would be proud to show this off to my friends. Perhaps, eventually, I will be able to write the Philippines' review of your book. (smiles).

From the Flash fiction that I have read from other sites, it was my understanding that as long as it's short (without minimum number of words) -it's flash - and I had called these andecdotes.

Anyway, as usual you have written a very informative post. I have learned a lot from it. Thanks for sharing.

Jim Murdoch said...

Anecdote is a good word, Jena, and I have to say I wish I'd thought about it when I writing the article but then you can't think of everything. Of course anecdotes are generally humorous and I think that's the quesion I was asking, do flash pieces naturally lean towards the humorous or ironic?

Anonymous said...

There's a lot more to flash than humor or irony.

Try this: Nothing Like Company

or this.

here's another one:

Little Helps

Not ironic. Not a joke.

Jim Murdoch said...

Just to clarify something, Netta, this article was written to promote discussion and not to try and vindicate an opinion. You do seem determined to defend flash and that's what I was hoping for. Actually I was hoping for a few more comments but there you go. And maybe that says something too. Maybe people aren't as passionate about flash as I might have expected.

I looked over the three stories you mention and I did notice that, of the three, the shorter veered more towards the gag structure and I have to say I did find the end quite funny in a dark way. It has a clear set up and punch line plus a nice sting in the tail very similar to the kind of stories Roald Dahl writes and that Adrian refers to in his interview.

Maybe we could shift the discussion over there?

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

No, Jim. I'm just anti-label.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think I am too, Susan, however labels do exist and they are ultimately divisive. The old 'poetry is better than prose' argument is a great example of how snotty-nosed people can be and I can see the same thing happening here – "Oh, so you just write flash fiction", immediately prejudging the form as something to be dismissed as, as I deliberately incorporated in my title, a joke. I'm a serious writer. I use humour constantly – it's a very effective means to deliver serious messages – and I would take umbrage to anyone dismissing, or at least prejudging, my two flash pieces; they just happen to be short.

Art Durkee said...

The objection to labeling is well-said. I share in the suspicion of labels, especially critical labels, because they are often divisive in the sense that they are reductive, in the sense of reductive analysis, breaking everything down into its component pieces to understand it better. That's one method of scientific analysis in a nutshell.

The problem is, most writers don't re-assemble the pieces after they've been broken apart. One needs to reassemble things back into the whole, in order to really grasp what's going on.

That's where complexity is more useful, critically or in science, than simplistic analysis or reductive thinking. Atomism needs to be balanced by panorama. I am far more convinced by reasoned, nuanced, overview analyses in literature than I am by reductive analyses that use extreme amounts of labeling.

That having been said, labels DO have their uses. But they need to be kept clear as labels, rather than as signs or symbols that critics use to stand in for the actual thing. Stereotyping is a process that works that way, after all, by standing in for the actual thing.

Unknown said...

Well, I spent the last eight years publishing a magazine for flash fiction, Vestal Review, and then getting three flash fiction anthologies accepted for publication. So it's not a joke.

Jim Murdoch said...

I do hope you took the time to read the whole article, Mark, because I was referring to the very common structure of set-up and punch line that many flash fiction writers lean on. Did you have a read at the interview that followed this post, the one with Adrian Graham?

I had a look at your site. Loved 'The Frog Prince' especially the presentation – very effective … and funny. Thanks for dropping by.

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