Saturday 12 June 2004

Short Fiction

In this age of short attention spans when anything that doesn't fit onto a single screen is considered tediously protracted, "Flash Fiction" might bring readers back to short prose. But there are many types of short prose, some of which may merit greater attention. Here I'll try to disentangle a few of the types.


For a while the only category for short prose was "Prose Poem". The Prose Poem has been tried by many French poets. For the most part the pieces are (as Baudelaire described them) "poetic prose, without rhythm and without rhyme. ..". They are sometimes descriptive or anecdotal snapshots of a situation or event. More recently the form has been used in the US. When the genre was out of fashion authors who wanted their short texts published either had to make them fit the expectations of the poetic "prose poem" or, more often, add line-breaks and call their work a poem. Now that the term "Flash" has taken hold, I hope it won't similarly restrict authors. According to Holly Howitt-Dring (‘Making micro meanings: reading and writing microfiction’, Short Fiction in Theory and Practice 1:) "The term ‘flash fiction’ was coined in 1988 by Tom Hazuka, Denise Thomas and James Thomas, who began work together in the late 1980s on the anthology Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories (Thomas, Thomas and Hazuka 1992). The editors claim that the term ‘flash fiction’ was devised between them, having taught flash fiction in creative writing classes in the years preceding this publication".

Flash shares borders with several other recent categories - "ketai fiction" (to fit in a text message), Twitter Lit (to fit Twitter’s 140 character feed), etc. The definition of Flash is flexible, but at least some outlets want narrative and character to be elements. As David Lehman has pointed out, freed of having to use a verse form, short texts can adopt prose forms (memo, recipe, advert, list, dialogue, etc). Kafka, Borges, and Italo Calvino wrote short prose pieces which weren't prose-poems and sometimes weren't stories either. And what about pieces that use radical juxtaposing? Perhaps we need a more general term.

I've had short pieces published in Southfields (now defunct) and Acumen which were genre-bending, rather like extracts from Roberto Calasso's "The Marriage of cadmus and Harmony". They weren't put into a category, but some publications want to categorize. The New Yorker had a "Casuals" category more recently entitled "Shouts and Murmers" for shorter pieces. One of the UK's "New Writing" anthologies had a "Texts" section which had more like the pieces I had in mind.

Does it matter how we categorise prose? Yes, sometimes, especially if we're wondering where to send one of our pieces. And if we're producing a poetry magazine or "Flash Fiction" anthology, presumably we need to draw the line somewhere.

Let's consider just a few of the factors that help define borders between these genres

  • Length - once a piece reaches 1000 words one begins to wonder whether the piece is a short story rather than flash fiction. I think that the features which distinguish prose from poetry tend to require at least 200 words.
  • Plot - lack of a narrative (with a beginning and an end) pushes a piece towards the 'prose-poem' and 'extract' genres.
  • Characters and Location - if these are absent, the piece is less likely to be placed in a fiction genre.
  • Artiness - the more purple the language (the more rhyme, alliteration, imagery and dislocation it has) the more likely the piece might be considered just "a poem without line-breaks".
  • Humour - this can provide shape (plot and a punch-line) to a short piece, but not all jokes are "Flash Fiction".
  • Layout - Text with line breaks is likely to be called poetry, though adverts, gravestones, and title-pages use line breaks too
  • .

The term "Flash Fiction" is usually reserved for pieces (not essays) that tell a complete story (usually with some idea of location and characters) in less than 1000 words without being too arty.


One feature not mentioned above is form. Some poetic forms can easily be applied to prose, though ideas can come from elsewhere too. The OuLiPo (Ouvrier de Littérature Potentielle) group of French authors often borrow formal patterns from such other domains as mathematics, logic or chess. Perec and Raymond Queneau experimented with many such forms. Amongst the linguistic ideas are

  • Palindromes - Perec wrote a 5000 word palindrome "ca ne va pas san dire"
  • Lipograms - Perec's lipogrammatic novel "La Disparition" lacked the letter 'E'.
  • Initial letters - Walter Abish's "Alphabetical Africa" consists of 52 chapters, each word in the first chapter beginning with 'A', each in the second chapter with either 'A' or 'B' and so on, until with chapter 26, where all letters are allowed, the process reverses, each word in the final chapter again beginning with 'A'.
  • Acrostics - London's Daily Express (Saturday, 6th January, 2001) had a leading article about organic farming. Taking the first letter of each sentence produced "F*** off Desmond" (presumably a message to the paper's new owner, Richard Desmond). The Russian Doll format is an extension of acrostics. Howard Bergerson dubbed self-replicating acrostic text an automynorcagram.

Less lexical is the ploy used in Brooke-Rose's "Between" which avoids all forms of the verb "to be". Syllable counts can also be used. Text can be rule-driven, using a method to generate texts from other texts.

These options may sound rather artificial, though some of them are common enough in poetry, and there are some traditions where hidden patterns (verbal or numerical) are a factor in aesthetic judgement. Dante's work has quite a lot of patterns, and Hebrew theologians have a sharp eye for such details. Fowler in his preface to Silent Poetry even suggests that "numerology in prose fiction was still relatively intricate as late as Fielding's Joseph Andrews". Some Oulipians claim that if an author does not define his or her constraint, the constraint will in turn define their work for them.

I think Formal prose might benefit from being short. I'm surprized that there isn't more short formal prose around. See

Reader/Marketing considerations

Some poems (even plain verse) would lose little by being formatted as prose, but short prose is currently hard to publish (in the UK, at least), so more often one will see short prose formatted as poetry in magazines. The choice is as much a marketing decision as something bound up with the intrinsic nature of the words (after all, prose can be iambic, and poetry can lack line-breaks). Pieces written as prose (or prose-poems) appear in poetry anthologies

"Flash Fiction" has been proposed as a way to rekindle readers' interest in non-novel prose. It's been suggested that people don't read short stories because

  • stories take a long time to read compared to poems
  • compared to novels (and series of novels) they're too short.

I doubt whether "Flash Fiction" is any easier in this regard. A "Flash Fiction" anthology is a struggle to read. When authors stray from standard forms readers take longer to tune in, and will often need to read the piece twice (as they would a poem). But will they? Try the following. Are they successful? How would you categorise them? Would you re-read them?

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