Long ago people wrote contes, vignettes and fables. In continental Europe they've never stopped writing them, but in the UK and the States these genres all but disappeared - the desire to categorise texts as prose (preferably a novel) or poetry squeezed the region where these texts existed. Texts in the format of recipes or shopping lists became poems. Anecdotes and vignettes couldn't be prose-lineated in poetry magazines because they weren't "Prose Poems" - a term that had rather been taken over by surrealists and erstwhile experimentalists (Baudelaire, Russel Edson etc.) So they got a line-break make-over too.
In the 1980s, the recovery began. Steve Wasserman writes "Flash began in 1986 with the publication of Shapard and Thomas’s Sudden Fiction and the Housemartins’ first LP. Most of the stories in this volume are not Flash-sized, some being as long as four pages. Six years later, Tom Hazuka and the Thomases (Denise and James) came up with another name, Flash Fiction, and put it on the cover of their anthology of slightly shorter pieces. ... In the early noughties things start hotting up for Flash. ... it flowers because Flash is ultimately good for writers, good for those running literary competitions, and for online magazine editors".
Those final comments are especially pertinent. Magazines want to keep subscribers happy by including their work, but only a few short stories can appear in each issue. Many Flashes can appear in each issue, and flash fiction has a fast turn-around. It's no coincidence that Flash flourished when internet usage did -
- The internet burgeoned, and along with it much of the social media and self-publishing platforms that we use today. Along with this, our screen-attention shrank. (Wasserman)
- 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. (Murdoch)
As Nicholas Royle pointed out in his introduction to the 2013 Salt Best Short Stories, "Flash" has established itself on the UK cultural landscape - Chester University publishes a very worthy Flash magazine, there's a National Flash Day and a Bridport Flash competition.
What is Flash?
- The Bridport Prize's web site suggests that Flash "contains the classic story elements: protagonist, conflict, obstacles or complications and resolution. However unlike the case with a traditional short story, the word length often forces some of these elements to remain unwritten: hinted at or implied in the written storyline"
- Calum Kerr, who is editor and creator of National Flash Fiction Day, wrote "In Flash you have language used as it is in poetry, but to drive a narrative rather than an image. A story goes from A to B, whereas a poem tends to stop at A and have a really good look at it" (quoted by Wasserman)
But in practise Flash isn't a genre or a mode. There isn't even much agreement about length. As Jim Murdoch points out, the guidelines vary widely - "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."
Types of Flash
Because the term "Flash" has caught on, it's subsumed other types of short prose, but even in its most standard guise it has identity problems. Short stories are sometimes described as a hybrid genre, with features of both poetry and prose. Even moreso, Flash is a genre that risks falling between 2 stools. Steve Wasserman writes "The biggest problem I think I have with the form is that, like speed-dating, it invites connection, intimacy, and promise in a very swift and immediate way, but almost always leaves this reader feeling unsatisfied". He writes "Maybe the problem for me is that I enjoy the language of some Flash pieces, but don’t feel the narrative is being driven far enough", pointing out that "The form often produces a very cursory development of a writing prompt idea, beloved of workshops and Twitter: first day in the tattoo parlour; conversation with a sword-swallower; ... They’re a bit like open-ended 'jokes', but lacking punchlines: St Peter as a Geordie". Jim Murdoch also sees Flash as related to the joke, pointing out that " 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.
Both Murdoch and Wasserman identify other types of Flash.
- It’s often very High Concept writing, the metaphorical turned literal, but not necessarily literary. Although Flash says: if Kafka, Borges, Calvino, Carter, Marquez, Rushdie, Winterson can do it, why not us? (Wasserman)
- Prose-poem flash: the language in these pieces is so dense and allusive that one often needs to (and indeed wants to) re-read the whole thing as soon as you’ve come to the last line. (Wasserman)
- Uncanny Flash: this is Flash that leaves you feeling destabilised and enchanted. You wonder if someone has spiked your tea with Rohypnol or if everything tangible and intangible is but a dream. This can sometimes happen in Flash that reads like a fairy tale (Wasserman)
Despite his reservations about the genre, Wasserman singles out Tania Hershman for praise. Let's consider her work now (in terms of its relationship to the genre) along with that of a few other writers who've produced books recently.
Some UK Flash writers
So there are venues now, but what appears in them? The practitioners define the genre. Here are some books by 3 of the best -
- "My Mother was an Upright Piano" by Tania Hershman (Tangent, 2012)
Tania Hershman is Bridport's flash fiction 2014 judge, has had a series of her flash on BBC radio 4, and is a tireless campaigner for short stories. She writes poetry too.
This book contains 56 stories. The publications list is over 30 titles long ("London Magazine", "Smokelong Quarterly", "Vestal Review", etc). The shortest story's about half a page and the longest is 4 pages, the median being around 300 words, I suspect. Her earlier book, "The White Road and other stories", had a story 102 words long, and stories thousands of words long. There's uniformity of style, with characters and no linguistic instability (language is transparent); the pieces are clearly Fiction rather than essays (p.93 excepted) or lists (p.125 excepted). There's often a 3-part structure, and the SF guideline of changing only one feature of reality at a time is commonly adhered to.
I'd recommend "the short tree has its hand up", "trams and pies", "forty-eight dogs", "underground", "waving on the moon", "if", and "containing art".
- "All the Bananas I've Never Eaten" by Tony Williams (Salt, 2012)
Tony Williams is a poet (genre-breakingly so in All the rooms of uncle's head) as well as a story writer.
The 72 pieces in this book were written "over a few short months" and have appeared in "Flash Fiction Magazine", "Under the Radar", etc. Many of the pieces here are scaled-down short stories. All have narratives, the narrational duration being anything from minutes to years; there's always some backstory. I'd recommend "Anya's complaint", "Ol' blue eyes", "The blinds", "Banjo players", "Better than cod", "The whales", "No longer covered in the training material" and "The division room".
- "The Half-Life of Songs" by David Gaffney (Salt, 2010)
In his top flash fiction tips in the Guardian, Gaffney addresses the Murdoch/Wasserman point, writing "If you're not careful, micro-stories can lean towards punchline-based or "pull back to reveal" endings which have a one-note, gag-a-minute feel – the drum roll and cymbal crash. Avoid this by giving us almost all the information we need in the first few lines, using the next few paragraphs to take us on a journey below the surface."
"Sawn-off Tales", his earlier book, comprised 58 stories, each exactly 150 words long. This book has more variety. Some of the 50+ stories have been published in "Flash" magazine, "Riptide" and "Ambit". I'd recommend "I Liked Everything" (though it's a rather atypical piece), "Remaking the Moon" and "Gelling".
All these books contain stories that are clearly Flash and clearly Fiction, establishing a mainstream for the genre. All the books have flash fiction that's been published in non-specialist magazines.
McGregor and Davis
Neither of the books below are marketed as Flash. They have a wider range of styles and story lengths than any of the above books. Their neighbouring genres include the essay (à la Borges) and poetry
- "This Isn't The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You" by Jon McGregor (Bloomsbury 2012)
Fleeing Complexity" is a single 10-word sentence. "Song" comprises 13 words (2 sentences). "The Remains" is 3 pages of sentences about the state of a body where over 50% of the sentences are "Have yet to be found". There's a long piece presented as an official report.
- "Varieties of disturbance: stories" by Lydia Davis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)
Davis is an American who won the Man Booker International prize in 2013 and is frequently mentioned when the possibilities of short prose are discussed. This book has 57 stories, over 30 of them published in magazines (Fence, Harper's, etc) and anthologies. "Collaboration with Fly" is only 15 syllables. Plot is frequently replaced by another organising principle - themed sections, lists, etc. Some pieces are like a diptych - 2 juxtaposed paragraphs. I like "Idea for a Short Documentary Film" (a 2-liner), "The Busy Road" (a 3-liner) and "Getting to Know Your Body". There's an austerity, an intellectual rigour that's also present in McGregor's work.
"Grammar Question" is a 2 page essay about questions like whether "his body" or "the body" is appropriate for a dead person. The essay mood/mode haunts several these pieces, the passive mode providing distance. "Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality" is a 40 page long report.
Perhaps now that the short prose genres have made inroads under the banner of "Flash" they will separate out again. If volume is sacrificed, should there be a compensatory intensification of the language? People have tried formalist prose, and have adopted more poetic techniques. Lydia Davis' shortest pieces look less like poetry, more like throwaway lines from a story, the sort Vonnegut might have fired off salvos of in a novel. I don't care if these short pieces are poetry or prose, but I do wonder if they're enough.
If Flash is trying to squeeze in between poetry and short stories, have its neighbours noticed? I think Fiction more than Poetry has. Free versers don't seem tempted to free their works of gratuitous line-breaks, but Fiction competitions more often have minimum as well as maximum word-counts now, or (as with the Bridport) have special Flash sections. A short piece recently won the Bristol Short Story prize, and magazines like "Ambit" and "London Magazine" are welcoming the Flash genre.
- Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (ed Tara L. Masih, Rose Metal Press). This has an article on "Fixed forms" and an article by Vanessa Gebbie, another UK Flash author.
- Flash Fiction: Looking for love in all the wrong places? (Steve Wasserman)
- Is flash fiction a joke? (Jim Murdoch)