edited by Robert Swartwood
Flash fiction has always been an interest of mine. Arguably, it's a product of the culture. Right now, for instance, you probably have at least four other tabs opened (Email, Facebook, Youtube, Porn), and if you are bored within one-hundred words of this article, you'd move on to Three Guys and a Cup...Flash fiction has gain so much popularity because it's in demand in our fast-pace culture. It's a hot thing right now with web zines (no surprises) all over the web challenging writers to keep it under 100, or else 50 or maybe even 20. As a reader, it's light reading. But as a writer, it's that: challenging.
One my first published stories was on 50-to-1 which only publishes works of exactly 50 words. In all honesty, that took months to make (in my defense, all my works go through the same process of write, revise, wait a month, re-read, repeat), because flash and micro is about being precise. I like preciseness. It's about getting rid of everything you don't need, keeping what you do; it's about making fun of novels as superfulous, it's about challenging both you and the reader.
Robert Swartwood, editor of Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 or Fewer Words argues that too: "...the very best storytelling [is] the kind where the writer and the reader meet halfway, the writer only pianting fifty percent of the picture and forcing the reader to fill in the rest."
In a way, flash fiction makes reading interactive. It's popular not because of length, but also because of the puzzle element, of putting pieces together to get an implied whole. An example of this is probably the legendary (though not vertified) Hemingway story:
"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."From this, a reader can actually get a lot. In the scene we have baby shoes that are for sale; the shoes have never been worn. The "why" is implicated, but readers can guess: the baby died (or maybe the baby had really good fashion sense and didn't like the shoes Papa Hemmingway bought or maybe they never got the baby in first place, the story a sequel to "Hills Like White Elephants").
The Hemingway story is perhaps not the best example. (Shame on me for hating on Hemingway) There is only so much that can be made of the six words. Yet as Swartwood's Hint Fiction shows, such small stories can actually do quite a deal: it can invoke emotion, make you smile at irony, cock your head to one side as you re-read the one sentence story two or three more times.
Gathered Hint Fiction, a slim of volume of about 160 pages (none of which are actually filled) are 125 stories from writers from all stages of their careers (from legendary to bestsellerdom to underground), yet with such word limits, it's nearly an even field: all writers are limited to just 25 words to show their best. And some of the stories here are great.
Joyce Carol Oates, for example, offers her 4-word story "The Widow's First Year." Though one of the shortest, the four words (in context of the title) makes the tale punctuated. The tone is somehow bitter, yet it shows the narrator's own strength. Oates's work her is definetly one of the strongest, yet somehow the most simple. (It's shorter than her 6-word memoir: "Revenge is living well without you.")
Yet some of works here are not strengthened by such straight forwardness--a knife-like minimalism. Some stories magically unravel as in Madeline Mora-Summonte's "The Empty Nest":
"My wife curls toward me, a comma forcing a pauce. Her body is hers. Again. The eptiness settles between us. We listen to it breathe."Like Oates's story, it's sharply cut prose. Yet, unlike Oates's work, it works on implication and the multiple meanings. The story's meaning is ambiguous, yet it works well because the ambiguiety is the feeling that is partly being portrayed. Indeed many of the stories are beautiful because the reader can create so much from it, or else see the complexity of the moment. Other great stories here include the works of Roxane Gay, Ha Jin, Jamie Felton, and Barry Napier (among so many more!)
The antholgy reads quick and are addictive, the pages just turning.
Yet--can one find satisfaction in reading such short works? Can such short works--less than 25 words each--be taken seriously? This is a question Swartwood proposes in his introduction and answers in the affirmative. But reading through the anthology so quickly--one can't help it!--where can one stop to savor the language? While minimalism is to be recognized for its sharp precison in language--are we missing the point by trying to cut everything so closely to the bone? If this is a future of literature, is it something to look forward to?
Undoubtedly, writers will forever be writing long tales, novels will never die. Swartwood's anthology is at once refreshing and troublesome. It's best to think about it as liminal space (think oulipo), where in writers experiment, only to go back to writing more serious, longer works.