Flash Fiction: for writers, readers, editors, publishers, & fans


What Is Flash Fiction?: Robert Shapard & James Thomas



Robert Sha­pard answers, “Why do I love writ­ing flash fic­tion?”


In my case it should be why do I love col­lect­ing them in antholo­gies.


Before I for­get, let me say I’m cur­rently col­lect­ing for an anthol­ogy titled Flash Fic­tion Inter­na­tional, with James Thomas and Christo­pher Mer­rill, who directs the U of Iowa Inter­na­tional Writ­ing Pro­gram. It will be pub­lished by W.W. Nor­ton next year. We’re espe­cially look­ing for sug­ges­tions, trans­la­tions, inter­na­tional authors, etc.


As for why I love flash, I’m reminded of an old song with the line “I don’t know why I love you like I do, I don’t know why, I just do” (sung by Eddy Arnold, Tony Ben­nett, Dean Mar­tin, etc). From the first time I saw very short fic­tion, in lit­er­ary mag­a­zi­nes, I was fas­ci­nated. I can think of half a dozen rea­sons why, all true, and all inad­e­quate. Maybe Irv­ing Howe touched on the most impor­tant thing when he said that writ­ers who write very short fic­tion “need to be espe­cially bold. They stake every­thing on a stroke of inven­tive­ness.”



Yet the sto­ries I loved seemed to go even beyond “mere” inven­tive­ness. They evoked life­times and worlds—as Mark Strand said, flashes could “do in a page what a novel does in two hun­dred.” They took many forms—I think of Isak Dinesen’s “Blue”(traditional tale), or John Cheever’s “Reunion” (clas­sic real­ism in a com­ing of age story), or Dino Buzzati’s “The Falling Girl” (mag­i­cal real­ism), or Grace Paley’s per­sonal essay fic­tions or Mar­garet Atwood’s metafic­tions, on and on.


Yet the word “form” hardly seems to apply to sto­ries that speed up like Robert Fox’s “A Fable” (about a young man on the sub­way who is so, so happy going to his first day of work in the city that he falls in love with a pretty young woman seated across from him and they are mar­ried by the con­duc­tor before the next stop); or sto­ries that run back­wards, like Han­nah Voskuil’s “Cur­rents” (told not in flash­backs, which return to the present, but in short para­graphs that jour­ney relent­lessly far­ther and far­ther into the past); or sto­ries like Raúl Brasca’s “The Hole,” which both shrinks and expands, its com­fort­ing voice tak­ing us from a day at the beach to the dis­ap­pear­ance of the world, the uni­verse, and ulti­mately, us.


Sto­ries like these seemed to me to be not just inven­tive ways of telling a story but try­ing to rein­vent fic­tion alto­gether. Maybe that’s why, from the first time I saw them, I loved los­ing myself in flashes (as one might lose one­self in a novel, if only for the moment) at the same time as try­ing to fig­ure them out. A writer friend, Mar­garet Bent­ley, has said, “Flash seems to invite con­sid­er­a­tion of the form simul­ta­ne­ous with the read­ing.” There’s a plea­sure to that, and it’s another rea­son I love flash.


The truth, of course, is I wanted to write flashes. I have, but never so well as so many authors I have read, both well-known and unknown. In the lines of the old song, I don’t know why I love you, you never seem to want my romanc­ing. We’ve all been rebuffed. Friedrich Niet­zsche said, “It is my ambi­tion to say in ten sen­tences what oth­ers say in a whole book.” Imag­ine him as the first flash philoso­pher! A philoso­pher friend of mine laughs at that. Niet­zsche, he says, may have wanted to write short, but oh he just ram­bles and ram­bles.


Finally, I love hear­ing some peo­ple talk about flash. One of my favorites is Luisa Valen­zuela, who says, “I usu­ally com­pare the novel to a mam­mal, be it wild as a tiger or tame as a cow; the short story to a bird or a fish; the micros­tory to an insect (iri­des­cent in the best cases).” Flash as iridescence—I love that.





James Thomas’s story about how he got the idea for coin­ing the title for the orig­i­nal Flash Fic­tion anthol­ogy, back in 1992:


I’d been using short-shorts or very-shorts in teach­ing at the Uni­veristy of Utah for a cou­ple of years, not really call­ing them much of any­thing, cause they worked for that purpose—but it wasn’t until I found myself parked on a Greek Island (thanks to an NEA), try­ing to write a novel, day after day and hav­ing a hard time of it, that I decided to take a break for at least for at least a day and try writ­ing one of those short­ies myself. Never had before. To chal­lenge myself a lit­tle more I decided that it should be exactly 1,000 words. Of course it took more than one day, for me, maybe because I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound (a com­pletely dif­fer­ent voice from the novel), and I knew every­thing that needed to hap­pen (all but the actual end­ing, of course, which I fig­ure always has to find/grow itself). So, third day, it’s hot and I’m sweat­ing, fig­u­ra­tively and lit­er­ally, count­ing words, con­niv­ing, the door’s open (I’d rented an apt. on a hill), com­ing down on what I think is an end­ing, as a thin windy storm is com­ing down on the sea below, and the sun is going down, set­ting, I’m hun­gry, I’m thirsty, retsina maybe?, and yes by God I’m find­ing that last lit­tle sit­u­a­tion, those last words and the storm sit­u­a­tion is kick­ing up, thun­der­ing now and light­en­ing, I’ve got denoue­ment! I only need cli­max, God give me a last sen­tence of just the right sound and shape, the sun is gone now, about six­teen words, and as they (sur­pris­ingly) sort of sud­denly slide out there is a total illu­mi­na­tion of the sky out­side, bifur­cat­ing explo­sive ten­drils of light over the Med, and I swear to God (I per­son­ally go for Diana) that my period goes down some­where in the blast and then rum­ble of thun­der that fol­lows a few sec­onds later. Flash? I don’t know but it was cer­tainly cathar­tic.


Or just an affect of coin­ci­dence. That was 332 words. You get the idea.

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