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Flash Fiction: An Antitheory

May 14, 2013

Yesterday I was doing some research into the theory of “flash fiction” or “microfiction” for an upcoming event at Musehouse. I spent at least half an hour at it—the most research I’ve done in decades, and it was exhausting. My principal discovery was that theory about microfiction renders me as drowsy as other literary theory. Beyond that, however, meticulous googling did turn up a couple of interesting tidbits from a journal called Short Fiction in Theory and Practice. Both items are from the 2011 inaugural issue, which is offered for free online. (There’s no need to waste croissant money on research.)

One notable idea comes from Ailsa Cox in the journal’s introductory editorial:

“Short story theory is unique in that it emanates almost entirely from its practitioners.”

I’m not sure I believe that—there’s still a large element of “those who can’t do, theorize” in academic literature departments—but if it’s true, it’s a nice trend. Yet if writers are indeed developing “a more sophisticated awareness of the methodologies available to practice-led research,”* as Cox believes, I hope they’ll use livelier language to explain their discoveries.

The other item of note comes from an essay by Ursula Hurley that focuses on Joyce’s Dubliners. She argues, citing Joyce Carol Oates, that short fiction differs from longer work in that it requires the “active participation of the reader.”

“What I am getting at here is that the genre itself, the very nature of the short story, means that the three-dimensional wrap-around fictional dream of the realist narrative is much less likely to occur. Short fiction gives us glimpses and fragments of fictional realities, where the reader uses their own resources** to reconstitute a richly detailed world from the concentrated stock that the narrative provides.”

Beasts & MenIf Hurley’s observation is true of short stories in general, it must be ultra-true of flash fiction, which, to achieve its brevity, may leave out information usually considered essential—place, time, ages of the characters, even the characters’ names. But does the reader necessarily “reconstitute a richly detailed world” from the condensed version, or does the reader accept the author’s floating, unanchored world for what it is? In reading Curtis Smith’s recent microfiction in the fine collection Beasts & Men, I found that I wasn’t filling in missing details; rather, in the best of the stories, the characters became archetypes of the human condition who existed in a fairy-tale-like place of their own—a parallel dimension, you might call it. Instead of making up particulars for their lives, I was content to meet them in that dreamspace where specifics are less important than the overall atmosphere. And maybe that matches a deep sense of the unknowable world embedded in our psyches. My psyche, anyway, because I’m often aware of how little I understand of what’s happening around me.

Roughly, then, my notion of flash fiction is that, like all other fiction, it can be anything the author and reader want it to be. Such is my exhaustively researched antitheory. However, for those who want to pursue these ideas further, two good starting points are the sites maintained by Randall Brown of Rosemont College: Matter Press and FlashFiction.net.

Snarky, impolite footnotes:

*“practice-led research”: As always, we should thank educators and social scientists for sharing their jargon with us literary types. But, to be official, this concept needs an acronym, PLR, and a peer-reviewed journal known by those initials.

**“the reader … their”: OK, I’m old-fashioned, but this still grates on my ears. A pronoun ought to agree with her antecedent. I’ll pass over the loose use of “where” in a context where there’s no clear where there.

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