Sunday, April 12, 2009

Flash (in the pan) fiction?

Perhaps it was ironic—or appropriate—that I read from The Collected Stories of John Cheever during my train ride yesterday morning to a Flash Fiction seminar.

Cheever has gotten a lot of new press recently because of Cheever: A Life, the biography by Blake Bailey that was published last month. (In his review of the book, Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post pronounced Cheever "A Good Writer, Bad Man.") I wanted to revisit his stories, but the other reason I grabbed the book on the way out the door is that it's one of the few short story collections I have in a small paperback, which I can easily slip into my pocketbook.

Compared to Cheever's 23-page (and in tiny print) "Goodbye, My Brother," some of the flash and especially the micro fiction that was read at the seminar seemed like scenes from a short story, or just descriptive paragraphs. If Cheever's story can be compared to a long, handwritten letter, flash fiction would be a one-screen email message and micro fiction would be a Twitter. (I'm not sure where a blog post fits in here since it usually lacks the intention and the craft of even the shortest flash fiction).

That's not to say that I dislike flash fiction. Some of the flash fiction pieces I've read have been really powerful. And I probably would have liked what I heard yesterday morning more if I hadn't just read two long Cheever short stories. It's just that the juxtaposition was too sudden for me. I also have a sinking feeling that flash fiction may be the Twittering of literature.

With accessibility to vast stores of electronic entertainments and packaged information, and with people communicating with each other through text messages, Facebook status lines and Twitters, I think it's harder to sit down and read more than a few pages at a time. I do my best reading now when I am captive somewhere—the train, the doctor's office, waiting on a child's activity. Otherwise, I get too restless after reading a few pages, thinking there's something else I ought to do, some information or activity I might be missing out on.

I should have read Middlemarch when I was young, before everyone had computers and before I had kids; now I can't sit myself down long enough to read it. I've tried a few times, but each time, after a few pages, I say, "Oh, just get on with it..." and I put the book away again. The best I can hope for is to watch an adaptation of it on Masterpiece Theatre someday.

Its first paragraph, which begins:
MISS BROOKE had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters...
is 601 words, is about the length of most flash fiction stories, and serves mainly as a leisurely, extravagant description of Miss Brooke. It doesn't "set up the story," as writing teachers command their fiction students to do these days, except perhaps in the mention that Miss Brooke is orphaned. I can't imagine having the time to write that much detail, knowing that there would be readers eager to read every word of it.

Using a water metaphor, since Cheever's stories often have swimming, if "Goodbye, My Brother" is like swimming luxuriously across the rim of a lake, flash fiction seems more like a quick walk-in, or dip of the toe. It's the same water, the same chill temperature on the skin, the same summer day and blue sky. Is it better to try to fully describe the day, who else is swimming there, what events led to the day—or to concisely describe one intense moment there? I don't know.

Even with my misgivings about flash fiction as short-attention-span literature, I'm still interested in reading and writing it, but it would feel lazy if it's the only fiction I read and write. And I hope it's not the only fiction that will be written and read in the future.


Eric Kelderman said...

Beth, what do you think is the difference between flash fiction and free-form poetry, which can be written in a way that resembles fully formed paragraphs?

Aren't both kinds of writing trying to condense expression economically?

In addition, the whole Twitter, Facebook status milieu have really become a sort of common electronic haiku, haven't they?

Eric Kelderman

Beth Blevins said...

I am no expert on flash fiction, having only attended this 1 1/2 hour seminar on Saturday (and a previous one-day workshop at the Writers Center), so I can't answer your question with any kind of authority. But someone at the seminar asked a similar question about micro fiction and prose poetry and the feeling from the panel is that it is, essentially, the same thing (that is, when micro fiction is a paragraph of densely descriptive prose). And it seems that more or, at least, more kinds of publications are interested in flash fiction than they are prose poems, so renaming a short prose poem "flash fiction" might make it more marketable!

As for Twitter and Facebook updates as haiku--sure, maybe, though I don't believe that haiku is the highest and most artful form of poetry, though I like writing it for fun.

Judith Podell said...

For the proposition that flash fiction and "literary fiction" are not mutually exclusive, as well as a timely nod to John Cheever, I recommend his short story "Reunion" (page 518 of collected stories). Two and a half pages, and all one needs to know about a particular father son relationship.

Judith Podell

Beth Blevins said...

Judith is correct that not all of Cheever's stories are typical length (i.e., long) short stories. In fact, "Reunion" is included in the 1987 collection, Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories. However, at 1,200+ words, it would be too long to be considered "flash fiction" since the only definition of flash fiction that anyone could agree on at the workshop is that it is always under 1,000 words. My worry is that, in the future, a story like "Reunion" will be considered a long short story!