Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Flashes of insight

In short, the rebirth of the short short story

We've been hearing a lot lately, for good reason, about "disruptive technology" -- a business term that refers to new (and very often cheaper) ways of doing things that change the structure of an industry. Nowhere have the impact of such technologies been more dramatic than in the world of popular culture. New media like websites and blogs, for example, are in the process of destroying old media like newspapers and magazines. Such technologies have also had an impact on genres and formats within media. The rise of long-playing records and FM radio in the mid-twentieth century paved the way for the rock album as the defining musical genre of the 1960s and 70s, but MTV and the development of digital downloads in the closing decades of the century broke the artistic dominance of the album and made record collections more horizontal (which is to say eclectic) rather than vertical collections of work by the same artist.

But there is another dimension of technological innovation that sometimes gets overlo
oked, which is that it can revitalize older forms of artistic expression and give them a new lease on life. This seems to be happening in the realm of prose fiction and the emerging renaissance of what has sometimes been referred to as the "short short story," a.k.a. "flash fiction" -- a term that typically applies to stories that range anyway from 250 to about 1500 words. This re-emergence is chronicled in the recently published Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, edited by Tara Masih, a book that also offers pointers by some of the leading lights of the genre.

In her appropriately brief but evocative introduction, Masih notes that the roots of flash fiction go far beyond its heritage in the quintessentially American form of the short story to the work of writers like Giovanni Boccaccio (whose fourteenth century suite of tales The Decameron was recently the inspiration for Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hills) and seventeenth century Japanese picture stories known as "ukiyo-e." More recent masters include August Strindberg, Kate Chopin, and Ambrose Bierce, who achieved artistic mastery through extreme compression. A landmark text in the genre was Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time (1925), a book composed of vignettes, some not more than half a page long.

But, as Masih notes, economic and technological imperatives were at least as strong in the growth of the short short story as were artistic ones. The explosion of cheap mass media created a market and a livelihood for writers like the fabled O.Henry, who perfected a formula of writing stories that could be read in a sitting and published in popular magazines. By the 1940s, publications like Colliers and Ladies Home Journal routinely ran such pieces as fixtures of their editorial mix.

For reasons that are not entirely clear -- Masih cites the advent of television, perhaps thinking that the 22-minute sitcom, for example, scratches the psychic itch that short short stories once did -- the genre went into eclipse in mid-century. It began to surface again in the eighties and nineties, and gained traction in this decade as the Internet gave the genre both a forum and sense of scale that could attract readers. It now seems fair to say that flash fiction is a bona fide literary movement, one whose ranks includes well-known novelists like Jayne Anne Phillips, Robert Olen Butler and Ron Carlson, as well as flash fiction specialists like Nathan Leslie. All these writers offer tips and insights on the genre, as well as examples of their work, in the Rose Metal Guide.

I myself stumbled into writing flash fiction, not realizing I was joining these ranks, with the serial Felix and Maria Chronicles featured at this blog. I did so seeking a way to talk about education in a fresh way, and one that could be digested by readers who did not necessarily wish to make the commitment to characters, narrative, or a scholarly discourse, but who might nevertheless read something entertaining and useful over the course of a few minutes. Amid the fast pace of cultural and technological change that so often seems like the most salient aspect of our time, we continue to have a deep, anthropological need for a good story. In keeping with the times, flash fiction connects us with that which stands outside them.

For examples of the work described here, see the current edition of Flash Fiction Online.