Friday, April 07, 2006

Flash Fiction Is For Pussies

If you're from outside the literary community... which I guess I am... god damn it... you've probably never really heard of flash fiction. This is an article by Jason Gurley about it. He says, in part, this:

"Though the form is by definition extremely short, it is not a medium that tolerates fragmented storytelling. The challenge of flash fiction is to tell a complete story in which every word is absolutely essential, to peel away the frills and lace until you're left with nothing but the hard, clean-scraped core of a story."

The tone of this essay, though Gurley is indeed a flash fiction writer, is neither condemning nor enthusiastic. Some of the criticism against flash fiction is that it's bullshit masquerading as an art form. Well, that's my criticism of it. There's this: forcing artificial constraints like word or page length to a story is, like genre-writing, inherently limiting and counter-intuitive to a writer whose interest is writing the best story possible, not the shortest.

Gurley also says this:

"Do not make the mistake of assuming that such bare-bones writing is less than elegant or beautiful. Sometimes beauty, or even inspiration, can be found in the simplest of things."

I think everyone says this when defending Hemingway. Except that his work is deceptively complex. This: "It's not the light through my window that arrests me. It's the scene outside. Strong midwinter sun, dazzling on the clean snow, making vivid shadows for the naked trees. I take my time, drinking in all of the details. I want to make sure I can remember what this looked like" is not deceptively complex.

One thing I've heard from flash fiction writers is that it is so liberating. Know what else is liberating? Writing stream-of-conscious style like James Joyce. Know what you find out after you write it? You are not James Joyce, and you suck at stream-of-conscious writing. I think the structure and philosophy behind flash fiction is insecure - almost defensive. It says, who are you to force constraints on me? But then it goes ahead and forces extreme constraints on itself. Frankly, I think it shows a lack of dedication. Every story should be scraped down to its essential elements. All writers are told that anything extraneous is self-indulgent. Anyone who uses an extended short story to show off the adjectives they are capable of writing will not find him or herself published soon.

Gurley talks about length, actually. He talks about his process: "The easiest way to write flash fiction, in my experience, is to let it all hang out. Throw yourself into your writing and crank out a beautiful story, regardless of the length. Then, take a good, long look at it."

I'm sorry, but if I wrote a story I'm proud of, and it's say, ten pages long, and some self-impressed colleague says "Now get it down to one page," I would say "Fuck you." Maybe that's being too harsh. Gurley is actually much more magnanimous than other flash fiction writers I've heard. And I think flash fiction can be a helpful exercise. But that's all it should be, an exercise. Because what strikes me about flash fiction is that you're trying to insert the most BIG IDEAS possible. Well, a big idea is only as strong as its conveyor, and its means of conveyance. And many flash fiction writers talk with disdain about longer fiction, like it's self-indulgent or somehow flabby, that their output is more impressive because it takes up less space. Maybe the real problem is that flash fiction writers place so many rules on writing. "Bury the preamble in the opening" or "Start in the middle of the action" or "Focus on one powerful image" or "Make the reader guess until the end" or "Use allusive references" or "Use a twist". All of these come courtesy of G.W. Thomas, who "has appeared in over 100 different books and magazines. His micro story "Nano-Hunk" won the Zine Guild Award for Best SF Micro Fiction 2000." Gurley sounds much more magnanimous than Thomas. The only problem I really have with Gurley is that the way he defines flash fiction is as a genre. When you consign yourself to a genre, you are adhering to rules that, in my opinion, go counter to what a writer should be trying to accomplish. There's the blending of genre, which Michael Chabon does with great and sometimes hilarious success, but Gurley seems to be describing a straight-up genre. The way Thomas describes flash fiction puts in my mind the image of a hack. Especially with such things as "focus on one powerful image" or "use a twist." Ugh. Rules are artifices. It's fun to make up rules like "for this one story, you can't go inside the head of more than one character," or something like that, but these are arbitrary, and if you ultimately feel limited by them, you don't subscribe to them. To adhere to the rules of genre, however, without questioning the rules of that genre (like, in film, the way "The Big Lebowski" flouts the rules of Film Noir), that is the idiom of the hack. Anyway, when you find yourself in the position of being told how to write, you risk dictating a story. If you read the Paris Review Compendium of its interviews with writers, you find there are no rules, and there is no real philosophy aside from write as effectively as you can. It might be okay for a writer to try out flash fiction, but to write only flash fiction, that's hack-y.

2 Comments:

Anonymous McClareskey said...

Flash fiction sounds more like literary euthanasia than "bullshit masquerading as an art form."

Those of us who tend to ramble on would be well served to learn how to murder our darlings.

4/09/2006 3:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

flash fiction is an effect of viral media and attention deficit thinking. It is nothing dangerous. I enjoy it for its poetic encapsulation of more salient and tactile elements. I don't subscribe to the rules of it because it does seem antithetical but if you want your writing to compete, you have to be evaluating the playing field and inevitably operate on rules outside of your own design.

It also forces the reader to frame it in their own way more than would a longer formed thought. That is what you may have trouble with and that negativity is also summed up in your misogynistic broadly stroked epithet in your title.

Go read Tolstoy

7/28/2015 3:30 PM  

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