Thursday, August 13, 2009


Over at HTML Giant, Sam Pink is thinking about what flash fiction means compared to a short story. I have a lot of difficulty with flash. Last week I went back and forth with Sasha Fletcher about the value of the genre. I understand it that for him, it's a matter of accumulation -- his stories work in aggregate and the real payoff is when several pieces add up to something bigger than the sum of the parts. For me, when I write flash, I try to nail every single word. Every word should be the totality of the story (I'm applying some Emersonian "height of thought" here). About every word I ask, "Is this the most interesting word choice?" I ask myself if each element of the story is as interesting as it should be, and if the story itself is worth telling.

(UPDATE: That's not to say that Sasha doesn't care about the language in his things. I imagine he feels the same way as I do in that regard. And also, he just told me that during our conversation he was talking about PROSE POETRY. The fact that we were able to carry on a conversation about two different things without knowing it, I think, is indicative of all the problems in these little genres.)

To Pequin last year I submitted a 447-word piece about a guy who meets a girl at an art show. Every element was painstakingly considered, to the extent of my ability. Yet, with an extremely generous letter, Steven rejected the piece, saying among other things, that "Right now I'm after some kind of really tight mindblowing hard-worked text, probably with strong plot and other narrative elements, or something with just genius language." I thought my piece was exactly that, so it was a little painful to read a contrary perspective from an editor I admire.

The thing is, though, that the kind of precision I nailed in the story (IMHO), doesn't always come across in a submission of only one piece. From reading a lot of flash fiction that people submit for Everyday Genius, I know that I don't always catch the intricacies of the work that, I assume, are so familiar to the author. Exquisite prose is a requirement, probably the most important element of a very short story, but alone it does little to garner attention, let alone publication. There's no point in saying well a thing that's boring.

Aside from Amelia Gray's ability to craft great sentences and engaging situations, I think the thing that keeps me coming back to AM/PM is the way she reuses characters from piece to piece. This technique creates a much larger effect; the book is practically a Russian novel with the interweaving lives of suburban emotional tribulation. Individually, the stories in the book are enough to show that Amelia is a capable writer and that she's probably a funny person, but without the full context, I'm not sure I would love any single piece the way I love the book as a whole.

Joseph Young's collection, Easter Rabbit, which Publishing Genius will release in December, works in a completely different way than Amelia's. Joe writes much less into his stories than Amelia does, or pretty much any other author I can think of. I think what happens with these gaping holes is that diligent readers can, if they want, uncover their own intertextuality. If I wanted to apply the same eye to his stories as I used in reading AM/PM, I might conjecture that the "he" in the story about the keys is the same guy with the foot pain. Ultimately, though, my reading of Joe's "microfictions" (as he terms them) is that so little is given, and given so beautifully, that filling in the gaps is not the point. No amount of mesh will hold the caulk and anyway, each story is complete. Reading Easter Rabbit, I have learned not to look for gaps, not to follow story like a sleuth for meaning or literary gadgetry. This is post-structuralism 101. The really cool thing, I learned, is to not not look for, but more simply to not find, value.

Joe has insisted to me that the value of microfiction isn't in mood, which I identify strongly in his work. He also told me that whatever he does, he doesn't know why he does it. I'll leave it for the comment box for Joe to refute this, but I'm pretty sure his writing about the genre (including at Frigg, in this hilarious debate with Randall Brown) hasn't done much to identify what the value is. Microfiction will "carve out whole worlds in a space small enough to fit the eye," he says in that debate, and it "is an experience of time closest to zero," but for a genre so popular in literary circles, and so complicated to define, what is that saying about the worth of a story like this, called "Sine":

A white line, across the cement, under the park, through the door, faint and hardly there, to its red center.
It's worthless! That story and $2.50 will get you a cuppa joe. But -- why care so much about "value?" At what point in the history of art criticism did we start to rely on value when something resists understanding? Oh Aristotle, what are the possible responses to "Sine"? I ask because it seems to me that the possible responses, like all of the possible readings, are the best ones, equally. They are all the best -- as if that matters.

I used to care about Zen Buddhism but then I got, like, a job. The fact that I don't care about Koans anymore but that I like Easter Rabbit tells me that there is something more than nothing happening in good microfiction, and it is this: beauty.


Adam R said...

Actually, I disagree with this sentence entirely: "There's no point in saying well a thing that's boring."

sasha fletcher said...

i don't know if it's a problem indicative of the genres so much as it is a problem indicative of the need to put everything in a box. i do feel the same way. i am going on the record as feeling the same way.
i should probably post the chat maybe.
then everyone can understand what we are talking about.

Adam R said...

Point taken. I don't really think it's a problem at all.

You're the king.

Joseph Young said...

i don't think i really know what you mean by value. but, if i were guessing, i guess i'd say a microfiction has as much value as any piece of art, which is to say none, unless somehow it opens up your head or heart or genitals. can microfiction do that? well, it has for me, so, sure.

sasha fletcher said...

most everything's got the potential for value though. so i mean there's that right.

sasha fletcher said...


Steve Fellner said...

Here's something to help you out:

The blog of Adam Robinson and Publishing Genius Press