Suppose I asked you for the name, editor, and publication date of the book whose introduction contains this question: “How short can a short story be and still be a short story?”
Many people who are familiar with flash fiction would point to Flash Fiction, a book edited by James Thomas, Denise Thomas, and Tom Hazuka and published in 1992.
They would be close, but wrong. Thomas, Thomas, and Hazuka did ask almost the same question, “How short can a story be and still be a story?” But that was seventy-six years after Thomas L. Mason, Life’s Managing Editor, wrote the question above in the introduction to a 1916 edition of the stories that won the Life Shortest Story Contest.
Why do I point this out? Am I really such a pedantic fool?
Well, yes, probably. But I’m responding to statements I’ve heard recently about how new flash fiction is, and how little respect it gets.
Don’t get me wrong: Newness isn’t all bad. Sometimes flash fiction is cool because of its emphasis on compression, or because it’s ideal for the Internet age. But we also hear that it’s a sign of our intellectual decline, of our inability to pay attention to anything that lasts longer than a politician’s promise. Well, it appears that either it’s not a degenerate art form, or that we’ve been degenerates for a long time. (I’m open to both answers, by the way.) The eight stories presented here range from 51-160 years old, being published between 1850 and 1959.
These aren’t the meager works of unknown hacks, either:
- Kafka is a literary giant;
- Dickens was extremely popular in his day and remains one of the world’s most-read authors;
- Saki was a well-loved humorist;
- Jack Douglas’s radio and TV writing and appearances gave him an audience of millions;
- Lovecraft is often seen as the father of the modern horror story.
The stories were published in prestigious magazines, too:
- Punch is perhaps the longest-running humor magazine in England, and
- Life was one of the most well-regarded journals of its time.
(Ralph Henry Barbour, one of the authors of the Life story, was famous in his own right for juvenile sports literature.)
So extremely short stories aren’t new. Maybe the approach to creating stories has changed over time, what with modernism, post-modernism, impressionism, and so on, but that’s probably true across the literary spectrum. Rather than insisting that flash fiction is something new, I’d say that the shortest fiction just hasn’t been exempt from the transformations that have altered every other facet of the literary world.
That leads me to disbelieve claims that flash fiction gets no respect. Now, to be sure, if a writer never writes any story longer than 500 words, it would take some real convincing that he was a serious writer (whatever those are). But when so many big writers are creating tiny literature, and when the history of that occurring goes back more than a hundred years, I think it’s safe to include flash fiction among those types of literature that has a place in any serious writer’s portfolio.
And it has a place in any reader’s portfolio, too. Go take a look, and leave comments to tell us what you think.