Flash Fiction: Good Things Come in Small Packages
by Jack Goodstein"Big books," I proclaim, "are better than little books."
"Less is more," counters a voice from the past, making sure to emphasize the witty correlation of form and content.
It has been more than thirty years since budding critics of literature sat in the kitchen of a ten room house that was serving as the temporary offices of the English department at an upstate campus of the State University of New York, drinking coffee and debating the merits of size -- read length -- as a measure of value in literature. I, in support of epic grandeur, he, the finely wrought lyric. He'd make the point that there was a delicacy in a shorter work when done well that was unlikely, if not impossible, in works on a larger scale. Monumentality, I would assert, is in itself a virtue: size lends weight.
"The larger the canvas, the coarser the vision: remember Gulliver among the Brobdinagians."
"Great subjects demand room: remember Gulliver in Lilliput."
"Much have I traveled in realms . . ."
"Of man's first disobedience. . . ."
"Maria, you are a veritable peacemaker."
"Call me Ishmael."
Flash forward thirty years, and although there are still the occasional works of massive scope: A Man in Full, Angels in America, minimalism has become the order of the day. Novelettes masquerade as novels, one act plays as full length drama. Perhaps because of the press of applicants for attention in the newly turned century, perhaps because of diminished attention spans, perhaps because the rapid pace of the wired world does not afford the time to linger too long over any one thing without the danger of missing something else; whatever the reason, art, in the age of instant gratification, is more often than not expected to produce its gratifications instantly as well.
Thus a new genres are born: Flash Fiction, Flash Plays, Flash Memoirs -- Flash Literature. Magazines devote themselves to it. Online chat groups talk it up. Workshops purport to teach budding flashers how to do it.
The idea that in literature, as often in life, good things come in small packages is not particularly new. At the beginning of the nineteenth century there was a strong feeling that long works, no matter how brilliant or sublime they might be, in fact perhaps as a result of that very sublimity, were too much for the limited human mind to deal with in large chunks. Human beings were incapable of experiencing prolonged ecstasy; every once in a while they needed a rest. The conclusion was obvious: if you were going to write a long work, it was essential to avoid long expanses of excellence. These must be broken up and separated by passages, shall we say, less excellent. This came to be known as the purple passage theory of literature: islands of beauty in a sea of dross. One might well see this as a precursor to the television show with its commercial interruptions, although one may have some trouble which is the island and which the sea.
It is worth noting that it is the reader who is incapable of navigating oceans of greatness, not the writer. The assumption is that the writer is fully capable of producing vast stretches of grandeur if only there were an audience as fully capable of consuming it.
Still, if the human mind was incapable of experiencing the grandeur of these longer works, why bother with them in the first place? No less an authority than Edgar Allan Poe concluded that, at least where literature was concerned, long and great were contradictory terms. Great art, by definition needed to be short. "I hold that a long poem does not exist, I maintain that the phrase, a long poem, is simply a flat contradiction in terms." ("The Poetic Principle") And what was true of poetry was equally true of prose, as he made clear in his reviews of the tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Of course it did not hurt that his own genius tended towards brevity both in poetry and prose. Which came first -- the theory or the practice -- had best be left to the psycho-biographical critics. Self-serving or not, Poe is adamant in his critical writing that length was anathema to art.
Now while there always had been short form literature: Lyric poetry, especially, it had rarely looked to compete with the epic's twelve books, except perhaps in the hands of Tennyson, opting instead for a quick burst of emotional energy, a flash, if you will. Fourteen lines, for example, were found sufficient for expressions of love, and the sonnet was born. And though there were those who tried to string sonnets together in a more elaborate structural beadwork, such sequences were rarely more than the sum of their parts and usually a good deal less. In prose there was the "character," a pithy little sketch limning the parson, the schoolmaster, the innkeeper; the essay, op-ed sized pieces by Bacon or Addison or humor by Charles Lamb.
So while there had always been the short and sweet, it had been generally relegated to the less serious areas of human concern: counting the ways one loves or discovering the art of pig roasting. For work of consequence: justifying the ways of God to man, considering the whiteness of the whale one didn't write sonnets. That was then, now is now.
Today, when a play that runs much more than two hours is a dinosaur, when a half hour television show is really twenty two minutes, when the news is condensed into ten second soundbites, it is not strange that art that celebrates that economy, that revels in that compactness, should be the art of the moment.
No matter the subject, if short is good, the shorter the better.
Poe said a short story is one which can be read in a single sitting. Flash Fiction is a story that can be finished before one has the time to get one's backside on the chair. A Flash Play is over in less than ten minutes. Flash memoirs memorialize the moment.
Some connotations of Flash are perfect for what the Flash artist should be trying to do: the sudden burst of light, fleeting illumination, sudden awareness, epiphany. Others are more indicative of what the Flash artist needs to avoid: the flash of the con man dazzling the unwary, the flash in the pan, a lack of depth that cannot last.
Flash literature at its best "should flame out like shining from shook foil;" it should "fall, gall" itself, "gash gold vermilion." It should get to the inner heart of the thing, its inscape, in the words of the poet. And it should do so without wasting a word. When you're talking about a few hundred words, you had better make sure that every word is there for a purpose.
Poe talks about a "single effect:" the one thing that a story or poem tries to do that unites everything in it. Multiple effects are possible in larger works. Indeed, if you're writing War and Peace, you had better be after multiple effects. But a Thomas Wolfe cannot write Flash Fiction. There is literature where the branches are more interesting, more entertaining than the tree: Byron's Don Juan, Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Rambling, digression, no matter how wonderful that digression might be has no place in Flash literature.
And when a piece flashes with white hot intensity, every word in well tuned harmony, there is an artistry, different in kind from the monumental epic, but no less significant. Besides if a piece of Flash Fiction doesn't work, it only cost you a few minutes, Remembrance of Things Past on the other hand. . . .
**Jack Goodstein was a Professor of English for over thirty years. After retiring, he turned to acting and is currently seeking stardom which is seemingly just beyond his grasp. He has written plays (e.g., productions at the Pulse Ensemble Theatre in New York and Northern Lights Theatre in Edmunton, Alberta), fiction (e.g., The Maine Review, The Jewish Digest, Eclectica), and nonfiction (e.g. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, College English).