Flash fiction

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Flash fiction

Flash fiction: An extremely brief fictional prose narrative, typically ranging from six to a thousand words in length (i.e., from a single line or sentence to a few paragraphs or pages), that nonetheless tells a complete story. Flash fiction, a term coined by James Thomas in 1992, is also known by a variety of other names, including microfiction, short short story, and sudden fiction. Flash fiction differs from other brief narrative accounts, such as anecdotes, sketches, and vignettes, as it has a traditional story arc with a beginning, middle, and end, even though it may only capture a moment in time. Given the brevity of the form, flash fiction goes for maximum emotional impact, prioritizing verbal economy and vividly depicted scenes; much like in poetry, every word must count. Further, flash fiction gives the reader a more active role; its brevity and reliance on suggestion and implication leave more to the reader’s imagination, and endings are often surprising and/or ambiguous, leaving the resolution open to interpretation.

Although flash fiction is a recent term, the form has a long literary history, going back to ancient fables, parables, and tales; examples include Aesop’s Fables (c. 550 B.C.) and parables from the Bible. Among the best-known flash fictions is a six-word story, apocryphally attributed to twentieth-century American writer Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The genre is very popular today, particularly in new media such as the internet, where e-zines such as Flash Fiction Online have proliferated, and Twitter, where the 140-character story is a type of “Twitterature.” For an introduction to flash fiction, see David Galef’s Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook (2016).

Recently, the term flash has even been applied to novels. In 2008, writer Nancy Stohlman coined the term flash novel for her master’s thesis, “The Flash Manifesto”; used it in her 96-page work Searching for Suzi: A Flash Novel (2009); and later described it in a 2013 interview as “a sparse, lean book that behaves and resonates as it if were much longer with the scope of a novel.” Novels in flash, another application of the term flash, consist of numerous flash-fiction chapters or interrelated flash-fiction works.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Kate Chopin’s “Doctor Chevalier’s Lie (1893)” and “The Story of an Hour” (1894); Yasunari Kawabata’s Tenohira no shosetsu (140 “Palm-of-the-Hand” stories), published between 1920 and 1972, half of which were later translated into English by Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman and appeared as Palm-of-the-Hand Stories (1988); Hemingway’s In Our Time (1925); W. Somerset Maugham’s Cosmopolitans: Very Short Stories (written 1924-29, published 1936). Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories (1986), an anthology edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas, includes stories by authors ranging from Langston Hughes, Bernard Malamud, and Grace Paley to Jayne Anne Phillips and Tobias Wolff.

Contemporary examples include Margaret Atwood’s The Tent (2006); Lucy Corin’s One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (2013); Lydia Davis’s Can’t and Won’t (2014); Stuart Dybek’s Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories (2014); Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan’s RIFT (2015), in which the authors alternate pieces; Len Kuntz’s I’m Not Supposed to Be Here and Neither Are You (2016); and Rebecca Schiff’s The Bed Moved (2016), a collection of stories—most of them two to five pages in length — concerning (among other things) sex in the city. Novels in flash include Mario Alberto Zambrano’s Lotería: A Novel (2013), in which each Mexican Lotería game card the young protagonist chooses evokes a memory, and Teresa Milbrodt’s nonlinear narrative Larissa Takes Flight (2014).