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In the second part of her column on flash fiction, writer Tania Hershman asks what counts as flash. Is it just word count, or something more indefinable?
So, seeing as this is supposed to be a guide, I thought we’d better address the question, What is flash fiction (also known as microfiction, nanofiction, short shorts, hint fiction, twitter fiction, drabble, dribble etc..)? Well, I don’t know. Really. I write flash fiction, I read flash fiction. But I can’t say definitively what it is. Short? Yes. Fictional? Yes, mostly, especially given that there’s a quite new field called flash non-fiction. Flashy? I don’t think so.
What about magazines that publish flash fiction? Fractured West, which defines itself as a “new print magazine for flash fiction” says: “MAX 500 words, but the shorter the better – stories over 500 words will be deleted unread”. No messing there. The University of Chester’s magazine, Flash, goes further into brevity: “Flashes must be no more than 360 words (including the title).” Duotrope, the veritable online database of writers’ markets, lists flash fiction as “under 1000 words”. The Boston Literary Magazine only publishes flash fiction under 250 words. The Bridport Prize’s flash fiction contest agrees with this. A drabble is exactly 100 words; a dribble exactly fifty.
So, is it just about word length? Not exactly. Here is a lovely quote in an article on FlashFiction.net by Robert Shaphard, who edited those wonderful Sudden Fiction anthologies I talked about in my first blog post:
“I love hearing some people talk about flash. One of my favorites is Luisa Valenzuela, who says, “I usually compare the novel to a mammal, be it wild as a tiger or tame as a cow; the short story to a bird or a fish; the microstory to an insect (iridescent in the best cases).”
So, flash fiction is an iridescent insect. OK.
David Gaffney, whose fourth collection of tiny stories More Sawn-Off Tales is out this week from Salt Publishing, said this in the Guardian on last year’s National Flash Fiction Day:
“The story could live much more cheaply than I’d realised, with little deterioration in lifestyle. Sure, it had been severely downsized, but it was all the better for it. There was more room to think, more space for the original idea to resonate, fewer unnecessary words to wade through. The story had become a nimble, nippy little thing that could turn on a sixpence and accelerate quickly away. And any tendencies to go all purple were almost completely eliminated. Adjectives were anthrax.”
Ben Myers, also in the Guardian, back in 2007, wrote: “Flash fiction places the onus on the reader to provide their own input. A successful flash fiction story is a seed planted in the reader’s imagination, which, once there, should grow and flourish.”
Ok, flash is an iridescent insect, a seed, which shuns adjectives and turns on a sixpence. Nice.
But – can a poem also be flash fiction? Ah, I’m glad you asked. When I first started writing flash fiction, 7 years or so ago, I was very protective. Fiction was fiction, poetry was poetry, never the twain etc… Now I am blurry. Everything is blurry. Where does flash fiction grab the wheel and turn off the road, leaving the prose poem carrying straight on? Frankly, my answer at this point is, Who the hell knows? And part two of my answer: Who the hell cares?
I met a wonderful Belgian writer of very short pieces at the Cork International Short Story Festival a few years ago; the festival organizer had invited him after hearing him read at a poetry festival. “Ah,” I said, “do you write poetry or fiction?” “Well,” he said cleverly, “If I’m invited to a poetry festival, I call it poetry. And if it’s a fiction festival, I call it fiction.” The same stuff, the same tiny word-bundles. Linguistic things. I suspect this is why guidelines for literary magazines and contests only define number of words. Because other than that, this wondrous thing we call flash fiction is fairly undefinable. Go and read some and let me know what you think. Go on. Off you go.
(At 660 words, not including the title, or this waffly bit, is this blog post also flash fiction?)
Tania Hershman is the author of two story collections: My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions (Tangent Books, 2012), a collection of 56 very short fictions, and The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008; commended, 2009 Orange Award for New Writers) . Tania's short stories and poetry are published or forthcoming in, among others, Five Dials, Stinging Fly, Tears in the Fence, PANK magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, the London Magazine, and New Scientist, and on BBC Radio. She is writer-in-residence in Bristol University's Science Faculty and editor of The Short Review, the online journal spotlighting short story collections and their authors. Tania teaches regularly for the Arvon Foundation and gives workshops on short stories, flash fiction and science-inspired fiction. Check out her website here.