Friday, October 16, 2009

On Fat Cats and Flash Fiction

I spend too much time thinking about Flash Fiction. I have plenty of other things to occupy my mind: employment, school work, and facebook. Yet, as I ride my bicycle at dusk and see other bikers without their lights on, I can only think of Stuart Dybek's Lights, a magnificent flash if there ever was one. I think of it as a modern archetype of the more poetic side of flash fiction.

I've been thinking about what Dybek said in the current Vestal Review about compression in prose. He's talked about this before, in Sudden Fiction, for instance. But, his Vestal Review interview got me thinking (this time.)
My Webster's says of the word -
Compression: 1. the act of process of compressing 2. the process of compressing the fuel mixture in an internal compustion engine 3. conversion (as of data) in order to reduce the space occupied or the bandwith required

I think the third definition really suits our purposes. The data is compressed. It's diamond-hard and pure. Pure. It's all of a sort. No explication. No extraneous scenes, characters, or emotions. All the extra stuff is gone, if it ever was there in the first place.

Short stories have "extra" stuff. In a sense. They are muli-layered like a wedding cake. They are wonderful. They have explication and flashbacks (sometimes.) But they are not flash, and flash are not they.

Too many writers and editors get confused on this point. They set a word-count and look for a short story to fit that word count. This cheapens the form of flash. Dybek says:

"I think the current urge to see flash fiction as a new form and genre onto (sic) itself, which then demands that it is defined by superficial notions such as word count, is far less interesting to me than seeing flash fiction as a symptom, a manifestation of an ongoing tradition that has to do with the compression in prose, the counterpoint between the lyrical and narrative, fragmentation, and the redefinitions of both story and poetry." (MaryAnne McCollister, "Interview with Stuart Dybek", Vestal Review, #34 (2009))

Dybek argues for yet another term for our short little darlings. I don't think that's necessary. That would only further confuse the matter as we all are struggling to figure out what these things are. The crux of his frustration is, to paraphrase, with the superficial notion of word count.

Indeed, when word count is the only consideration, we often are served flabby pieces which have perhaps been squeezed into a word count - much like how my fat cat squeezes his rotund self through the cat door. It's inelegant to watch, but he gets through, much like a short story forced into a word-count restriction of, say, 500 words. We all marvel, wondering how he manages to do this day in and day out, and that's the novelty. Flash should not be treated as such a novelty.

Though, I'd love to read a flash about novelties - of any sort. That's an interesting idea... maybe. ( note: pic left is not my cat - my cat only drinks PacNW microbrews.)

Anyhow,when approaching a flash fiction, I urge all you writers to keep yourselves focused. If you want a narrative flash, stick strictly to that narrative. All Story - keep it moving. If it's an emotion you want to show, show that emotion - or that complex of emotions. When showing a complex of emotions - show it as such, as a complex, not a series of emotions - compress them to show the complexity.

You're flashing, you're a strobe capturing a milisecond of something. You are compressing a thing to such a degree that it becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Strip a narrative to its core and you have a wonderful thing. Like a diamond formed from common coal, compress the object of your creative vision. Don't mess around trying to obey the tropes of standard fiction - they don't apply.

If you want to write a short story, then by god write one. Just don't squeeze it through a word-count requirement just to say that you can.


Unknown said...


Hobie said...


Thanks for commenting!

Heidi said...

I truly appreciate this essay. It validates my approach (however crude) to flash. Thank you for that! I look forward to exploring the rest of your blog.