Flash

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[This thread is a spinoff from a conversation about flash fiction.]

Marcus, the link to Gardner is jazz, it's strategy and tactics, it's one view of what flash is made of.

I don't write flash fiction, and don't read a lot of it (maybe I should, explode some assumptions).
Would like to read other examples of things people think are exceptionally well done.

For me, the short, short fiction has either been wanting for more words/more narrative, or more poetry - and by that I mean "texture": charged words, internal rhyme, balance, etc. It needs to be handled very delicately, and that's hard to find.

You know, speaking about using flash to "scale up," if you will, into a longer work...I like to do the opposite. Take what I think could be a longer form and compress it, distill it, into just the elements that a reader needs to find their way. In my mind it's poetry for people that don't read poetry, or poetry that is slightly narrative, and it risks being obscure, or being too minimal, too spare.

Comments

michael, gardner's jazz alright. i like jazz. excellent, perhaps unexpected examples of great flash fiction include simic's 1990 pulitzer-winning collection "the world doesn't end" (only found out about this myself recently, via sam rasnake); many parts of richard brautigan's 1968 "in watermelon sugar"; south america: most of the short fiction by jorge luis borges; the novel "rayuela" (engl "hopscotch") by julio cortazar really is a flash fiction collection (that can be read, as the author points out, in almost any order). europe (esp. germany): robert musil's "posthumous papers of a living author". all short shorts by robert walser; and so on. none of these examples are mediocre. they fulfil your (excellent, i think) criteria "charged words, internal rhyme, balance...".

your idea of condensing longer forms is interesting, too. like shrinking a palace to a plum that fits your hand but is no less artful. reminds me of the sequence of smaller and smaller chests in flann o'brian's "the third policeman". personally, i feel though i could probably go on to write self-sustaining short shorts (or "flashes") for ever, they don't fill me any longer. i remain hungry. texture doesn't fill me up, only narrative does, and character. in 100-1000 words max there isn't too much by way of character development you can achieve. and relationship — or scenes with multiple characters — will always remain sketchy.

i suppose crossing borders between forms will always be an interesting sport and a great opportunity to learn. (said the serious writer as he crossed the border from flash to the novel like an illegal alien.) ... flash did help me develop any idea or character quickly in a minimum of space, with a pace that's hardly novelistic, and (something that's been said about Cortazar's book "hopscotch", see above), it asks more from the reader in terms of involvement. if a novel is a canopy bed, the best flash is like a cot: it's hard and assumes a higher level of participation and activity than other forms of fiction. it's a little more abstract, and more easily absurd and askew than most longer narrative fiction and in this respect indeed closer to poetry. a lot of flash fiction is stream of consciousness, too. perhaps the rise of flash is the return of soc as a technique well adapted to internet reading habits...
Marcus, I'm very intrigued by the point you made about differentiating between the prose poem and flash fiction; it's something I've wondered about for awhile now. Ten years ago, when I read far more poetry than I do now, I dug way into the work of Russel Edson, who is generally acknowledged as a Godfather of the form, and who Lydia Davis at a reading from Samuel Johnson Is Indignant cited as one of her influences. But if I were to attempt a distinction, and I hope to hear your thoughts on the matter, between flash fiction and prose poems, it may be centered around character. Borges short fictions, as well as Lydia Davis' and Etgar Karet, have characters that are more apt to fit right into a novel if asked to take the money and run, whereas prose poems seem to be more contained, somehow, I'm def. thinking Simic or Tate and Edson of course. Thoughts?
Ryan, I’m sorry that it took me so long to reply. Truth is that I agonized a little over your challenge. You came at it quite analytically & in the debate with Michael, I stayed close to the murky waters of my own imagination. My earlier point was made intuitively rather than inquisitively. I’m neither a poet nor a true flash writer (odd as this may seem from looking at my published work). My thoughts are probably useless because I’m a flash fiction idiot savant. I came to flash by accident and not because I read anyone who did flash well. I heard about Lydia Davis from you (got “Samuel Johnson Is Indignant now and like it). I’ve got to check the others out. Of course I know Borges and Cortazar and other masters whose writing often decomposes into flash-like fragments (or is composed that way, as in Cortazar’s case). For me flash has become a mode of working rather than a self-sustained form. I can talk forever about the making of flash, of course, but if I did the result would read like Gertrude Stein’s “The Making Of The Making Of Americans” (which I love).

Aaaaaanwaaaay….It looks as if the earliest (pre-modernist) example of a prose poem is Charles Baudelaire’s “Paris Spleen”— roughly a century earlier than Edson (I'm indebted to Sam Rasnake for telling me about "Paris Spleen" in the first place). Baudelaire has got interesting things to say about the form (in a letter to A. Houssaye). Some are a little overheated, perhaps typical for that period and style:
«Who among us has not dreamed, in his ambitious days, of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple enough and jarring enough to be adapted to the soul's lyrical movements, to the undulations of reverie, to the twists and turns that consciousness takes?»
He seems to suggest the prose poem as a form more suitable to what would later be called stream of consciousness. Elsewhere he talks enthusiastically about the freedom of the prose writer:
«The author of a story has available to him a multitude of tones, of nuances in language, tones of reasoning, of sarcasm, of humor, all of which poetry repudiates, and which are kinds of dissonance, of outrages upon the idea of pure beauty.»
All of which confirms that the prose poem at least originally, when compared to (most of) 19th century poetry, seems to allow the poet certain liberties and tools “of a story”. So far, so good.

What now, about the prose poem vs. flash fiction? Your inference was that flash fiction is “centered around character” and I fully agree with that, even with your suggestion that these flash characters could be expanded into a novel.

This is exactly the way I work at current, though technically it’s rather the fictional character himself that does the expanding and exploring: all I have to do is, on the page and in my mind, provide more space than the measly 100-1000 words that are typically allowed him.

Let’s look at an example. The editor (Sam Rasnake, an accomplished poet) who published “Cahiers du Cinéma” in his magazine Blue Fifth Review insisted on calling it a prose poem rather than flash fiction. (I challenged him on it and he held firm.) The piece consists of 9 paragraphs. At first it seems to satisfy your criteria of “more contained” but at the same time, every section contains at least one new character: a woman from Norway, parachuting soldiers, a love in South America, a trans-sexual postdoc, a wife, a dead friend…and only in the end the narrator, a vampire, narrows the story down to himself and his philosophy of life. It seems to me that every section could be turned into a novel or a longer narrative. That every character (besides the narrator) is encapsulated enough to warrant unfolding and growing beyond the confines of its paragraph. Clearly there’s a story here, too. Yet, a connoisseur sees it as a poem.

I’m not sure I’ve come very far here or added anything to what you’ve said (apart from my own example)—the difference between prose poem and flash fiction still somewhat eludes me. Perhaps the confusion is owed to the fact that we live in thoroughly experimental, postmodern times where nobody likes to find himself stuck in a specific structural or formal corner anymore. This stuckness may have meant comfort and certainty to our literary ancestors, while today we only see it as narrow. As a maker, I’m personally more interested in telling stories than in broadening the canon or innovating.

As a working hypothesis, at the end of these considerations, it seems to me as if perhaps prose poem and flash story are indistinguishable as such, but look different depending on the direction of approach: when you come at the same text from the poet's side, you see a prose poem (the freedom Baudelaire talks about); when you come at it from the novel, novella or short story, you see a flash—distinguished mostly by its brevity.
Glad you picked up Lydia Davis and that you like her. Now I'm going to play devil's advocate on your statement: "I’m neither a poet nor a true flash writer" after learning just the other day that Faulkner's first book was a book of poems. Why limit yourself? If you're a writer you're a writer, and prose can be poetry when it really soars--so many of the novels I love do just this. There are poetic lines in your flash fiction and it might be shooting yourself in the foot to say "I'm not this or I'm not that." If you pick up and read a book of poems, those poems make an impression (if you like them of course) and they inevitably end up influencing your creative output in some conscious or usually unconscious way. A writer is a writer, and they have a toolbox, and end up using whatever they choose to put inside it, I think. What do you think?

Also, I love what Bolano has to say about poetry and fiction.
I can see what you mean—I'm guilty! As I'm fond of saying when I don't know what else to say: "It's a paradox!"

And it is indeed.

But whatever you say about the interchangeability of forms (a contentious issue in criticism, I suppose:I will stubbornly hold onto my own label! Perhaps my position is a remnant of reading Dorothee Brande's "Becoming a Writer". The book aims at working with the writer's unconscious towards helping him identify if he is a short story writer, a novelist or a non-fiction writer (or, alas, not a writer at all). There are simpler methods, of course, to find that out (the simplest probably being: what do you like to read—that never worked for me).

Maybe we're not talking about the same thing here. What matters to me, for my process, for the way I see myself when I get up and go to my desk to write, may be irrelevant to your view — "a writer is a writer" indeed — if the content of the toolbox or the self-perceptions would dominate the writing, all writing would inevitably (and miserably) turn into meta-fiction. You're right of course that everybody has got one and can choose what to take from it. And furthermore, that the tools and their use are largely unconscious & work well that way.

Faulkner: pleased to hear he wrote poems at first, too. His novels could be labeled as "densely lyrical", so no surprise there. I expect Virginia Woolf to have done the same. But, picking up your approach: why label? We'll have to drop it and do what we do, at least I shall have to...

The Bolaño quote is interesting & I have no doubt that we're heading for more experimental forms — I feel that's appropriate for a new millennium, too. If these new forms will flop with the readers in the same way in which new classical music flops with the masses, I don't know. People seem to take to flash fiction more than they ever took to prose poems. And like all small and very small animals, flash undergoes a rapid evolution.

In closing, I'm reminded of Jeanette Winterson's article in the Guardian a few days ago (about the Booker Prize éclat), which beautifully sums up why I feel like a novelist and why you perhaps aren't all that wrong seeing tools as a bridge between poetic and not-so-poetic, short and long forms:
Novels that last are language-based novels – the language is not simply a means of telling a story, it is the whole creation of the story. If the language has no power – forget it.
This thread has me rethinking what I said--I think labels, while it's important to find your specific focus and go as far with it as possible, are limiting. I don't consider myself much of a "poet" either. If I were to say to myself, "I'm not a poet, so I don't care" that is limiting. Bolano was first and foremost a poet, and in my opinion one the best novelists of any language and of his generation, his knowledge of form far exceeding what mine will probably ever be. I think if he stopped reading poetry, his prose wouldn't be as compelling as it is--He loved poetry as much as Ellroy's crime fiction for instance, and used them both extensively in crafting his prose. I do very much like the Winterson quote.
praise be the edit function, I say some stupid shit when I'm tired
Ryan would it be possible for me to submit The Orphanage or any of my other poems that you take to to nth for publication? Thanks. Lucien
hi lucien, can you send me an email at ryan@nthword.com and I'll send you some more information? thanks for your interest!