So the story goes, it was Ernest Hemingway, as a young writer living in Paris in the 1920s, who invented flash fiction. Hemingway was bet over drinks that he could not write an entire story in just six words. After the money was collected, Papa took a napkin and is said to have written down these words – For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.
That story is certainly disputed, but whether it is literally true or not it is nonetheless instructive. Hemingway’s six word story satisfies the most basic structure for story – a beginning, middle, and an end. It does not however satisfy the more complex requirements of a narrative story arc, including denouement, closure, and perhaps some kind of personal transformation among one or more characters, so it constitutes what I call a “fractured arc,” one that may pick up action in Act I and Act II and never resolve it in an Act III. It may float freely among the different acts at will, presenting mere anecdotes of a story the reader is left to fill in the blanks of from what is given on the page – a large piece of the iceberg submerged beneath what is revealed of the story. In 1924, Hemingway published the Paris printing of in our time, a 32-page collection largely of vignettes, many of them less than 200 words, the first such collection of writing this short by an American author. Many writers have experimented with the “short-short” story form since Hemingway, but it is only since the 1990s that it has emerged as a literary genre.
In 1992, the anthology collection Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories, heralded the emergence of a new kind of literary writing – stories that would fit on no more than two facing pages in a standard book. For whatever reason, the idea caught on, and the next decade saw the publication of more such anthologies, including Fiction 101 by San Diego City Beats newspaper and A Flash of Fiction, published by the 2012 Worcestershire Literary Festival. A flurry of collected editions of flash fiction – the preferred term for this writing since around 2000 – soon emerged, including Stories to Read on the Train by Alison Wells (2012) and Snippets: A Collection of Flash Fiction by Laura Besley (2014) and many others. One collection that received trumpeted attention in mainstream media was Dan Rhodes’ 2012 collection Marry Me, reviewed by both The Times of London and The Washington Post.
The game-changer as far as the legitimatization of flash fiction may well be literary journals, which are peer-reviewed and of increasingly high quality that will ultimately lift the standards for flash fiction writing and elevate the genre. The appearance of journals such as Spry, Number Eleven, and the Tahoma Literary Review, which feature traditional short fiction and poetry as well as flash fiction, mean that flash fiction will be less amateurish and wielded by writers who take the craft and the form seriously. This is a good thing for the emergent genre.
In my own series, The Canvas Sextet,* I try to restore a richer yet obviously truncated narrative arc. My stories deal largely with realism and range wildly across subject areas and themes, but I try to give some sense of a beginning, a middle, and an end that allows some kind of closure in stories that traverse a wide spectrum of experience from the profound to the profane. I offer up life as I understand it, which is all any writer can do.
*The Canvas Sextet is a collection of six volumes of provocative flash fiction—300 stories altogether—mostly realism that crosses a range of literary genres. My “canvas” is one blank sheet of paper, 12 point, Times Roman font, single spaced, around 800 words. The stories must be contained within that space just as a painter is bound by a canvas to convey a complex story through visual imagery. “Don’t Start Me Talking” is from Volume Three: Zen Pussy Riot.