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The Short Short Story Revived

Flash fiction, or the short short story, has always had an intimate relationship with surrealism, and literature of the absurd.  It is a short, urgent letter that can convey urgent messages, partly through omission.   That these slightly tilted, less conventional forms of fiction are returning is evidenced by James Wood's article in The New Yorker about short-short story writer and prose poet, Lydia Davis. (see http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/10/19/091019crbo_books_wood)

This form is easy to write--far easier than a novel, because you can write a lot of short pieces before you get one right, and don't have to spend a whole year.  But the form is tricky: Prose poems require some transformation of the image (Davis usually writes these) and flash fiction requires some transformation of a character (Davis writes a few of these, too).  And if you do a book of them, they have to be bound by some sense of unity--unity of voice, of course--as well as unity of theme, or unity of the narrative persona (Davis).  

 Take a look at Wood's article.   Even as an excerpt, you'll get a good sense of Lydia Davis's work. 

 Interestingly, these forms often flourish during periods of political difficulty, and in countries where oppression and/or mystification exists.  People often begin to ask: What's real, after all?  What's true?   Who is dreaming? What dreams are real? Or, as in Beddoes wrote in his poem:

If there were dreams to sell

Merry and sad to tell

And the crier rung the bell

Which would  you buy?

In this questioning, more conventional forms of narrative can become less interesting, because they often rely on accepted forms of reality. 

Magic realism can be a fierce social critic. So can surrealism.  Magic realism (of whom Marquez is the most well-known writer) always relies on a community that believes in something supernatural  Borges was a kind of sollipsistic magic realist.  And Voltaire, whose pieces of flash fiction are extraordinary, created worlds where angels appeared, rocks talked, and there were missives from Jesuit priests who were condemned to mend blouses in hell. Singer, a writer who won the Nobel Prize, and has been forgotten, wrote many stories that contain both magic realism and the surreal. One of his best is The Letter Writer.   

Surrealism doesn't rely on a community of beliefs, nor does it allow for supernatural events.  In surrealism, just one strange event is allowed and then everything must proceed in an ordinary world.. (Kafka, The Trial and Metamorphosis are good examples. So is an overlooked story by Gogol called The Nose.)

 All of these stories require a tight narrative arc.  Read Borges and you'll see how many of his seemingly-dreamy or abstruse stories begin with murders or contain violence, for example.

 These forms, although difficult to do well, allow the writer a paradoxical freedom. Paradoxical because the truth oten seems veiled or tilted. Free, because in breaking out of conventional narrative forms, the imagination can shape the story.  There's a relationship between form and content.  Flash fiction, surrealism, and magic realism all shatter form to some extent. And, in this shattering, extraordinary content can emerge.  Unlike science fiction or fantasy, the reader begins to forget that this world is unreal.  A man who has turned into a bug (Metamorphosis), nonetheless has to move all his little (and unfamiliar) legs out of bed to decide whether to catch the commuter train to work in his deplorable condition.  The poverty-stricken village who finds a fallen and senile angel has to decide whether to put him in a freak show. (Marquez: A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.) They do and this earns them money.  Has he helped produce a miracle?    

In shattering traditional content, the imagination breaks loose. These forms not only allow readers to question the sense (and absurdity) of their conditions.  They allow the imagination to break free.  And the free imagination is perhaps the most radical act in fiction. 

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I read the article you

I read the article you referred to with much intrigue because I like people who go to the edge.
You expand on the awesomeness! You project historical detail! You bring awareness! __and all with the gift of clarity.
Thanks for sharing.
Kindest________Michael

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Thanks, Michael

All these forms have always interested me. I feel at home in them. And I'm glad they're seeing the light again.

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short-shorts and ghazals

I read this with great pleasure -- love your idea about how content can emerge when form is shattered, and the writers you name (Kawabata too, and the short-shorts-made-into-novels of Mary Robison or some of Ondaatje -- like Coming Through Slaughter).

The surprises that come from shattering form in ghazals seem like a related pleasure to me (not the traditional form, but the "free ghazal" or "bastard ghazal" as Andy Weaver calls it (http://wordsters.net/poetics/poetics01/01weaverprint.html).

A writer might have more unity in a short-short than in a ghazal, but in both cases the leaps/gaps/omissions/compressions force the imagination into unexpected discoveries.

Thanks for another great exploration of the possibilities of shape-bending fiction, Thaisa!