News: Flashback Series
Twelve Great Flash Fiction Novels / Novellas
by Michael Loveday
The novel-/novella-in-flash is a curious form. Not a straightforward novel/novella, nor simply a story collection, it functions as a hybrid. Its enthusiasts, myself included, resemble TV evangelists on obscure late-night channels, full of zeal as to why this of all literary forms is the most satisfying, and the closest equivalent to real life – that fusion of ‘story’ and the individual, numinous moment.
What follows is a list of twelve examples of the novel-/novella-in-flash, with some commentary that tries to approach a definition of what the form is, and what it isn’t. I’ve included some examples that stretch the category a little, so we can get to know its edges.
Broadly speaking, the novel-/novella-in-flash consists of a sequence of individual but related short-short stories that somehow build momentum towards a bigger whole. The craft essays in My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form describe how the form “mixes the quick and the sustained” and blends “the extreme brevity of the flash with the longer – albeit still brief – arc of the novella.” Despite the requirement for a coherent whole, because any overarching story is broken into distinct mini-stories or fragments, the novel-/novella-in-flash “is a form of omission and lacuna.”
The Bath Flash Fiction Award now has an annual international competition dedicated to the Novella-in-Flash and publishes an anthology of the three winning entries each year. The sensationally good How to Make a Window Snake by Charmaine Wilkerson was its inaugural winner in 2017. This competition asks for each chapter or flash to be not more than 1,000 words long, with the whole (for the novella-in-flash) between 6,000 and 18,000 words long. However, some of the twelve books in my list below are more like novels, and so run to several thousand more words than this.
Inevitably, in a list of only twelve books, there are significant exclusions, and I acknowledge that the list is a very subjective one. Still, I hope it serves as a useful way forward for readers wanting to discover more about the form. (As the list is limited to examples of fiction, I’ve not included memoir-in-flash.)
- Candide, or Optimism (Voltaire, 1759)
Cannibalism, murder, STDs, flogging, hanging, shipwreck, El Dorado, earthquake – in a mere 86 pages this eighteenth-century proto-novella-in-flash has all the drama you could want. Nevertheless, a philosophical tale at heart, Voltaire’s book satirises the mode of the chivalric romance through its story of a young man beset by bad luck who travels the world to find (and lose) his fortune. It possesses many characteristics that would later become defining features of the novella-in-flash: it’s short; each chapter (with one exception) is less than 1,000 words; and, because of its varied locations and ensemble cast of secondary characters, each chapter has its own distinct mood and material, that necessary sense of being a ‘world of its own.’ If it falls short of the novella-in-flash as we now know the form in its purest sense, it’s because (as with many novels from the 18th century to the present day) many chapters close by preparing us for the next or depend directly on the previous one in narrative terms. What came later to the form was a stronger sense of a pause or ‘resonating space’ at the end of each chapter, and the feeling that the overall text offers, rather than one continuous narrative thread, an interwoven patchwork of self-contained moments. Nevertheless, the roots of the novella-in-flash can be seen in Voltaire’s writing.
- Mrs. Bridge (Evan S. Connell, 1959)
A magnificent portrait of a middle-class woman, and her family, in mid-twentieth-century suburban America. Its 117 short chapters are written with a relentless, quiet conviction that insists: these characters really do exist. Mrs. Bridge, whose story we follow from youth to old age, is alienated from her life and her feelings, as she raises a family and builds a life for herself in the absence of any romantic attentions from her husband. Readers glimpse an existential dread running through her observations and interactions, and yet she potters on distractedly, somewhat bewildered by the changes in her world, and keeping up appearances in that very middle-class, mid-twentieth-century way. Subsequently overshadowed by the careers of Updike, Roth and Yates, whose debut books appeared at around the same time, Connell’s tragicomic first novel is a classic of social realism – a brilliant portrait of the inter-war dissatisfactions of American women – and should be read in conjunction with its sequel Mr. Bridge (1969), dealing with the same family life from the husband’s point of view.
- Play It as It Lays (Joan Didion, 1970)
An appealing cocktail of ennui, glamour, tragedy and spiky dialogue, this book’s whip-smart sentences convincingly depict life on the margins of the Hollywood movie industry, as a minor actress heads on a path of self-destruction prompted by a growing indifference to her milieu and the realities of the choices she has made. Most of the unnumbered chapters are story-fragments – from one paragraph to five pages. Some are impressionistic moments; others run in sequence, picking up where the previous one left off. Thus, not all the chapters are fully developed to become self-standing stories, and a narrative momentum builds that makes it feel close to being a continuous novel. But the choppy, short chapters beautifully evoke the central character’s discontent and disconnection, and Didion’s writing is both nonchalant and sharp – like a drunk with a knife in her hand.
- Palomar (Italo Calvino, 1983)
In these 27 short-short stories about an elderly man studying the world around him – waves, birds, the stars, a cheese shop, etc. – there is little action described, let alone event or even (god forbid!) plot. But as a set of meditations, it rewards readers who enjoy grappling with complexity in their fiction, as Calvino trawls through verbose philosophical conundrums about perception, identity, and the cosmos. Mr. Palomar is as close to being a story collection as it is to being a novella-in-flash: what little forward movement there is comes from a kind of ‘mathematical’ scheme – a sequence of claimed shifts among the stories – cycling through precise proportions of ‘description’, ‘narrative’ and ‘meditation’. The scheme is so intricate that the appendix announcing it appears to be part of a literary game on Calvino’s part, entirely in sympathy with the over-meticulous Mr. Palomar himself.
- The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros, 1984)
A stone-cold classic. Esperanza Cordero is growing up in a run-down tenement building in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago, negotiating family, quirky neighbours, boys, new friendships, and hoping one day for a home of her own. The language is lyrical without being sentimental, and there is a Technicolour sharpness to Esperanza’s passionate observations of the world around her, which are riddled with hopes and fears in a typically adolescent way. Stories range from 7 lines to 3 or 4 pages long and don’t progress in an explicitly chronological way. Not without moments of darkness, The House on Mango Street is a haunting yet uplifting portrait of Hispanic American life.
- Why Did I Ever? (Mary Robison, 2001)
Throughout its two hundred pages – over 500 microfictions and fragments – Robison’s novel-in-flash emphasises character and voice: there is no real overarching narrative arc to glean from this stream of jump-cut mini-scenes, many of which extend for a few sentences only. As a character-study, the book is concentrated, sassy, and inventively-phrased. The narrator, Money Breton, a Hollywood script-doctor, works on a terrible-sounding movie about Bigfoot, dealing out barbed comments to various figures in her life – her cat, her friend Hollis, her methadone-addicted daughter Mev, her son Paulie (now in police care after falling victim to violent crime). The fragments offer glimpses of her life and relationships (work, family, lovers, friends), and although these separate strands don’t integrate we do get an impression of forward movement within each strand. There’s such relentless verbal and psychological energy it’s as if each fragment has been formed under intense geological pressure – like brilliant jewels.
- We the Animals (Justin Torres, 2011)
The novella-in-flash as Bildungsroman: Torres charts the growth of a boy into sexual maturity, in the midst of a madcap, chaotic, and harsh domestic life: three brothers jostling for priority (the stories are often narrated as a third-person plural “we”); an often absent, and at times abusive, father; a mother struggling to take charge. The family environment at first feels implausibly zany; yet the reader’s fondness for it grows, until one is charmed and captivated; then the novella shifts into darker territory as it concludes. Apart from a final one-paragraph story that’s more like a prose poem, most of the chapters here (ranging from 3-12 pages) are fully developed into self-contained stories, building to their own individual climaxes, yet cumulatively they describe a central protagonist gradually uncovering his own identity. In this debut work, Torres’s control of sentence-rhythms combines with a gift for narrative structure to create a stunning tour de force.
- Paperboy (Bob Thurber, 2011)
At 230 pages, this is one of the longer books in this list, and it’s remarkable how Thurber sustains the narrative feat of creating an impression of linear, continuous story (occasional flashbacks aside) from over 150 individual segments, each with its own resonant ending. The narrative isn’t for the fainthearted: in 1969, an astronaut-obsessed teenage boy in a dysfunctional family is drawn into incest, and the rest of the novel depicts how the ongoing transgressions are kept secret, as well as telling the story of his failures and frustrations working as a local paperboy. There are a host of reasons why the material ought to fail, but the book is a raw triumph, almost claustrophobic in intensity – equally funny and tragic.
- Petrol (Martina Evans, 2012)
Irish poet and novelist Martina Evans published Petrol as a “prose poem disguised as a novella”. These thirty-nine one- or two-page prose pieces certainly have a poetic, crystalline brilliance. They might also be stream-of-consciousness dramatic monologues confided to the reader with a kind of controlled anarchy, so vivid is the voice of a persecuted thirteen-year-old in rural County Cork. Working at the family petrol station, three sisters deal with the reality of a new mother-in-law, while the narrator is terrorised by her father and drawn inexorably towards the forbidden attentions of a local nineteen-year-old.
- The Dept. of Speculation (Jenny Offill, 2014)
An old theme of marital infidelity is given remarkable new life in Jenny Offill’s broken-hearted novel, in which the rupture caused by the adultery is palpable, but the narrator is too pragmatic to watch herself slip under. The narrator leaps from thought to thought, through streams of observations, incidents, quotations, aphorisms and scientific facts that are sequenced into separate chapters. The wife is a creative writing tutor, the husband a sound archivist; other characters include a philosopher and an almost-astronaut, and all these roles feed into the rich themes of the text. A classic novel-/novella-in-flash might more obviously be a sequence of self-standing stories, but it’s becoming increasingly popular to publish mainstream novels like this one [witness also Megan Hunter’s recent The End We Start From (2017)], where the writing is a patchwork of fragmented paragraphs, sometimes as short as one sentence long. And all that divides its form from Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever? (more widely accepted as a novel-in-flash) is the absence of numerical separators between fragments, which makes Offill’s book feel more like a fluid and continuous stream of material.
- My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form (2014)
Maybe I’m cheating the numbers to include it, but a list of twelve great novels-/novellas-in-flash would be incomplete without acknowledging this anthology from Rose Metal Press: it’s a crucial text in the history of the form, presenting novellas-in-flash by five different writers, supplemented by craft essays about the creation of each work, and an informative introduction by editors Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney. These essays are a wonderful welcome into what exactly the novella-in-flash is (or can be). The five novellas (by Tiff Holland, Meg Pokrass, Aaron Teel, Margaret Patton Chapman and Chris Bower) offer two coming-of-age stories, a portrait by a middle-aged daughter of her mother’s crankiness and frailty, a story about a child prodigy born to a nineteenth-century family, and an absurdist portrait of a contemporary family. This anthology will get you thinking about the potential forms of the flash fiction novella.
- Superman on the Roof (Lex Williford, 2015)
One of the shorter novellas in this list, this pamphlet offers ten 3-4-page stories that roam expansively through memories of a 1960s childhood. Williford ambitiously moves back and forward, covering the 1960s and the early 21st century, subtly placing the narrative in historical context through occasional passing references to contemporary politics. These elegiac stories circle, at their centre, a single, significant and haunting loss; in the process, they build a portrait of a harsh family environment and convent school education, in which adults seem hell-bent on punishing children’s petty transgressions. Apparently semi-autobiographical, the beautifully elegant sentences are written in a past tense that’s suffused with nostalgia – and guilt over the narrator’s involvement in family tragedy. In 38 pages, Williford weaves a tapestry that is more moving, memorable and skilfully crafted than many novels. Its form expresses all that is remarkable about the novella-in-flash.
Michael Loveday’s novella-in-flash Three Men on the Edge was published by V. Press in June 2018. He helps to organise the UK’s annual Flash Fiction Festival and is judge of the 2019 Bath Novella-in-Flash Award.
Flash, Back: Edward Falco’s “Koi”
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Mike Minchin discusses Edward Falco’s story “Koi” and how this introduction to flash changed his writing. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Mike Minchin
I knew very little of flash fiction until about six years ago, when I happened to be reading The Southern Review and came across Edward Falco’s “Koi.” I was struck first by the brevity of the piece, barely more than a page, and I thought, Oh, how short. Such was my ignorance of the form and its possibilities. I had loved poetry for years, but I thought of fiction as mostly a long-winded creature. I was, at the time, attempting to compress my sprawling, almost novella-length stories into something remotely publishable, which is to say I needed to chop off ten or twenty thousand words from most of my stories. And so, I was overdue for a lesson in concision.
Flash, Back: Langston Hughes’ The Simple Shorts
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Bernard James shares the insight and humor of Langston Hughes’ character, Jesse B. Semple. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Bernard James
The indomitable spirit of Jesse B. Semple (aka “Simple”) was first introduced by Langston Hughes in 1943, through a series of stories that appeared in a column he wrote for the Chicago Defender. Simple’s legacy as a literary fixture was later cemented following the release of three compilations that made Hughes’ original content available for wider public consumption. The first was Simple Speaks His Mind, published in 1950, followed by Simple Takes a Wife in 1953 and Simple Stakes a Claim, released in 1957. Subsequent anthologies (The Best of Simple, 1961, Simple’s Uncle Sam, 1965 and The Return of Simple, 1994) sample from the earlier pieces to form new collections, but the charisma that is Simple and the grace with which Hughes delivers him to the page are no less impactful when viewed through this updated, curatorial lens.
Each story is presented as a conversation that opens a window onto the beauty of pedestrian encounters. Indeed, part of what makes them so beautiful is the ongoing discovery that Simple’s life (our lives) are not pedestrian at all. “Simple on Indian Blood,” “Simple Prays a Prayer,” “Temptation,” “Vacation,” “Letting off Steam…” The titles are succinct, the prose direct and easy to understand. Through Simple, Hughes elevates the ordinary and shines a spotlight on what is otherwise common. Simple becomes a metaphor for profound statements exploding from unassuming packages. Hughes’ abbreviated prose cuts to the chase and by intensifying the mood, brings his subjects into better focus.
In “Simple Prays a Prayer,” the protagonist carries on about how whites would not recognize Christ if he returned at that moment; that they would barricade their segregated churches and sink deeper into their pious, segregated selves. Simple hopes that when Christ does return, he lands in the South and brings anger and vengeance with him. Notably, Simples hopes that “Christ drives the Jim Crowers out of their high places, every living last one of them, from Washington to Texas!” concluding his rant with “I hope he smites white folks down.” When Hughes asks if Simple is referring to all white folks, Simple replies, “No, I hope he lets Mrs. Roosevelt alone.” ntentional, but discerning. Humorous, but righteous still.
In “Conversation on the Corner,” Hughes and Simple talk about everything from haircuts to gambling, drinking, and dancing. Simple claims he drinks because he is lonesome, but the author shoots this down, questioning how Simple could possibly be lonesome given his popularity and the many friends at his disposal. “I’m lonesome inside myself,” Simple explains. Yes…this line grabs at me too; and I keep going back to it, turning it over in my mind. Relating and understanding. Unflinching in his delivery, Hughes understates it like a whisper that pulls you in closer until it squeezes your soul with devastating veracity. Alone in one’s own head is sometimes a challenging place to be. Anxiety. Insecurity. Depression. Hughes plainly speaks the truth of this.
Simple manifests as an amalgamation of identities. He is everyone and no one, yet accessible to anyone. He is available to the masses—and as a technical construct, these conversational vignettes serve up bite-sized portions of commentary and introspection through which the reader comes to invest in Simple’s foibles and concerns. Simple’s observations as presented by Hughes are analogous to holding up a mirror on a typical day, reflecting its typical problems and potential (typical) resolutions.
Simple’s longtime lady friend Joyce figures prominently in his many discussions with Hughes. She is patient to a fault, and forgiving of Simple’s assortment of less than perfect traits. But we soon learn that Joyce has her limits, and when Simple really screws things up, even Joyce no longer finds him tolerable. In “Blue Evening,” Hughes finds Simple sitting on the corner stool alone. He mistakes his friend’s malaise as the manifestation of another hangover, but Simple explains that Joyce has finally quit him. When Hughes offers a drink to cheer him up, the author is blindsided by another surprise. “This is one time I do not want a drink. I feel too bad,” Simple says, and Hughes knows his friend is in serious trouble.
Simple pleads his case, but Joyce is not persuaded. He rings her bell, sends telegrams—phones her seventeen times in a row; and still she will not answer. “You never miss the water till the well runs dry,” Simple concedes. At that moment, he cares about nothing other than winning back Joyce’s affections. Liquor and other women are of no concern; the distaste he harbors for his landlady is of no concern; even race relations and Jim Crowers do not bother him in the face of this unexpected loss. “I would not care if Mississippi moved to Times Square,” he proclaims, which is something, because Simple is fiercely protective of New York and especially the (black) safe haven that Harlem provides. Having drifted beyond the point where Hughes’ explanations carry any weight, Simple has resolved to stand outside Joyce’s brownstone all night, pleading his case and calling her name if that is what it takes. Who among us has not experienced the pain of love lost and the desperation to get it back? That is a condition understood by everyone, escapable by no one, and applicable to anyone.
Novels have longer arcs; slower deliveries. Reading one is like taking a long train ride or a cross country trip. By contrast, Simple’s reflections feel more like a walk home from the corner grocery store—with a random stop on a friend’s porch or a quick detour inside the neighborhood bar to catch up on gossip over a couple of drinks. In Hughes’ capable hands, a profusion of action transpires inside these discrete windows in time. This is a testament to the author’s talents and the beauty of the sensory context established through repeated dialogue with Jesse B.
The Simple Shorts (as I like to call them) functioned as a kind of gateway; priming and preparing me for denser volumes that were yet to come. Flawed and irreverent though he was, here was this likable, accessible character who was plainspoken but substantive in discourse and thought. As fictionalized trough Hughes’ sensibilities, Simple opines on weighty matters of the day, striking a prescient chord as it relates to our current state of racial and economic affairs. But unlike the solemn to somber tone found in some of Hughes’ poetry (A Negro Speaks of Rivers, Kids Who Die, and Suicide’s Note for example), Hughes successfully reaches for a more buoyant plane of expression through the humorous and dubious rationalizations of Simple.
Having grown up in the decaying orbit of Youngstown’s once vibrant steel industry, I was several imaginations removed from the cultural consciousness that permeated Langston Hughes’ Harlem. Nowhere was that more evident than in the mostly Eurocentric curriculum to which I was subjected during my primary and secondary education. But my lovely mother, God rest her soul, was my saving grace. She stepped into the breach, exerted her influence and remedied this lack of exposure. An avid reader with a special appreciation for the canon of Black American classics, she made sure I was introduced to—amon others—Morrison, Hurston, Ellison and Hughes. More than any other, it was Langston Hughes who captured my imagination and fueled my desire to further acquaint myself with Harlem’s renaissance period; and it was Jesse B. Semple who stood out as one of the most significant influences on a young boy’s immersion into the world of black language arts.
Jesse B. Semple was a purveyor of flash long before such a notion had settled into common understanding. Hughes’ capacity for lyricism and his ability to unpack, then distill complex ideas uniquely positioned him to take full command of the short story form. By reducing the framework of each story to a brief conversation with Simple, Hughes imbues the narrative with additional powers, enabling it to punch above its weight. He sets us up to expect and wait for Simple’s gems. Each story is uniquely capable of standing on its own, encapsulating and resolving itself from brief beginning to end; but when taken together, the reader is lulled into a comfortable pattern of elongated time and space; each story building upon the one that came before it and in turn, setting the stage for the next in line. Hughes’ voice and the folksy appeal of Jesse B. Semple are what allow this magic to unfold—from story to story, in the space between collections, and in the reflective silence that follows, long after Simple’s tales have been told.
Writing under the pseudonym Bernard James, James Bernard Short is an emerging novelist, essayist, and poet. His singular ambition as a writer is to produce smart, expressive and culturally authentic content that captures the wide spectrum of aspirations and challenges encountered by persons of color. Notions of what define the cultural and geographic boundaries of the Black diaspora are of particular interest, as well as pieces that explore the dynamics of love, loss and personal transition. James’ work has appeared in sx salon, a Small Axe literary platform, the Killens Review of Arts & Letters, and the Columbia Journal of Literature and Art. He is a 2016 Kimbilio Fellow, a member of the 2016 Writer’s Hotel Master Class in Poetry, a 2015 Givens Writing Fellow, and a participant in the 2013 MN Northwoods Writer’s Fiction Workshop. James holds degrees from Northwestern and The University of St. Thomas. He currently resides in the Twin Cities.
Flash, Back: The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. Stefen Styrsky waxes poetic on the day he discovered Isaac Babel and it changed his life. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Stefen Styrsky
Isaac Babel arrived in my life like a bolt from the blue, or maybe I should say like a Cossack horde appearing on the horizon. It was at Myopic Books, a used bookstore on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, near Wicker Park, an old neighborhood of odd-angled intersections and flatiron buildings.
It was pure chance, me fortuitously catching Babel’s name as my eyes swept the shelves. The Collected Stories. The cover image: three men on galloping horses, an abstract representation that appeared to be a sponge print; the cover itself helpfully taped at the corners and along the spine. The tape probably kept the book whole, enabling it to travel from its publication in 1960 — through who knows how many hands and boxes and personal libraries — to me in that year of 2008.
I’d often heard Babel mentioned in connection with other great short story writers, especially his fellow countrymen — Gogol, Turgenev, and Chekhov – artists who had developed and honed the story into the shape we know today. Floating around in my head were a few other Babel-related items absorbed over years of indiscriminate reading. There was his observation, so perfect a writerly sentiment it’s suspiciously apocryphal: “Nothing pierces the human heart like a period in the right place.” That his last public words, shouted as Stalin’s secret police hauled him off to the gulag, were, “But I’m not finished yet!”
When I returned to my hotel room that evening I dove right in and read the first few stories from the book’s opening section, Red Cavalry. (Attesting to the power of Babel’s stories, I can’t recall why I was in Chicago, my memory of the time completely subsumed by initial exposure to his prose). I had no idea what to expect. Stories, obviously, but my imaginings hadn’t prepared me for these compact, visceral tales.
The first paragraph of the first story, Crossing into Poland:
The Commander of the VI Division reported: Novograd-Volynsk was taken at dawn today. The Staff had left Krapivno, and our baggage train was spread out in a noisy rearguard over the highroad from Brest to Warsaw built by Nicholas I upon the bones of peasants.
Followed by two brief pages that end with the narrator awakening alongside a dead man he’d unknowingly lain next to when bedding down in a civilian’s house for the night. The man’s face is hacked in two and “in his beard blue blood was clotted like a lump of lead.” We learn that soldiers of the invading army killed the man the previous day, the same army the narrator marches with. The dead man’s daughter, who perhaps allowed the narrator to sleep next to the corpse as a kind of gruesome revenge, asks aloud in the story’s final line, “I should wish to know where in the whole world you could find another father like my father?”
Under a thousand words; it barely tops 850. History and war, horror and pathos, all in one compact package. I shivered with jealousy and awe. Who was this writer and when had he composed such brief stories? Babel seemed thoroughly modern, despite writing about a minor conflict from a previous century. I flipped to the copyright page. The book was a reissue of a translation published in 1929 by Alfred A. Knopf. And so here was not just an amazing writer, but here also was flash before flash technically existed. Before the writing of the short-short story was considered a separate prose genre.
Later, I’d learn from Lionel Trilling’s introduction that Isaac Babel began his career as a journalist in Odessa and often based his fiction on details he picked up. During the Russo-Pole war of 1920-1923 he rode alongside the Russian Cossack cavalry as a correspondent for Soviet periodicals. Bespectacled, asthmatic, and Jewish, Isaac Babel was everything the Cossacks were not, men literally born to the saddle, brought up riding horses across the steppe, who demonstrated outright disdain for “intellectuals,” and possessed a long and deep experience with violence, especially against Jews. Somehow, he earned their grudging acceptance. The thinly-fictionalized stories in Red Cavalry depict the evolution of outcast into tolerated colleague. Most are as short as Crossing into Poland. Only a few reach beyond five pages. So not only was Babel an early practitioner of flash fiction. In Red Cavalry he also stumbled into what is these days called the flash novella: a series of flash or very short pieces that comprise an entire story arc.
But it wasn’t simply Babel’s hyper-compressed style that prompted my reaction. There was first and foremost his language. It’s vivid, energetic and extremely tight. His stories come across as dispatches from the front, reports dashed off in the fire and heat of combat.
Then there are his metaphors which seem conjured from the fevered edge of dreams:
Savitstky, Commander of the VI Division, rose when he saw me, and I wondered at the beauty of his giant’s body. He rose, the purple of his riding breeches and the crimson of his little tilted cap and the decorations stuck on his chest, cleaving the hut as a standard cleaves the sky. The sickly sweet freshness of soap emanated from him. His long legs were like girls sheathed to the neck in shining riding boots. (“My First Goose”)
And many descriptions in Red Cavalry simultaneously combine the horrible and the sacred. Acts of violence and destruction arrive in terms that seem almost holy. Consider this final paragraph from the one-page story Prishchepa’s Vengeance:
On the third night the settlement saw smoke rising from Prishchepa’s hut. Torn, scorched, staggering, the Cossack led the cow out of the shed, put his revolver in its mouth and fired. The earth smoked beneath him. A blue ring of flame flew out of the chimney and melted away, while in the stall the young bull that had been left behind bellowed piteously. The fire shone as bright as Sunday. Then Prinschepa untied his horse, leaped into the saddle, threw a lock of his hair into the flames, and vanished.
The Red Cavalry stories were so head-clearing they became one of the first times I actually studied how an author employed language. From Babel I learned that word choice could imbue a story with an emotional volume that belied its scant word count. Consider how powerful Crossing into Poland becomes with that final word: father. That the reader will intuit much in a story without having to be told. And that metaphors should not merely describe, but also reveal meaning. Above, the images around Savitsky convey the man’s dominating grandeur and beauty.
I revisit the Red Cavalry stories often. The language is forever fresh, the situations forever revealing of new angles and modes of interpretation. And, obsessed as I am, I’ve obtained other versions. In 2003 W.W. Norton issued the Complete Works of Isaac Babel translated by Peter Constantine. Red Cavalry was also printed as its own volume. I bought the 2013 Boris Dralyuk’s version from the Pushkin Collection not only because it’s an engaging translation, but also because the volume is sized perfectly to fit inside a coat pocket, making it easy to carry and pull out whenever I require a Babel fix.
No translation is perfect, but all three manage to capture the essence of Babel’s unmistakable work. Sometimes I’ll play a little game and lay the three side by side, each open to the same passage. Then I’ll try to decide which I like best, which I think comes closest to what Babel intended, where his periods, commas, paragraphs, and words seem to be in just the right place.
Stefen Styrsky is a graduate of the writing program at Johns Hopkins University. His fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Litbreak, The Offing, Number Eleven Magazine, and the Tahoma Literary Review. He is currently at work on a series of stories based on a theme from Babel. He lives in Washington, DC.
Flash, Back: Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Katey Schultz discusses how Hemingway’s In Our Time allowed her to embrace flash along side traditional length fiction. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
by Katey Schultz
We waited till he got one leg over and then potted him. This line, from Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, is one sentence from an eight-sentence story published by Scribner under the heading, “Chapter III,” in 1925. The piece, which might be labelled today as somewhere between a dribble (50 words) and a drabble (100 words), is 75 words in length. When I finished reading the story, I didn’t care what it was labelled. I knew I’d never be the same again.
Not because it was Hemingway, mind you. And not even because the piece was so beautifully short. But because of the verb “potted.” The entirety of the war—the senseless waste, the black humor, the scale of loss that leads to dissociative language—seemed summed up in that one, keenly appointed verb. To kill a human being should never be to “pot” one. And yet…Hemingway potted that soldier, and, as the story concludes, “Then three more came over further down the wall. We shot them. They all came just like that.”
It’s worth noting that I read this story sometime around 2011. The number of rejections for my first book of short stories titled Flashes of War—as of then unpublished—was somewhere in the upper twenties. The rejections I received were filled with some of the kindest things anyone has ever said about my writing. Yet time and again, editors concluded something along these lines, “That said, I just can’t imagine how to market a collection of mixed full-length and flash-length stories. Regrettably, I’ll pass.”
Regrettably, too many writers are still receiving rejection letters like that, and while I certainly wouldn’t want any editor to take on a book she or he felt dispassionate about, I do want to beseech all editors (and readers! dear readers!) that the “problem” of marketing or relating to mixed collections isn’t new and it isn’t a problem. The work speaks for itself. In Our Time contains flashes, drabbles, full-length stories, and various indefinables. I suspect its sales are…well…isn’t it enough that almost a hundred years later, it’s still selling? Trends will be trends. We can never outsmart them and it isn’t the business of art to do so.
It is the business of art, however, to make every word count. Potted counts. Potted takes my breath away. Potted says more in two syllables than 50,000 first draft NaNoWriMo words can say in a month. (Ok, I’m not hating on NaNoWriMo, but I am suggesting that deep work leads to precise word choice, and it’s often hard to go deep and go long at the same time, at least in early drafts, while also under pressure.)
In the end, Flashes of War received 44 rejections. After Loyola University Maryland published it, it went on to win to awards, be required reading at the United States Air Force Academy, be studied at more than a dozen universities and colleges, and be embraced by the veteran community. I’m not saying that to tout accomplishments, I’m saying that to prove a point: mixed collections do speak to the human heart, and flash—dribble, drabble, micro, nano, sudden, call it what you will—deserves just as much shelf space as other genres. If Hemingway were alive today and faced with “marketing” and “platforms” and “tweets,” would he keep on shrugging and writing whatever he wanted to write? Easy answer. Hell yes he would, and he’d pot anyone who suggested otherwise.
Katey Schultz is passionate about short form writing and provides feedback to writers via email instruction.
Flash, Back: Kafka’s “A Fratricide”
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Jennifer Fliss discusses the deliciously deep and ominous works of Franz Kafka. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Jennifer Fliss
Somewhere in the middling, flannel, acne-covered early nineties, I was introduced to Franz Kafka, via The Metamorphosis. As someone who didn’t particularly enjoy classic literature, Kafka was a welcome departure. The strangeness and the details left unexplained impressed upon me that part of the fun of reading is leaving something for the reader to parse out – a mystery in form and not only in subject matter. I quickly read through Kafka’s other stories, long and short. And it is in Kafka’s shorter works that I found exactly what I was looking for and what would influence my writing decades after.
Often this style of omission can be difficult for a reader in longer works. When reading novels, my mind wants to grasp onto tangible setting details and storytelling. In really short stories, there isn’t enough physical space for these things and requires the reader to fill in the blanks and work with the writer for a fully composed masterpiece and experience.
One hundred years ago, Kafka’s 775-word story, “A Fratricide” is a very early example of what we now have given the name, “flash fiction.”
The premise is of a man, Schmar, murdering his brother, Wese. The killing is premeditated. As he awaits his brother, we see him sharpening his blade, we feel him hot with nerves, we see what he is wearing; we are in very close narrative distance to Schmar. Also, of importance: Kafka gives us a witness, Pallas, who is watching in his bedclothes from his apartment window.
In this short piece, in a style similar to what we see in many flash pieces today, it is unclear who the narrator is. This is critical. The first line is everything, and is a tell for the reader: The evidence shows that this is how the murder was committed. This means – and I love it – that you can’t actually count on this being the objective truth. This is only what the evidence shows.
In “A Fratricide” there is also some wholly unbelievable dialogue after the murder transpires. Schmar rejoices aloud in the blood-letting. But the words don’t ring true. Presumably, it is what Pallas has reported. And who is Pallas? Kafka asks the reader this pointedly which I believe was Kafka’s way to say – hey, this guy may not be so innocent.
This is all a break from straightforward narrative. In flash fiction, we can do that since flash is often conceptual. Flash writers experiment with all kinds of form and in this way, Kafka does not disappoint.
In my flash, I love writing the intangibles. What can you not grasp onto that is keeping you in the story? Have you caught it in the end? Yes? No? Want to read it again to see if you can parse out the meaning? Because the work is so short, you can easily read and reread it and engage with it on multiple levels and reinterpretations. It can mean something to one reader and something entirely different to another. As a flash fiction writer, you present a stage, throw in some clues as to what your intentions are and leave the rest to the reader.
But you decide. Read the story yourself. It’s brilliant and it reads very modern. One thing to note though is that Kafka was doing it one hundred years ago, a time when James Joyce and Marcel Proust and E.M. Forster were on the scene. These authors were writing long epic novels (Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is over 3000 pages!) filled with rambling sentences with nary a detail left out.
Of “A Fratricide,” others have said the three characters are personifications of Freud’s three elements of personality: id, ego, and superego. And if this was an English class, I’d say: yes, go there. Dig deep. Find meaning. See the obvious parallel to the biblical brothers, Cain and Abel. Look for the layers. But I also enjoy reading this story for the story directly put in front of me. That’s the beauty of flash fiction – it can be so many different things at once.
Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in PANK, The Rumpus, Bartleby Snopes, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She recently won the Fiction Southeast Hell’s Belles Short Fiction Prize. She can be found on Twitter at @JFlissCreative or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com
Flash, Back: Alice Walker’s “The Flowers”
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Insurrections author and former SLQ guest editor, Rion Amilcar Scott, breaks down the beauty and magic of Alice Walker’s short story “The Flowers.” Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
by Rion Amilcar Scott
Once I picked up an anthology and chose the shortest story in the interest of time, but neither time nor brevity functioned as I expected them to. I probably read it quickly—I’m sure I did—but years later part of me is still back in the woods of the story with the little girl protagonist—her name is Myop—puzzling over that disturbing thing I saw. My brain is unable to distinguish the action of the story from memory so images from the brief and intense tale come flitting through my head from time to time.” More so than any story I’ve encountered, it doesn’t feel as if I’ve read “The Flowers” by Alice Walker as much as it feels like I’ve lived it.
The story begins with the lightness of a fable, and somehow without losing that lightness, it takes on, in addition, the darkness of a horror. Myop skips through a clearing engaged in a child’s vocation, collecting flowers. And here is where Walker binds her protagonist to the reader. The author primes us to live the story rather than just read it with a series of notes to the senses. She tells us about the “keenness” in the air that makes Myop’s nose twitch. And then she follows it with this image: “The harvesting of the corn and cotton, peanuts and squash, made each day a golden surprise that caused excited little tremors to run up her jaws.” We go from feeling to sight back to feeling. The images cause a delightful Synesthesia that Walker plays with over and over again in the course of the story’s 563 words.
We learn that Myop is ten and carefree. She bothers chickens, feels the warm sun on her skin and with a stick she taps out a song on a fence (“ the tat-de-ta-ta-ta of accompaniment”). By this point, Walker has been so relentless with her sensory descriptions that the mixed sense effect begins to happen without the author even forcing it. The author mentions pigs and I hear them snort. There is a stream and Walker doesn’t mention it bubbling, but I hear it bubbling and I hear the whisper of its flow.
Then Walker does magic. She writes the sentence: “She found, in addition to various common but pretty ferns and leaves, an armful of strange blue flowers with velvety ridges and a sweet suds bush full of the brown, fragrant buds.” And each time I read it, out of nowhere I smell the sweet purple fragrance of the flora in Myop’s arms. The smell passes through my nasal passages and rests on my tongue until I can taste it. It’s as someone has sprayed the air with a floral perfume. Here I usually look around, feeling my sanity has finally come to an end. What is this weird evocation, but a hallucination?
And after this glorious delusion is where things begin to get dark. It’s noon and Myop is a mile from home, a place Walker says is gloomy. The fragrant air is now replaced by a damp scent. Perhaps we should have seen this change coming, right before the fragrant buds Myop begins looking for snakes, the first hint of danger after paragraphs of beautiful carefree images.
Just as she looks to turn for home, Myop bumps into a skeleton partially buried in the ground. Its clothes are rotted away and its teeth broken. Worst of all, a rope lay around this man’s neck. This was no accident. This was not a case of a poor fool dying of exposure. This man was murdered. He was lynched.
Not only does the finality of death intrude on Myop’s carefree jaunt, but the reality of racialized violence. This could happen to one of the men in her life, she realizes. Myop rests the flowers next to the dead man and leaves. In the end, an understated Walker announces: “And the summer was over.” Poor Myop, she can never have summer again. She can never truly experience the lightness of a nature walk again. She now knows too much of the world.
I’ve read this Walker story over and over, sometimes going from the final word back to the beginning hoping to find more of Walker’s secrets. I’ve read it out loud from semester to semester with my students to show how cleanly the story moves from purpose through perception; trying to figure out just how in the world Walker managed to make writing the perfect short story look easy. But often I leap back to not wanting to know, yearning for the innocence of Myop in the story’s first paragraphs. After all, doesn’t it ruin the magic to unravel all the movements of the illusionist’s hand?
Rion Amilcar Scott’s work has been published in journals such as The Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, PANK, The Rumpus, Fiction International,The Washington City Paper, The Toast, Akashic Books, Melville House and Confrontation, among others. His debut short story collection, Insurrections (
Flash, Back: Virginia Woolf’s “A Haunted House”
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Christopher Allen shares his experience reading Virginia Woolf’s “A Haunted House,” right in time for Halloween. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Christopher Allen
I was in graduate school during the Virginia Woolf craze. Remember that? When all the teenagers were screaming and fainting? Pulling out their hair? Putting rocks in their pockets. Claiming to be channeling Virginia’s ghost? Forget the Beatles; Virginia Woolf was our boy band.
I read everything. The journals. The letters. The essays. The novels. I read Orlando a decade before the film came out. You might say that I dived so deep into the person of Virginia Woolf that it’s a miracle I ever surfaced. Maybe it’s a tragedy. I’ve just reread Woolf’s story “A Haunted House” and am leaning towards the latter. She might have referred to it as a sketch, but as it continues to resonate with readers a hundred years later—it’s more. It’s flash fiction.
We should never ever stop reading Virginia Woolf. And that’s why I’m so happy to have this opportunity to dive right back into this haunting flash back.
One evening—I think it must have been October 1993—I got a call from a colleague of my father’s. He was enjoying a relaxed evening with a bottle of bourbon and he wanted to talk about Virginia Woolf. He needed to convince me that Virginia Woolf was crazy and her writing was a jumble, a bunch of nonsense scribbled down haphazardly for the rest of us to worry over. I think that was the upshot. Stream of consciousness was somehow on trial, and I was its advocate. Because back then we didn’t have caller ID, I found myself trying to teach this drunk guy the difference between reading and writing; meanwhile I had 200 pages of The Wings of the Dove to read. He was under the impression that stream of consciousness writing was unedited narrative vomit spewed onto the page for what it’s worth. Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to read, but that’s not how it’s (normally) written. No matter how I tried to convince this person that Virginia Woolf edited her prose (again and again and again), he simply did not believe me.
Virginia Woolf, you’ll be thrilled to know, went through the same process of writing that many of us go through: we jot, scribble, scrawl down the first draft of a story, put it aside to marinate for months-maybe-years, and take it back out when we think it’s right for a journal. And then we edit, and we edit. And we edit. And, it seems, Woolf’s very short stories fell under an even more scrutinizing eye.
Leonard Woolf, from the foreword to A Haunted House and Other Short Stories, drives this point home:
“It was her custom, whenever an idea for [a short story] occurred to her, to sketch it out in a very rough form and then to put it away in a drawer. Later, if an editor asked her for a short story, and she felt in the mood to write one (which was not frequent), she would take a sketch out of her drawer and rewrite it, sometimes a great many times.”
I did not become acquainted with Woolf as a short story writer. Before I read “A Haunted House,” I’d read To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, Between the Acts, The Waves, The Years, The Voyage Out, A Room of One’s Own and so on. I don’t actually know how I ran across the short story collection. It just appeared one day—or maybe it surfaced. It has been on my bookshelf for decades.
“A Haunted House,” the first story in the collection and one of the stories published in Monday or Tuesday (Woolf’s only short story collection published during her lifetime in 1921), is to my knowledge the first piece of flash fiction I ever read, and of course I had no idea what flash fiction was back then. “A Haunted House” is character-driven prose that has all the elements of Woolf’s longer works: tertian rhythms, effervescent language (bubbling, threshing, pulsing), a narrative that mirrors post-impressionism here and points towards cubism there. It’s so dramatic, maybe melodramatic by today’s standards, and a ghost/love story to boot.
“’Safe, safe, safe,’ the pulse of the house beat softly.” Then gladly, then proudly, then wildly. These moments lend structure and cadence (something so important to Woolf) to this story that I’ll read a hundred times and still find moments buried in its two and a half pages. What I find again and again is a love story. An enviable love story.
“A great many times,” Leonard Woolf told us of Virginia’s editing habits. You can be assured that Woolf chose each word carefully. Even if she wasn’t the sanest person around (and who really cares?), she was an editor. “A Haunted House” is a great introduction to Woolf’s style. All the elements are there. And here. And there. Here is a popular audio version read by Tom O’Bedlam. And a dramatic interpretation that’s pretty cool and a bit wacky and which has not received enough attention.
Christopher Allen’s flash fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Indiana Review, Camroc Press Review, Literary Orphans and lots of other beautiful places. His story “A Clown’s Lips” was the recipient of Ginosko Literary Journal’s award for flash fiction. SmokeLong Quarterly nominated his story “When Chase Prays Chocolate” for the Pushcart and included it in SmokeLong Quarterly: the Best of the First Ten Years (2003-2013). And he’s received a few other nods. Since 2014, Allen has been the managing editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. He lives somewhere in Europe. Find him online at @christopher_all or www.imustbeoff.com.
Flash, Back: Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings”
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Jeanne Jones discusses Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings,” and how it gave her permission to break the rules of traditional storytelling. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Jeanne Jones
When I was in college, I knew I wanted to write, but I thought I was going to be a poet. If you had asked me then, I would have told you I was a poet. I wrote horrible lines in poems with ridiculous titles and I thought I was being mysterious and profound, until my poetry professor finally said, “coughing up ashes again? I think that’s a bit much.”
I also remember reading poems in this class from a book called 45 Contemporary Poems. One of them was Margaret Atwood’s “Variations on the Word Sleep,” which ends with the lines “I would like to be the air/that inhabits you for a moment/only. I would like to be that unnoticed/& that necessary.”
Once I read those lines, I never forgot them. They were everything I was trying to write and failing at, but more important, they showed me just how badly I was failing at it. I couldn’t imagine anyone ever reading that poem and saying, “that unnoticed & that necessary? Don’t you think that’s a bit much?” No. You read that poem and you say: “I’m going to read every Margaret Atwood poem I can find.” If I couldn’t write great poetry, I could certainly be good at reading it.
These were pre-Google days, when making good on a statement like that didn’t mean you had to sit down in font of your computer for the next 17 hours. You just had to make a good faith effort at a library or a book store. My good faith effort turned up Murder in the Dark, Atwood’s 1983 collection of short stories, essays, and prose poems. And nestled in that thin, 110 page collection of 27 pieces was a tiny story called “Happy Endings.”
“Happy Endings,” is not really a story. It’s more of a comment on stories. Or a manual for story writing. Or a comment on life. Or maybe it’s six different stories. But what I loved most about it was its strangeness. It is definitely weird. And back then, when I was learning about story analysis, plot structure, and Freytag’s pyramid in my literature classes, it seemed like a gift to me. A whisper of possibility that I could hear underneath all the different versions of “isn’t that a bit much?”
The story starts with a sentence that is about as basic as you can get in storytelling: “John and Mary meet.” Then Atwood asks us, “What happens next? If you want a happy ending, try A.” So you go to A and you get a basic happy (and boring) plot line, with many cliches and no conflict: John and Mary fall in love, get married, buy a house, have children, who “turn out well,” and eventually they retire and have rewarding hobbies. We are told three times in the space of one paragraph that John and Mary’s life is “stimulating and challenging.” Atwood ends section A with, “This is the end of the story.”
But then there is section B, where we move into conflict. John doesn’t fall in love with Mary and Mary ends up doing things no self-respecting woman wants to see herself doing, eventually killing herself. And then section C, where John is an older man falling for Mary, who is only twenty-two. Section C adds more complications, and two more people—Madge and Fred. Eventually we find out that John buys a handgun. And here is where Atwood gives us an aside, saying, “this is the thin part of the plot, but it can be dealt with later.”
Now this was something new to me. A story that comments on itself? Are you allowed to do that?
With every section of this story I discovered a new possibility I thought writers were not allowed to do. In section D, the couple is getting along “exceptionally well,” until a giant tidal wave destroys everything, killing thousands of people. In section E, Atwood tells us we can substitute items in the story. “If you like, it can be ‘Madge,’ ‘cancer,’ ‘guilty and confused,’ and ‘bird-watching.’” In section F, she exhorts us to try to turn it into a story of political intrigue, “and see how far that gets you.” And finally, in the end, she warns us not to be deluded by the deliberately fake endings we may have read in other stories. She reminds us that in stories, as in life, the only authentic ending is death. And she repeats it three times to make sure we get it: “John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.”
This story made fun of everything I learned about story making. And it was hilarious. (Atwood says, about trying to turn the story into one of political espionage, “Remember, this is Canada.”) Here was the same woman who had written those meaningful lines about love and longing that I would carry with me for the rest of my life now telling me that fiction writing is basically “one thing after another, a what and a what and a what” and showing me that it doesn’t have to be that way. You can try something new if you like.
I carried on with my tortured poetry for another few years before I decided to write fiction instead. And when I did, I had this lesson as my fortress, always with me as a sort of encouragement. The lesson, as I read it, is there really is no wrong way to do it, and if you’re having fun while you’re doing it, it’s even better.
When one of my pieces was finally accepted for publication, the editor told me it landed “firmly on the lap of experimental fiction” they were looking for. I had thought, at the time, that I had written a narrative with a traditional story arc, but if they were publishing it, they could sit it on whatever lap they wanted. I have since realized that just knowing that “Happy Endings” exists has allowed me the freedom to make up whatever structure feels right for my story.
I recently read that Atwood compared writing “Happy Endings” to “scribbling anonymously on a wall with no one looking.” She believed she had discovered a new mutant literary form and that it was “disappointing to learn that other people had a name for such aberrations (metafiction), and had already made up rules.” I like the thought of Atwood creating graffiti and ignoring rules she didn’t even know were there. It gives me encouragement to do the same. “Happy Endings” was a new form to me when I came across it, and it still reads like a revelation every time I read it.
Jeanne Jones is a graduate of the Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University. A writing teacher in the Washington metropolitan area, her work has appeared or soon will in Abundant Grace: Fiction by D.C. Area Women and online at American Short Fiction, Barrelhouse, and the EEEL, among other publications. She lives in Hyattsville, Maryland, with her husband and two children.
Flash, Back: Revisiting Jayne Anne Phillips
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. Writer and professor, Jacqueline Doyle, is the first in this series. She introduces the column by revisiting Jayne Anne Phillips’ Black Tickets and Sweethearts, and evaluating their subliminal influence on her writing. Submit your own “Flashback” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Jacqueline Doyle
The spine of my mass-market Laurel paperback of Jayne Anne Phillips’ Black Tickets is broken, whole sections falling out, the paper brittle and yellow. A price sticker on the blue cover reads $3.95. On the flyleaf: my name and “Ithaca, July 1983.” I was back in graduate school at Cornell then, following a hiatus from my studies after my divorce. It was humid and hot. I had a summer scholarship and I was in love, spending a lot of time at my new boyfriend’s studio apartment downtown, long lazy days when I could read for fun. I don’t know how I described the very short stories in Black Tickets to myself at the time. It would be years before the term “flash” meant anything to me. My boyfriend was a writer in the MFA program, but I was working on a PhD, where we barely touched on contemporary literature. It would be years before I became a writer myself.
That summer I was also reading Edgar Allan Poe for my dissertation, who favored compression, the “short prose narrative, requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal,” cautioning against “undue brevity” but even more against “undue length” (his own tales requiring less than half an hour to read). I was reading and re-reading “The Waste Land,” beguiled by T.S. Eliot’s juxtapositions of glittering fragments. I was reading Virginia Woolf, who predicted that women writers of the coming century would engage in new experimentation, introduce new subjects (particularly the unrecorded lives of women), produce books “adapted to the body” (“at a venture one would say that women’s books should be shorter, more concentrated, than those of men, and framed so that they do not need long hours of steady and uninterrupted work”). I was reading Adrienne Rich, who was “diving into the wreck” of old forms and outworn myths and emerging with new ones, and Audre Lorde, who proclaimed that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Everything I was reading prepared me for what I was going to teach, and write about, and write myself in years to come, but I didn’t know that, stretched out on the green cotton blanket on my boyfriend’s double bed in front of the oscillating fan. Everything was fertile ground for my understanding of Jayne Anne Phillips, but I wasn’t thinking about that either. I only knew that her words jumped off the page and stayed with me.
I might have called the opening story an ekphrastic vignette, if I’d been asked to classify it, though the word vignette suggests a marginal literary form, something slight. Not a portrait as powerful as “Wedding Picture,” which dives below the surface of the photograph it describes to explore the body “under the cloth” of the bride’s white wedding suit, what we can’t see or hear (“Her heart makes a sound that no one hears”), along with the history we can’t know. When “Wedding Picture” was included in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction in 2009, Phillips voiced her objections to the term “flash” (“there’s nothing flashy or spangled or shiny (superficial) about a great one-page fiction”), but also expressed her conviction that such fiction rivals other genres in importance. “The successful one-page fiction is a whole story in a paragraph or three: just as strong, tensile, and whole as the well-written story, novella, novel.”
I didn’t know at the time that Black Tickets originated in a flash chapbook (Sweethearts, from Truck Press, which I’ve miraculously unearthed in the Special Collections of my university library). But I did sense that the 16 very short stories were somehow primary in Black Tickets, not just secondary to the 11 longer ones. John Irving in his New York Times review didn’t agree. He called them “miniatures” (descriptive, but also dismissive), and “ditties” (not descriptive at all, and derogatory). His largely positive review was suffused with sexist condescension, starting with repeated references to “Miss Phillips.” (Surely not all female writers in 1979 were called Miss X? Or maybe they were. The first volume of the Norton Anthology of American Literature back then included only one woman, Emily Dickinson, whom the critics all called Emily, though male writers were referred to by surname.) Irving opened his review: “Of the almost 30 short fictions collected here, there are about 10 beauties and 10 that are perfectly satisfying and then there are 10 ditties—some of them, single paragraphs—that are so small, isolated and mere exercises in ‘good writing’ that they detract from the way the best of this book glows.” He didn’t discount all of Phillips’ short fictions (“I don’t want to suggest that all of her smaller pieces are ‘ditties’”), but expressed the hope that she’d write a novel.
The Great American Novel, the bigger the better! Phillips has obliged by writing a number of great long novels, but no female writers have been credited with writing the Great American Novel, which is surely a male provenance, even a reflection of the expansive imperialism of American manifest destiny. In a craft essay in Brevity, Joy Castro echoes A Room of One’s Own and Tillie Olsen’s Silences when she draws attention to privilege and the Great American Novel: “Every time we praise a literary book for its heft, we contribute to a kind of aesthetic confusion. The sheer length of a text is not a mark of its literary excellence or worth. Rather, it’s a reflection of the material conditions of the author’s life.” She herself began writing flash, she says, when she was a single mother struggling to make ends meet, living below the poverty line, overwhelmed by student loans and the demands of childcare. “Short forms,” Castro writes, “especially flash forms—are particularly amenable to writers snatching time from obligations. Such writers by definition include family caregivers, who continue to be mostly women, and people from poverty and the working class.”
This time around I’m reading Black Tickets as a writer, and paying particular attention to the flash. The narrative point of view varies (first person, third person, first person plural), but all of the narrators and protagonists in the flash fictions are female, most of them below the poverty line, most of them adolescent and preadolescent girls, “white an dewy an tickin like a time bomb.” They sleep together, drink together, read movie magazines together, go to matinees, tell pornographic and scary stories, sing along with the radio, flee boys, take care of their fathers. A stripper gives her fifteen-year-old cousin advice about appealing to the clientele. “With that long blond hair you can’t lose. An don’t you paint your face till you have to, every daddy wants his daughter.” A junior high girl pregnant by her brother, ostracized at school and at home, dismembers her unwanted newborn. “Next morning she sits in the house alone while the others shout and sweat at a revival in Clinger’s Field. The dogs come in with pieces in their mouths.” In “What It Takes to Keep a Young Girl Alive,” a girl with a summer job at a theme park watches as a body is carried out of her dormitory: “One day they carried a girl out of the barracks wrapped in an army blanket. They found her in the showers. Sue saw her rounded buttocks sag the olive wool. Inside there she was sticky.” The collection ends with a longer story narrated by a male serial killer. What does it take to keep a young girl alive?
The flash are both spare and rich, image-driven and rhythmically complex, the language lyrical, but also raw and visceral. In her Field Guide essay, Phillips draws attention to the radical compression and subversive potential of flash: “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I taught myself to write by writing one-page fictions. I found in the form the density I needed, the attention to the line, the syllable. I began writing as a poet. In the one-page form, I found the freedom of the paragraph. I learned to understand the paragraph as secretive and subversive. The poem in broken lines announces itself as a poem, but the paragraph seems innocent, workaday, invisible.”
Irving let his critical guard down and unwittingly exposed himself when he wrapped up his New York Times review with the line, “This is a sweetheart of a book.” The context makes his compliment potentially comic. He’d even quoted the relevant passage from Phillips’ flash “Sweetheart,” undaunted by the fact that it’s a dirty old man who hugs the preteen girls and calls them sweethearts: “Stained fingers kneading our chests, he wrapped us in old tobacco and called us his little girls. I felt his wrinkled heart wheeze like a dog on a leash. Sweethearts, he whispered.”
It’s a warm hazy day in September when I drive into campus to look at Phillips’ chapbook Sweethearts, by appointment, in the Special Collections Room at our library. A California State University campus with overtaxed faculty, low income students, and a drastically waning budget, we don’t have the kind of library that houses special collections, or even many books published in the last couple of decades, so I’m surprised and gratified to discover Sweethearts, long out of print. Classes don’t start for a week, and the campus is deserted, apart from workers in hard hats drilling in the parking lots and raising dust in the library courtyard.
The 1976 chapbook from Truck Press in North Carolina is off white, yellowed at the top and bottom, with the sepia wedding photo described in “Wedding Picture” on the cover. I sit down and read the entire collection, 24 flash, none more than a page, 13 of which made their way into Black Tickets in 1979. It takes me a bit over half an hour, well within Poe’s parameters for the ideal prose narrative. In Black Tickets, the flash are amplified by the longer stories, which explore male as well as female characters (often pairs of middle class daughters and mothers). The men are sad and divorced, old and sick, angry and violent. Reading Sweethearts is a different experience, focused more on the private world of young girls. “Chloe likes Olivia,” Woolf observed of the fictional Mary Carmichael’s experimental novel, imagining fiction in the future that would focus on women in relation to each other and not solely in relation to men. “We lay on a cot pretending we were Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee, touching each other’s stomachs and never pulling our pants down,” Phillips writes in “Stars.” “The Lettermen did billowing movie themes. There’s a summer place, they sang. Where our hearts. Will know. All our hopes. She put her face on my chest. You be the boy now, she whispered.” Summer over, the other girl writes letters to the ten-year-old narrator. “Just because you’re a year older than me, her last one said, is no reason not to answer.” Sweethearts vibrates with the energy of the girls’ intimacies and betrayals. I love reading the flash gathered together on their own.
Rereading Black Tickets and reading Sweethearts for the first time has been a revelation. I’ve kept up with Phillips’ novels, even taught Machine Dreams, but I haven’t thought about Black Tickets for years, or about the graduate student lounging in front of the fan during that hot Ithaca summer, innocent of her future. Pressed to name a literary influence on my upcoming flash chapbook The Missing Girl, I might have said Joyce Carol Oates, maybe Sherwood Anderson. But now I wonder whether Jayne Anne Phillips played a greater role, both her formal innovations and her themes and sensibility, even though I was unconscious of it. The effects of my first introduction to flash may have lingered and reverberated for over thirty years.
The one-page story continues after the last line, according to Phillips. “Fast, precise, over. And not over.”
Jacqueline Doyle’s flash chapbook The Missing Girl (forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2017) won the Black River Chapbook Competition. She has published flash in Quarter After Eight, [PANK], Monkeybicycle, Sweet, Café Irreal, The Pinch, Nothing to Declare: A Guide to the Flash Sequence (White Pine Press, 2016), and many online journals. Her creative nonfiction and fiction have earned two Pushcart nominations, a Best of the Net nomination, and two Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband (the MFA with the studio apartment) and their son.