A Brief Symposium on “Flash”


With Joseph Aguilar, Danielle Lazarin, Patricia Colleen Murphy, & Alicita Rodríguez

Moderated by Angela Bogart-Monteith & Taylor Kirby

For issue 24’s “22 Flash Fictions” feature, Copper Nickel received a significant range of work—alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) concise and expansive, narrative and lyric, quiet and explosive. “Flash fiction” as a genre (or subgenre) has often proved difficult to define, which was well demonstrated for us as the feature came together. With that in mind, we asked Joseph Aguilar, Danielle Lazarin, Patricia Colleen Murphy, and Alicita Rodríguez—all feature contributors, and all writing very different versions of “flash”—to engage with each other in response to the following questions.

Is there a lineage of flash fiction? What do you think are significant moments in the history of flash?

RODRÍGUEZ: There is definitely a lineage for flash fiction—and it goes back way farther than people imagine. You can find short prose pieces in many cultures around the world from centuries ago. For example, there are very brief Icelandic sagas that might be labeled flash fiction. In the twentieth century, the form goes farther back than people think too. Jorge Luis Borges wrote many short shorts, including “Borges and I,” a sort of philosophical doppelganger story. One significant moment in the history of flash fiction is Augusto Monterroso’s one-sentence microrelato titled “The Dinosaur.” It succeeds in part because Spanish syntax allows for ambiguity in a way that English does not.

AGUILAR: Yeah, I love that Monterroso story! And I agree, the lineage goes way back. For example, in Julio Ortega’s contribution to Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction—an essay called “A Flash Before the Bang”—Ortega writes that “The first story ever, I read somewhere, appears on an ancient Egyptian tablet and declares that ‘John went out on a trip.’ How do we know that this is a flash fiction and not a document? Because no one during that time period could have left his town on his own will.” Ortega goes on to say that this ancient Egyptian example of “flash fiction,” like most enjoyable narratives since, also features an active protagonist who performs a “breaking of a code”—so even in this very old story, the author is already following Charles Baxter’s advice for writers to invent protagonists who aren’t afraid to “create a scene.” Other forms that might fit in the category of flash fiction—like parables, fables, and aphorisms—have also been around forever. Speaking of aphorisms, has anybody read Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments yet? It’s amazing.

MURPHY: I’m currently reading The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem and just today read the passage where he’s talking about the story Lolita that was written in 1916, about Dylan pilfering from everyone from Shakespeare to Fitzgerald. Lethem says, “Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time.” If I’m tracing the significant moments in the history of flash, I’m going back to Breton in 1920’s Paris. But then I must admit I’m a poet.

LAZARIN: You’ve all answered this question far better than I can, but I want to add that for those of us who write longer, we are often encouraged to leave flash behind. Flash is sometimes taught as a swing point between poetry and long-form fiction, a training ground for story when it should be studied as a culmination of many of these forms, requiring respect for and mastery of both line and arc. I think what you need to write well at any length is well tested by flash, but it often exists as a netherland without its own canon. I’m not for the record, in favor of canons, but I’d like to see what folks would build for flash.

Some critics argue flash can range from 25 to 1,500 words. If the form’s boundaries are so generously defined, what makes a piece not flash? Does the line exist?

MURPHY: Does that depend on the author? The editor? The contest? The anthology? As an editor and author, I think about flash more in terms of what it’s not doing than in terms of length. For me flash eschews the more traditional narrative arc; it develops character in surprising ways. I’m the founding editor of Superstition Review, and I published a piece by Molly Giles recently that was just under 700 words. Our editors were most attracted to voice, and I think that might be a better marker than length—at least for us.

AGUILAR: I also think the boundaries around what sort of length exactly makes flash flash can be pretty arbitrary and subjective. The question of genre feels slippery, too. Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments is classified as “essays.” Norman Lock’s Grim Tales (one of my favorite collections of flash) is classified as “a novella.” There’s power to name and define for whoever curates the work. But speaking personally, I do think that flash fiction, to be flash fiction, should show extreme pressure and extreme focus, from top down. There should be nothing at all that’s extra. Maybe that’s an obvious thing to say. Also there should be movement. There should be an arc, however slight.

RODRÍGUEZ: I agree that there’s got to be “extreme pressure.” I don’t consider 1500 words flash fiction, as I think it’s too much breathing room. I think 500 words is too generous as well, for that matter. Having said that, I’d love to read a structuralist theory of flash fiction.

LAZARIN: I’m on board with defining flash as a deliberate intensity on the writer’s part. The curation of the word limits, as everyone has noted, is mostly the publishing business end of it; the selection of how many words you need to tell a story is ultimately the writer’s burden. How difficult do you make that challenge? The shorter my word count, the more I think about what I can get away with not writing down while aiming to say as much as I would in a story two or ten times as long. For me, this is when flash can fail, if it doesn’t aim to say as much, if the writer gives themself an out because of word count. Never give yourself an out. Also, Alicita’s boundaries scare the hell out of me, as someone who works mostly in longer form, but in a delightful way.

How do you decide whether to submit your work as flash or prose poetry? Does this decision happen at the beginning of the writing or at the end?

MURPHY: For me it comes at the end. I have several pieces that started as poems but I realized they were actually flash. I even have pieces that were published as poetry that I think are not really poems, they are flash. This reminds me of a story. I’m writing a memoir and it’s really, really, hard. So I signed up for this writing workshop with Nick Flynn, and we had a full week of assignments and workshopping, and then he also did a consult on one of my chapters. He read my chapter and he hated it. He said to me, “Why are you so controlling?” Ha ha ha. Which I am but that’s not really the advice I was looking for at the time. Anyway, the traditional chapter was pretty vapid. But on the last day of class he had us read what we had composed over the course of the workshop. When it was my turn to read he was floored and loved the piece. He said, “Why don’t you do that in your memoir?” And I replied, “Because this is a poem.” He said, “Well who cares then. Write more poems.” Prose does not come naturally to me. I wonder how many writers of flash are poets in drag.

AGUILAR: Rosmarie Waldrop coined the really useful term “gap gardening” which, if I understand it correctly, refers to the rich territory in the gaps between sentences of prose, and how those gaps, in a prose poem, can serve a similar purpose as line breaks in lineated poems. So when the logical gaps between sentences start to feel larger, disjunctive to the point where narrative feels disrupted, I tend to think whatever I’m writing shifts more toward prose poetry. When those gaps feel narrower, more seamless, more in service of the overall narrative, I tend to think I’m still writing prose. But honestly, I don’t send out many of the prose poems I write these days, mostly because everyone rejects them except Caketrain, and Caketrain is on a hiatus.

RODRÍGUEZ: I don’t think about genre while I’m writing. I like Joseph’s reading of gaps in terms of helping with classification, but I avoid the whole issue by submitting my work as “short prose.” That annoys some editors, but it also frees up others. I had an editor contact me because he wanted to publish some of my shorts as nonfiction. I didn’t see it as nonfiction in the least, but he made a good argument about truth and subjectivity, so I went with it.

AGUILAR: Short prose! That’s smart.

LAZARIN: For everyone’s sake, I haven’t written any poetry since college. My brain presorts—I don’t think I’ve yet toggled fiction into nonfiction, or vice versa; it generally emerges in the genre it will end up as. Thinking about genre early helps me select details, to decide the boundaries I’d like the reader to have for my work, how much of that truth and subjectivity that Alicita mentions they’re going to be hunting for, and how I’m going to fulfill that promise to give it to them.

Do you feel that your flash fiction work is in conversation with other flash and/or other theorists?

MURPHY: Hm. Maybe not—although I love Sabrina Orah Mark, who wrote a book of prose poems called The Babies and has published flash as well like this piece in The Collagist. If I’m in conversation with other flash, it’s probably because I tried to write a poem and accidentally wrote flash.

AGUILAR: The flash fiction I’ve been writing lately is very much in conversation with Clarice Lispector’s novels for whatever reason. I read The Hour of the Star, Near to the Wild Heart, and Agua Viva for the first time last summer, which also happened to be when I got my first typewriter. Typewriters are great for flash.

RODRÍGUEZ: I too love typewriters (not just for flash, although that makes perfect sense). I always go back to Julio Cortázar’s book Cronopios and Famas—all flash fiction. The first section is written as an “Instruction Manual” with stories that explain how to do everyday activities like climbing stairs, crying, and looking at paintings. It’s brilliant—but it’s also fun. There’s not a lot of great fiction that’s also happy, but this is both. I am always trying to write happy . . . and failing. So I guess I’m having a one-sided conversation with poor Cortázar.

LAZARIN: I’m with Joseph here in citing novels, but for me, I returned to writing flash after many years because I was working on longer-form work myself (a novel I’ve since buried, and another after that that still lives). Flash became a way, as all those other forms are, of testing the boundaries of language and my own narrative abilities, of playing with distillation and scope. A few months ago I read and loved Lucy Corin’s A Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses, a collection which begins with a few longer stories and then gives you these smaller ones that work in cahoots with one another, which is, after all, more or less what a novel is, right? I love this idea of flash building a larger world that isn’t an arc in this case but an impression of lives, the way someone would tell you about a country they’ve lived in or visited. And alone, they each are enough to smash your heart into a hundred pieces. Maybe that’s the apocalypses the title refers to.

AGUILAR: Like Danielle, I also started writing flash (and poetry) as a way of testing out language—for me, it almost became a quest for the line that felt and sounded as perfect and inevitable as I could manage (to my own ear, at least). I’m working on a novel now and I like to write very short things in-between when I can. Working together with those extremes of scope seems to benefit both the big and the small projects—the short stuff helps me stay close to the elegance of how words fit together, the big stuff helps me keep in mind larger narrative movement.

Do you think flash will become a more dominantly written/read form as people’s attention spans (presumably) get shorter? If not, what is the source of its increasing allure?

MURPHY: As an editor I do believe flash will become more alluring. But it’s not just due to the brevity. I know from reading hundreds of short story submissions that I like a little thrill when I read. Maybe it’s easier to innovate with a short short form. I can read subs for an hour and get ten twenty pagers that are so literal, and I don’t just mean that they use realism. I mean they tell the reader exactly what there is to know. With flash there’s a tendency to be more poetic, more risky, less obvious. I find that when I come to the 2-3 page story after reading so many heady pieces it can be a real break in form and function.

AGUILAR: It’s weird, because I feel like if anything, people have been getting into the long, dense novel cycles—Ferrante, Knausgaard, Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy—or big, ambitious books like A Little Life or The Idiot or City on Fire—that’s where a lot of the buzz has seemed to be. But also, I kind of avoid the Internet as much as I can, so maybe I’m looking at the wrong places?

RODRÍGUEZ: I’m out of touch with social media, very much on purpose. However, I’d like to see a good editor collect Twitter stories (or text tales or whatever), just to see if people with short attention spans can use that type of thinking as a constraint.

LAZARIN: No. Short attention spans don’t really correspond to the length of prose a reader is willing to engage with. If anything, the complaint I hear as a short story writer is that at any length, short stories are too jarring and people want to “invest” in a story, to be intimate with characters and setting for longer. Shorter pieces can require more brain work, even if they take less time to read. I think what’s off-putting about flash or poetry is the space it leaves for the reader to wonder if they “get it.” It’s intimidating, and I think only the most intrepid readers go there. The more prose there is, the bigger the safety net. As for allure, I think a few bigger-name writers have had success in shorter form because they are more or less badasses. Citizen, for example, contains what I’d argue are bits of flash, and that book is widely read, but it’s a unicorn, right? Maggie Nelson’s work speaks, too, to the short bursts of heavy lifting and Lydia Davis’s work seems to be everywhere—but I don’t think any of these books are gaining success because of short attention spans, but because they’re masters of their form and can do whatever they want well.

AGUILAR: Such good points, Danielle. And I’m sure other people out there have already said this better than I will, but I wonder how much readers’ desires to feel more intimate with characters and setting and story than flash might allow for—combined with the way that many people receive much of their information (in bursts and fragments)—could make big, ambitious stories feel that much more like a unique experience. Those huge novels allow for something hard to find online—slow, expansive, tactile (you can feel the weight of the book’s ambition in your hands), immersive, and kind of cumbersome even. They’re delightfully not in tune with the spirit of the age. Though I also love what you say about flash being intimidating in its own way because of the sort of charged focus it demands.