One of the most famous short stories is just six words long. A great literary anecdote has Ernest Hemingway pioneering this immortal flash fiction:
Apparently, Ernest Hemingway was lunching at Luchow’s with a number of writers and claimed that he could write a short story that was only six words long. Of course, the other writers balked. Hemingway told each of them to put ten dollars in the middle of the table; if he was wrong, he said, he’d match it. If he was right, he would keep the entire pot. He quickly wrote six words down on a napkin and passed it around; Papa won the bet. The words were ‘FOR SALE, BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN.’ A beginning, a middle and an end!
The story sounds too good to be true, and it probably is. A long exploration by the Quote Investigator blogger, who traces the provenance of famous literary quotations, found no evidence that the ‘baby shoes’ story was Hemingway’s original idea. Versions of it had appeared in different forms of public media, going back to the 1910s.
Flash fiction is popular with books editors, because it fills space, and not too much space to deter the casual reader. You can crowdsource it on Twitter, offer a prize and hey, that’s one part of the literary review that you don’t have to write. And it gets results. Extreme brevity can spark up flashes of genius. The principle of the unwritten – Hemingway’s iceberg – is fired up by radical constraint. I remember one day my timeline was full of some six-word-crime-novel competition, and some of the entries were scarier than anything from Søren Sveistrup or Jo Nesbo.
The downside of the flash fiction is that too often it reverts to a basic narrative arc. The obvious deduction from Hemingway’s ‘baby shoes’ story (not the only possible, but the one that immediately occurs) is that the unfortunate infant has died. It’s what Lee and Herring called the ‘pull back and reveal’ or ‘And then I got off the bus’ joke. Restriction of the form makes its content big and obvious. To illustrate what I mean, here’s what Jeffrey Archer came up with, when asked to write some 140-character ‘Twitter fiction’ for the Guardian:
‘It’s a miracle he survived,’ said the doctor. ‘It was God’s will,’ said Mrs Schicklgruber. ‘What will you call him?’ ‘Adolf,’ she replied.
Do you see? The baby is safe, which is great – but, oh no, he grows up to be Hitler! Archer has subverted your expectations and thence the literary magic arose. (I like that the master storyteller makes a point of identifying the mother as Mrs Schicklgruber, the old Hitler family name, before deciding that maybe this is too subtle and just really spelling it out for the Guardian’s witless readers.)
So I can understand then why the novelist Nicholas Royle told me that ‘twitter fiction is neither big nor clever. It’s not ambitious, not impressive and certainly not satisfying. In short, it’s bollo[cks].’ I have written flash fiction myself, but in retrospect, my flash stuff also relies too heavily on the pull back and reveal. And yet there’s possibilities here. Didn’t Faulkner say that the writer should be able to see the world in a grain of sand? I wonder how far down you can compress before you lose the capacity for narrative altogether. Maybe the ultimate flash story would just be an ‘=’ symbol?
So flash ain’t for everyone, and its best proponent is probably the Manchester writer David Gaffney. Get hold of his first collection, Sawn Off Tales, in which he creates glimpses with the scope of alternate worlds. And he does a killer last line. The one I’ll always remember is: ‘The publicist wouldn’t stop crying.’
(Image: Dr Sean Kenniff)