Thursday, 9 June 2011

"Short Fiction in Theory and Practice"

Short Fiction in Theory and Practice (Vol 1) has some interesting articles. I'll mention 2 that offer reasons for the devaluing of some genres

In 'Making micro meanings: reading and writing microfiction', Holly Howitt-Dring says that the classifications of poetry, prose poetry and Flash (which she calls microfiction) are blurred, mentioning that Forché's "The Colonel" has been in both Flash-fiction and prose-poem anthologies. But she also thinks that at the core of microfiction is a discernable genre - "Stealing poetic techniques, truncating those of prose, it seems like the offspring of some ill-fated alliance, but in fact microfiction uses the best parts of both genres and is a genre in its own right, as it functions and speaks in a new and different way to both" (p.57). She tries to identify some common features of pieces that are classified as Flash/microfiction. As well as being formatted as prose,

  • "Microfictions usually start in the middle of an action, or, in some cases, a thought.", p.53
  • "Microfiction is often only about a small idea, and the relevance of the miniscule of the major, and focusing on an image, which is, in this case simple, highlights the consequence of the small thing.". p.54
  • "microfictions are ... small, and subtle, epiphanies ... reached not by some narrative trick, but by a realisation that the moment depicted in the microfiction has changed everything, that there has been a shift in what the reader believed or expected, and that this has had significance.", p.54

She writes that the lack of space for prolonged character development has led to the use of the punch-line as a way to make the reader experience the large consequences of small things, but over-dependence on this may devalue the genre. Even reliance on the more subtle ways of hinting at (rather than showing) change may be detrimental to the genre - "Because microfiction could be viewed as stories working solely by implication, I feel that they have been mistrusted and sidelined in literature" (p.56)

I knew that popular magazines used to publish lots of stories (by Conan-Doyle, etc). Sarah Whitehead's 'Reader as consumer: the magazine short story' points out that even Joyce, Borges and Mansfield were published in strange places (Joyce had 3 stories published in a farmer's magazine ("The Irish Homestead"), Borges was in "Playboy", and Katherine Mansfield's stories were published alongside ads for furniture and face treatment). The article suggests that magazines influenced the development of the short story. Here are some quotes

  • "At a time when virtually every piece of short fiction was initially and often only published in a periodical, the short story was just one of the many texts including articles, advertising and illustrations ... tempting both impulse buyers and faithful subscribers who would be lured by fact and fiction through pages of advertisements", p.72
  • "by the 1890s The Strand was selling more than half a million copies a month", p.74
  • "The unprecedented and unrepeated growth of the magazine industry, which underpinned the growth and popularity of the short story genre, was the catalyst, if not the source of twentieth-century critical dismissal of the form.", p.79
  • "The growth of the magazine industry at the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century maps the most important chapter in the history of the short story and has directly influenced the nature of the form as it exists today ... The magazine story has imbued the short story genre as a whole with the value of the disposable, the appeal of the marginalized and the inexorable link between literature and consumer culture.", p.82


  1. I talk about punch-lines all the time, both in prose and poetry, but punch-lines belong at the end of jokes surely? I think we can learn a lot by looking at how jokes are constructed and how little information we truly need to engage with the story. I’ve been meaning to do some research on this for a blog for ages now. I really must look into it further.

  2. Maybe I should have just the word 'twist' instead. Here's another quote from the article

    One feature often seen as the definitive hallmark of microfiction, is the ‘twist’: "[T]he twist ending allows the writer to pack some punch at the end of the story. Flash fiction is often twist-ending fiction because you don’t have enough time to build up sympathetic characters and show how a long, devastating plot has affected them. Like a good joke, flash fiction is often streamlined to the punch-line at the end." - (Thomas n.d.). I am very uneasy with this concept of microfiction being a ‘good joke’, and being structured towards a literary ‘punch-line’.