Mother literature has four distinct children: the novel, stout, stable, liable to bagginess; the novella, a trimmed bush filled with promise; the short story, well-defined and knowing what it wants; and the poem, dreaming and dreading too much responsibility. Then there are the cousins and the bastard children born throughout millennia of unfettered literary fornication, too many to mention. Among them is one child, small and perfectly formed that goes back centuries, too, but that has lived in the shadows for too long, biding its time until the emergence of the web: its name is flash fiction, and it is ready to shine.Flash means maximum control in a minimal space, without the bonds or the freedom of poetic expression. The smallness of the (visible) canvas combined with the potential of the prose brush engenders a state of trance, a temporary loss of balance. The flash writer is constantly compared with his more established kinsfolk, much like a bonsai tree artist who is accused of being a dwarfish version of a landscape gardener. It is this tension that appeals to me about flash: it calls for both a technical and a critical response. I am trying to meet the technical challenges with my own flash fiction, which mostly deals with large canvas themes of an existentialist nature, tempered by absurdism. Over the next months, I will write four fictions, each of them focused on, and inspired by one of four European forerunners of flash fiction: Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), and Robert Walser (1878-1956). Except Walser, who, a confined lunatic, turned into an obsessive master compactor, you might not identify any of these as proper “flash writers”. But the power of Kierkegaard’s philosophy stems also from the strength of his very short parables, strewn across a vast authorship, many contained in his massive “Either/Or” (1843). Baudelaire, the poet of evil long before Stephen King picked up his pen, published the first collection of flash in the form of “Paris Spleen” (1869), properly called “petits poèmes en prose”, and not evil at all. I read Maugham’s short stories long before I realized he had written novels, too (and much else): in “On A Chinese Screen” (1922) he published pure flash, a book of sketches conceived while traveling through China. Of course, there are many other favorite writers known for their mastery of the (very) short form waiting in the wings, but seeing this year really is my last year of flash I wanted to take a look at the very early flash folks, the dead dons, and lastly there must be an end to everything.
In accompanying short editorial notes I will attempt to build the bridges between these writers and our contemporary practice of flash fiction. By doing this, I hope to strengthen the historical and conceptual foundation of flash fiction. To tune in while you wait, check out voices of contemporary flash writers in “How To Write Flash Fiction” at Awkword Paper Cut, gathered by Michelle Elvy. And if you’ve caught the bug, submit to Flash Mob 2013, the International Flash Fiction Day competition, which also includes a conversation with Flash Mob 2013 host Chris Allen.
Written for an (unsuccessful) application for the Kathy Fish Fellowship, a writer in residence scheme by flash fiction magazine Smokelong Quarterly.