The following notes are from a ten-minute talk for AWP, April 10, 2015.
Please excuse the short-hand logic and colloquial grammar
—Robert Shapard, Editor
I want to talk about 4 topics. 1) the aim of this anthology, 2) how American flash differs from world flash, 3) something called “Flash Theory,” 4) how we constructed the anthology.
1) Flash fiction has become hugely popular world wide. The aim was to capture that. But there was a problem. Americans love reading international fiction. Think of Stieg Larson’s “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “A Hundred Years of Solitude”, which sold millions of copies. Garcia Marquez said his biggest influence, beside his grandmother, was William Faulkner. That was international to him. Edgar Alan Poe was unknown in America until the French discovered him. Baudelaire wanted to be the French Poe. American learned about Poe from the French. That’s how it works, influences from one country to another. So why haven’t we seen more flash fiction from other countries before now? It’s very frustrating. Maybe you can’t make a living translating very short pieces. Publishers want a novel, it’s understandable, much easier to market. So—we’re trying to fill a void.
2 &3) Tara Laskowski of Smokelong Quarterly asked us in an interview about the difference between American and international flash fiction. One of her questions was: Is the way someone in the Middle East writes very short fiction different from someone in Canada?
Not just differences in geography or culture, but ways of writing—that’s interesting. And hard to pin down. There’s more variation between writers than countries. But I’ll try a couple of examples—it’s common in North America for flashes to be grounded in traditional scene with realistic detail, or showing; in Latin America, they’re more likely to be grounded in narrative, or telling. Mainland Chinese stories use a conversational tone, maybe that’s a proletarian stance. Japan loves weird re-workings of fairy tales. When you read a whole collection of flashes from around the world, an intriguing picture emerges. But we need ways to talk about flash. There’s nothing in the the library on the flash form, like there is on the novel. Actually there are books, like the Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, and lots of articles on flash— there was a good one by Grant Faulkner in the latest Writer’s Digest. But the focus has been on how to write flash. We wanted to take a wider view. So we included a small section, at the end of the anthology, called “Flash Theory.” Some people hear the word “theory” and think long, boring. But a flash theory, hey, that’s like one sentence. (Or maybe 2 or 3).) It’s sort of tongue- in-cheek, yet mostly serious. Each “theory” is on some different aspect of flash.
Here’s Chen Yizhi, from a book on contemporary Chinese flash fiction. “The flame of complete combustion has a blue tinge. It is a beautiful color; it is a ferocious color. A piece of writing is powerful if its words are ‘completely combusted.’” This is an argument for effective prose. If all your words don’t pull their weight, if they don’t combust or burn completely, then you’re going to get soot. Tell your students, try not to write sooty prose.
Lia Purpura. She’s had poems in the New Yorker recently. This is from her essay “On Miniatures,” about writing and other arts. “Why are miniature things so compelling?… The miniature is mysterious…. Miniatures encourage attention…. Miniatures are intimate…. Time, in miniature form, like a gas compressed, gets hotter.”
Compare these examples—we see time gets hotter, prose gets hotter. Maybe we should be talking about not just the length of a flash, but the heat of it.
Julio Ortega describes the first flash ever written, in ancient Egypt. Among other things he says, “The very rule of any story is the breaking of a code.” He applies that to flash, but it could be a longer story, or a novel, maybe a memoir? You can use “flash theory” to compare forms, in a workshop. Is flash a hotter form than the novel? Maybe novels can be hot, too. But they’ve gotta cool off sometimes.
4) How was the book constructed? This was something Tara, at Smokelong, asked. A lot of people are thinking of making their own anthologies.
We’re like a Best American Short Stories. Once a year they select from a list of from 200+ magazines. We looked at more magazines, 5 years of issues for each. We also looked at mountains of books, we networked, we sent out calls for submissions, we wrote translator organizations, not in one country but the world. It was a crazy project. A quicker, more deductive approach would be to find a pre-approved list of world-famous authors and see if we could dig up something very short by each. Theme anthologies often work this way and that’s fine. But we go the opposite way. We don’t care who wrote the stories, we just look for the best ones wherever we can find them. James, Chris, and I did everything, the research and original selections and the final selections. In between, we had a long winnowing process where we photocopied the stories, put them in booklets, and sent them to a dozen readers helping us, all ages and genders. One man was a vice-chancellor of a university; one woman was the owner of a honkey tonk bar; all were writers and loved to read. There were countless emails and texts and hours of talking on the phone, debating stories. Chris was often traveling and would send his ratings from a palace in Bangkok or St. Petersburg, or a hut in Malawi. We did this for more than two years, looking for truly great flashes. But you’ve got to stop sometime. And this is a good place for me to stop now.
Robert Shapard has co-edited eight anthologies of very short fiction including Flash Fiction International and Sudden Fiction Latino.