“Defining Such a Thing as Flash Fiction”

It’s an operation of mental classification and it requires much thinking inside the box. Even so, there are worse ways of thinking. The same obsession for labeling things according to exacting discriminations produced the Renaissance not to mention stacks of dictionaries and almanacs, maps of moon craters and phylacteries un-scrolling from ivory lips to proclaim every bone of the foot to a dour lady in a habit and a hat meringued to stiff peaks.

Excuse the peculiar imagery. It is only that I can only define a thing according to my own peculiarities alone. Why do classical definitions pretend to banish the subjectivity of their authors? There is animal knowledge in defining things. To be sure, this kind of encyclopedic thinking browns the page of every medieval bestiary. Monarchs born from hideous cocoons, lovelier than concepts in the light.

And that alone is our Jungian secret, our collectively unconscious knowledge of mortality, everywhere singing the fleetingness of all things, lending to life and the telling of life in stories and representations a sense of the sacred tuned to the key of time. It is in the intolerable curtness of existence as a primary knowledge that we turn and re-turn to the intense economy of flash.

The whole of creation fits the mind only when pressed, compressed, presented, presto!— in the least profligate way. This is an assumption founded not only on principles of taste and style but of virtue. During epochs of agricultural insecurity, even a waste of words could pinch the heart through a hungry stomach.

Perhaps in my attempt at a definition of flash, which is always also to say, a discrimination of it, I have only sketched the Mare Fecunditatis of the genre’s metatarsal.

On some cosmic shelf in ethers beyond astronomy there is a huge shoebox. It is marked “Succinctness.” And it is wedged between two other boxes. They are marked “Comprehensiveness” and “Godliness.” What kinds of shoes are inside them? What weird entities wear them? Again, we lose Houston. Perhaps, though, we gain our Dallas at last. A bit of that something strange. Or better yet, estranging, which literary encyclopediacists and classifiers have been promoting as a standard for literature at least since the days of Pliny, Longinus, and those other dudes who used to play snooker and run numbers on the corner. There’s that one…you know, with the shoes that go in the box marked “Brevity.”

There I go again.

Allow me to make a point before essentially mixing another fine metaphor into the unrecognizable word salad of poetry.[1]

The point is that whatever fiction is (or poetry for that matter), its practitioners have not always agreed with its shoeboxers. Those lunar cartographers of difference dissected have sought to put the contents of a magician’s best trick back into the ill-fitting hat of classification.

Flash fiction has proven to be both the Air Jordan and the shell-toed moonboot of classification. It’s great because it so obviously comes down to length. But it’s not great because beneath the ruins of simplicity—where flash is more about size than danger—there’s the lingering fear that no one is sure what it is or where it is going. When that suspicion festers, one seemingly effective balm is always within easy reach: a factsheet of lengths, counts, and time: a kerning music of inches.

Like Hitchcock’s mantra that films cannot exceed the holding time of the average filmgoer’s bladder or Poe’s insistence that the short story last not one more floor-board thudding heartbeat beyond the average reader’s notion of a “sitting” (whatever that is), flash fiction has been hastily defined in terms of its least vital statistic—not what it does, or what it says, but what it looks like. How short it is.

Flash fiction is the Verbal Kent of literature’s line-up room, and I swear he sees me through this glass.

Ah, the paranoia of shoeboxing. It’s enough to drive a person to lyricism, a pedantry beyond the sun.


[1] …another standard of definition, by the way, and boundary marking or encyclopedic thinking, a.ka. “shoeboxing” – which deserves an essay all to itself (and thus requiring a writer with far more interest/compulsions to color inside the lines than the present taleteller).

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Michael Chaney

About Michael Chaney

Michael Alexander Chaney is the author of Fugitive Vision (Indiana, 2008) and the editor of Graphic Subjects: Critical Essays on Autobiography and Graphic Novels (Wisconsin, 2010). His writings have appeared in a host of journals both academic and creative. He doesn’t deny that you may have seen him in a TEDx video, waxing philosophic about graphic novels. Currently, he’s finishing a novel about the absurdities of the pharmaceutical industry and wondering–as always–about the possibilities of cheese-flavored soda. Free samples at michaelalexanderchaney.com