Brief And (Likely) Necessary Literature
Alfred Polgar, a noted Viennese intellectual and master of the short form, makes a good case for the rising popularity and even necessity of modern-day flash fiction when he said during his own lifetime (1873-1955) that “Life is too short for long literature, too transitory for lingering description and observation, too psychopathic for psychology, too fictitious for novels, the fermentation and decomposition too swift to be preserved in long expensive books lengthily and expansively.” Our busy lives offer distractions like never before. Today there are many more than Alfred Polgar likely could have even imagined. With too much data and information coming at us from every direction and with untold numbers of attractive or even habitual diversions wherever we turn, finding time to read for understanding or insight is becoming more and more difficult. But because of its short length (usually 250-1,500 words) flash fiction can be read in those precious few moments we do occasionally find. That reading time is important and perhaps even necessary in this fast-paced, data-filled, distracting, and cacophonous world.
Flash Fiction Surprises and Pushes Familiar Boundaries
The art of literary flash fiction often halts us in our tracks and insists that we pay close attention. It urges us to think or meditate on the brief and fleeting story before us. These tiny stories can deliver insight or wisdom or new perspectives and they can deliver quickly, with speed being what is often needed in our fast-paced and time-constrained world. But quick delivery does not necessarily mean quick understanding. Many such pieces require work on the part of the reader.
While there are some straightforward flash fiction pieces with a clear beginning, middle, and end plot strategy, and some that pay attention to character development and literary continuity, there are also many fascinating literary flash fiction pieces that work against various expectations for stories. The field of flash fiction is fertile and protean and many of the more unusual literary short-shorts take unpredictable and sometimes even unprecedented paths.
The writers of these challenging pieces often work to elude or escape confining definition and as a result many of these stories do not fit established categories or genres. The complex and challenging types of flash fiction often depend more on implication, suggestion, voice, and/ or situation for their effects. As a result of this interesting experimentation and hybridization there are intriguing and unusual flash fiction pieces available in magazines, anthologies, and collections throughout the world.
These unusual stories present a large variety of strategies. There are plotless pieces that make use of mood or tone instead of plot or character development. There are meta-fiction stories and pieces done in Q & A style. Some highly unusual stories include a story told through footnotes only, a story told through clichés alone, a story told through an acknowledgement page, a story where the narrator is both “I” and “You,” a story with one character name shared by several people, a story where the protagonist and antagonist cannot be differentiated, and story that combines five stories into one. There are stories written in imperative mode and stories done in dialogue only. There are monologues and stories done in second person point of view. There are stories one to five pages long that use just one sentence (or sometimes just two or three sentences). There are stories that are all telling and no showing, stories done as stage presentations, stories that offer a choice of endings, stories where the metaphor becomes literal, and stories that combine prose and poetry.
Literary Flash Fiction Lingers
Pablo Neruda says, “The hardest way of learning is that of easy reading . . .” Many flash fiction stories provide quite a challenge to the reader and refuse to be easy reading. They take the more difficult and risky route by insisting the reader’s efforts also be out of the ordinary.
While brief flash fiction does deliver quickly, that does not mean it also delivers quick or easy understanding. The types of flash fiction focused on in this essay often involve work on the part of the reader. Sometimes that work pays off later rather than immediately, many times even after the story is put away.
Exceptional and unconventional flash fiction also tends to linger in a reader’s mind and one reason for its memorability is because such stories require a reader’s creative collaboration. These stories insist on the reader’s effort in co-creating meaning. This active participation on the part of the reader in place of passive reading tends to linger because the reader is highly invested in the meaning derived. These stories are not, after all, static containers. They often require unusual and creative readings and interpretations that deeply involve the reader’s co-creation and imagination. Further, because they strive to be out of the ordinary these types of flash fiction can break the spell of habit and can disrupt conventional understanding. They often lead to new or expanded awareness. The more unusual or difficult pieces make demands on reader attention and imagination and keep us on our reading toes.
Psychology, Cognitive Science, and Neuroscience Weigh In
Accomplished writers are aware of the benefits of writing and reading non-traditional literary work. Several years ago S. I. Hayakawa said a great writer is “one who has successfully integrated and given coherence to vast areas of human experience.” Literary greatness, he claims, requires “great extensional awareness of the range of human experience as well as great powers of ordering that experience meaningfully.” Hayakawa says this linguistic ordering of experiences and attitudes on the part of the writer helps the reader become more organized as well (133).
Studies of a scientific or objective nature suggest there is more to reading than we are yet able to understand. Reading might even be far more important than we now know and it seems to go far beyond being merely entertainment or escapism. Some recent studies suggest that the challenges presented by certain complex flash fiction pieces are good for people in our modern times. Following are some studies that seem to point in this direction.
While some flash fiction helps to create some small order from the chaos around us, some other flash fiction attempts to defamiliarize or disorder our usual thought habits and expectations. These challenges to reader definitions and expectations might help improve or sharpen overall intelligence. According to Viktor Shklovsky “the technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception. The “making strange” process “concentrates and intensifies the experience of reading.”(Bjordhovde).
According to Travis Proulx, UC Santa Barbara, “People feel uncomfortable when their expected associations are violated, and that creates an unconscious desire to make sense of their surroundings.” That feeling of discomfort is something people want to get rid of so they are “motivated to learn new patterns” (“Reading Kafka”)
In a study conducted at the University of Liverpool, electroencephalograms (EEGs) were used to monitor reader brain responses and the results show that when the brain is surprised or caught off guard while reading there is a sudden burst of activity (“Reading Shakespeare”). Hundreds of studies have suggested that meaning threats motivate readers to seek out meaning elsewhere and these threats enhance cognitive mechanisms responsible for implicit learning patterns (“Kafka Exposure”). Studies also suggest that readers who are challenged by fiction can also better cope with ambiguity (“Opening the Closed Mind”). Such readers are more comfortable with uncertainty and even chaos, and these are the attitudes that might allow for greater creativity and thinking on a higher level.
Annie Murphy Paul points out “the ability to read must be painstakingly acquired by each individual.” The reading circuits we construct, she says, make use of structures in the brain that evolved for other purposes and depending on how vigorously and how often we use these circuits, they “can be feeble or they can be robust.” Vigorous brain exercise keeps the reading circuits robust and in good shape. When engaged in challenging and complex types of literature, the deep reader, as opposed to a superficial or surface reader, appears to enter a state similar to a pleasurable trance and the slow and careful, fully engaged reading experience is different from that of merely decoding words. When a work is “rich in detail, allusion and metaphor” the brain creates “a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life” (“Reading Literature”).
It could be that need and necessity are what make brief, complex, and challenging flash fiction so popular today. Its short length fits with our limited reading time, its difficulty keeps us mentally flexible and open to different possibilities, and it keeps our minds exercised by working against habit and distraction. Challenging and unexpected flash fiction can lead to expanded awareness and can keep us alert to different and sometimes better ideas. New ideas, new perspectives are sorely needed in these troubled, anxious, and unsettling times.
Hayakawa, S. I. Language in Thought in Action. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972.
“When Foreignness and Familiarity Become One: Defamiliarization in Some Canadian Short Stories,” Gerd Bjorhovde. The Art of Brevity: Excursions in Short Fiction Theory and Analysis. Per Winther, Jakob Lothe, and Hans H. Skei, eds. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2004, p. 129.
University Of California, Santa Barbara. “Reading Kafka Improves Learning, Suggests Psychology Study.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 September 2009.
University of Liverpool. “Reading Shakespeare Has Dramatic Effect On Human Brain.” ScienceDaily, 19 December 2006.
University of California, Santa Barbara, and University of British Columbia. “Connections From Kafka Exposure to Meaning Threats Improves Implicit Learning of an Artificial Grammar.” Psychological Science Volume 20—Number 9. Travis Proulx and Steven J. Heine, University of California, Santa Barbara, and University of British Columbia.
University of Toronto. “Opening the Closed Mind: The Effect of Exposure to Literature on the Need for Closure.” Creativity Research Journal. 17 May 2013. Maja Djikic , Keith Oatley & Mihnea C.
“Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer.” Time. Annie Murphy Paul, 03 June 2013.
About the Author:
Pamelyn Casto, a Pushcart Award nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in issues of Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications) and at Fiction Southeast. She has an essay on flash fiction and myth in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and an 8,000-word essay on flash fiction in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading. Another of her articles will be included in the forthcoming collection Critical Insights: Flash Fiction.
Image: “Fiery Words” by Linda Chapman. London, UK. Mixed media.