7 Flash Fiction Collections You Should Be Reading
Damian Dressick, author of "Fables of the Deconstruction," recommends very short stories
Flash fiction has never been hotter.
A tectonic shift over the last 20 years in how narrative is conveyed—fueled largely by the online journal’s rise from (mostly) irrelevance to somewhere near the top of the literary fiction food chain—has created the perfect environment for disseminating shorter work. The subsequent constriction of literary attention spans and near universal adoption of mobile technology have made 1000-word (or less) stories both ubiquitous and imminently consumable.
At present, many of the best journals are online and even pedigreed print magazines are delivering highly-respected online offerings. But sometimes seeing just what can be done in a few hundred words serves to whet readers’ appetites for a full-length collection.
Here are seven collections of flash fiction you don’t want to miss.
The Revenge of the Lawn by Richard Brautigan
While Ernest Hemingway gets credit (not undeserved) as one of the foremost progenitors of writing flash—the vignettes interspersed through his first story collection In Our Time are truly outstanding—the first and only full-length flash fiction collection from the in-and-out-of-fashion Richard Brautigan, Revenge of the Lawn, represents a spectacular introduction to the genesis of contemporary flash. Brautigan’s preternatural gift for conspicuous invention is on full display in stories like “The Weather in San Francisco,” in which a woman’s visit to a butcher opens up into a miracle of a tale in a bay city apartment cum apiary. Another high point, “Corporal,” represents a delicious lesson in class and the hard-earned pleasures of non-conformity.
Whiskey Etc. by Sherrie Flick
Coming from one of today’s acknowledged masters of the form, it’s no surprise that Sherrie Flick’s Whiskey, Etc. could easily function as a “how-to” for aspiring flash fictioneers when it comes to technique. But even though Flick is inarguably a master technician, this isn’t the only or even the best reason why she’s an important writer. Flick’s Whiskey, Etc. serves up a series of worlds that can’t help but feel familiar as breakfast and yet at the same time spin off-kilter in a way that brings home something funny, sad and very profound about how we’re living now. Flick’s characters are fundamentally, but ever-so subtly, broken right down to their bones, but somehow still manage to move with hearts full of hope. Underneath the wit and flawless craft of stories like “The Paperboy” or “How I Left Ned,” Flick makes a powerful statement about emptiness, about a sense of longing that infuses all. Over and over in this collection, we are led to the realization that something important, maybe the only thing that’s important, is missing. What makes Flick’s balancing act so compelling is that even though its sense of emptiness underlies everything, it’s never in a way that feels sinister or maudlin. This collection is a treasure.
A River So Long by Vallie Lynn Watson
In the opening of No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell opines, “I’d never seen a person like that and it got me to wonderin’ if maybe he was some new kind.” While an order of magnitude less sinister than anything out of McCarthy, Veronica—the disconnected protagonist of Vallie Lynn Watson’s flash collection A River So Long—may have readers of a certain age asking the very same question.
As its itinerant main character drifts between hotel rooms, cities, and lovers, Watson’s debut flash collection makes a powerful statement about the myriad dangers of an adolescence that dilates into one’s late 20s. This slight and spare book offers the occasional grace note, but rather than delight, Watson’s stories seem more interested in keeping readers at arm’s length. This, perhaps, shouldn’t come as a surprise, as it tends to be Veronica’s native posture when it comes to experiencing her own life.
For a certain segment of people born in the backend of the 1970s, the book’s Polaroids of attenuated plot, limited description and flattened affect are unsettling—not despite, but because, of their familiarity. Watson’s disturbing little book uses flash to deliver a generational update that serves to illuminate our shortcomings of both character and imagination in ways that can’t help but impel us toward self-examination.
Ghostographs by Maria Romasco Moore
One of the qualities of flash that often entices readers toward the form is its ability to function as a forum for spectacular formal innovation. While Maria Romasco Moore’s ekphrastic collection Ghostographs delivers innovation in spades, it’s a quality that never feels forced or gratuitous, but rather utterly endemic to the world she is building.
Kicking off with one of the smartest and most memorable—one could say even say haunting—openings in American fiction, Moore uses flash pieces to build a ghost town that burns itself into our memories with the singularity of a wedding or national tragedy. Using nothing but found photographs, incandescent language, and her unparalleled imagination, Moore shapes for us a twilight world in which we’ll never quite feel at home. Replete with snake women, an unfathomable abyss and haunted dogs, it’s as if Dali traded in his brushes to turn writer and his first urgent order of business was to fashion a fabulist and strange Winesburg, Ohio. Don’t miss this debut.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Novels written in flash can probably best be thought of as their own unique genre—as the impact of the flashes as individual pieces is often subsumed or overshadowed by the narrative gravity and arc of the overall plot. Sandra Cisneros’s classic The House on Mango Street somehow finds, or more likely invents, a middle ground in which each of its forty-four flashes shines (or by turns devastates) in its own right while at the same time advancing the narrative.
We follow narrator Esperanza on her emotional journey out of childhood after her family’s move to a house of their own that, like coming of age itself, is rarely all it’s cracked up to be. Cisneros’s rendering of Chicana girlhood in working-class Chicago is an object lesson in architecting moments that, while perfectly capable of illuminating a way of being on their own, hold together to shape a character and bring into focus a world.
Wild Life: Collected Work 2003-2018 by Kathy Fish
There’s a reason one of the leading flash fiction journals in the U.S. has named its Emerging Writers Fellowship for author Kathy Fish. Not only has her work been featured in a list of anthologies longer than the rap sheet of a south Florida politician, her stories consistently perform a delicious balancing act—their verbal dexterity supporting their considered narrative arcs.
Her most recent book, Wild Life: Collected Work 2003-2018 gives readers a chance to sample work from nearly 20 years of Fish’s writing. While many writers kick stories off with titles that may draw us in, Fish offers us threads that simply demand pulling. When confronted with “There is No Albuquerque, “Sea Creatures of Indiana,” or “Everything’s Shitty at Price King”—I know where my next ten minutes are going. A hallmark of Fish’s flash—and likely one of the reasons she has been an in-demand workshop instructor for the last decade—is her ability to deploy language that is by turns poetic, exacting or delightfully flat in the service of bringing us to the intersection of met expectations and wild-eyed shock.
Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories, edited by James Thomas and Robert Shapard
If you have the time to read only one collection of flash fiction this month, this decade, or possibly for the rest of your life, the choice is surprisingly easy. Assembled by flash mavens James Thomas and Robert Shapard, W.W. Norton’s anthology Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories represents the ne plus ultra when it comes to assembling the strongest short short fiction written over a 20-year stretch.
Featuring work from literary luminaries like John Updike, Rick Moody, and John Edgar Wideman—you’ll never think of a banana in the rain the same way again—the book also includes flash royalty like Lydia Davis and Pamela Painter but in no way shies away from bringing emerging voices into the spotlight. Wonderfully engaging and inventive stories from G.A. Ingersoll and Jenny Hall delight.
It’s hard to stress enough the degree to which this is a collection to be savored. Each story is so strong that when I first encountered this book, I limited myself to reading two pieces each day. Not only didn’t I want the book to end, but two stories as good as these are… well, as a reader it will take you that much time to savor them. If you’re a writer, you’ll want that much time to learn from them.