The State of Flash Fiction

David Galef & Len Kuntz break down the newest developments, achievements and emerging classics in the world of chiseled prose.

A man missing an arm and part of his jaw knocks on the door. He smells like a brewery and claims he’s a family relation. That’s how the story “Related” begins. It’s under 500 words. Or consider “Oriole,” which opens, “My father’s hands fit around my throat” and lays bare what’s going on at home in under 1,000 words. These stories feature hookups and breakups, substance abuse, and violence so casual it’s as natural as jagged breathing.

This is the work of Len Kuntz, sui generis even in the gonzo world of flash fiction, and he’s published a lot of stories to prove it. When David Galef, a fiction writer and critic, set out to write Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook (Columbia University Press), this was the kind of material he was searching for: visceral as a gut-punch but with a real narrative to pursue, a turn in someone’s life encapsulated in a couple of pages. Flash fiction is ubiquitous these days, but it can still turn up something new, like a small miracle. We recently asked Kuntz and Galef to chat about the world and the art of flash fiction: where the form stands, where it’s headed, whether brevity can be pushed further, and which were their favorite one-line stories of the year.

David Galef: Flash fiction is all over the place, from classrooms to the web, in contests and in anthologies. You’ve published a slew of work in this genre. Got an opinion on what’s new in the field?

Len Kuntz: There are certainly new zines popping up every week and just as many going defunct. Micro fiction, as well as Twitter fiction, was a recent development, but they’ve been around for some time now. What’s new are the emerging writers, the fresh voices, and there’s a plethora of them online.

Galef: I agree. I don’t see any way to push the vanishing point beyond 140 characters, two- or one-sentence pieces, and that sort of thing. But I do wonder about hybrid forms, combining text and image or — well, we should really insert a YouTube video link here. How would you describe the kind of flash fiction you write, and how has your work evolved?

Kuntz: When I started out, I had no idea what I was doing. Most of the things I was reading with regard to flash were quite odd, bordering on bizarro fiction, or else they were pretty experimental, where the narrative came in second to the language. I tried mimicking that, with a little success, but really when I caught my stride was when I learned how to wind a tight plot point into the piece. In almost all of my writing, someone is in trouble, or else they’re wounded or will soon be wounded. One of the guys in my writing group says I torture my characters better than anyone he knows. I suppose that’s true. If you can get the reader to care about the character, then the reader really becomes invested in what happens to the character when things go wrong, when they struggle. I guess I’ve evolved to where I no longer apologize for writing things with a dark bent. I go for the emotional tug. My readers might not be smiling when they’re done with a piece of mine, but hopefully they come away having their heart shook, if even just a little.

Galef: I like a sum-up of your work I read recently about how no one does damaged-kid stories as well as you. I don’t mean to be reductive, but it’s something you do really well in an amazingly small space. I see it in The Dark Sunshine and also in I’m Not Supposed to Be Here and Neither Are You. That’s one main reason I included you in Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook.

Kuntz: Thank you for the kind words about my writing. It’s true that I mostly write about damaged people. But I’ve come to say that I write about people wrestling with their problems. It’s vague enough yet interesting enough that people remain somewhat interested. And I’m happy to be in that handbook.

Galef: Of course, the handbook is an attempt to cram as many different ways of looking at flash fiction as possible into a fairly slim volume. So I’m curious as to your thoughts on the limits of the form. What can’t you do in flash fiction?

Kuntz: Obviously length is a limit, but other than that, I don’t think there are any rules per se. As a fiction editor at Literary Orphans, I get a lot of submissions that lack complexity, that don’t tell a story. Many people think all that’s required of flash fiction is that it be short. But it can’t just be a description of something or a sketch. What I look for is rich language or a fresh voice. And I want to feel a connection to the story and characters. The writing needs to evoke some kind of emotion, and that can be anything — grief, shock, humor. At the end of the piece, I want to have a sense of “Wow.”

Galef: But sometimes that comes from a sheer lyric burst. Is there anything about flash fiction that frustrates you? What would you like to see done differently, or more frequently with the form?

Kuntz: Personally, I’d like to see more mystery in a lot of the pieces I see. By mystery, I mean endings that aren’t always tidy and obvious. When it’s done intentionally by the author, I think it’s wonderful to have several different readers come to opposite conclusions. Much of Bob Dylan’s catalog does this. I have long, drawn out conversations about Tangled Up in Blue, Visions of Johanna, and many others. Each of us debating the true meanings of those songs is adamant that their version is correct. If nothing else, this sort of nebulous work reinvigorates passions about it.

Galef: But one incontrovertible aspect of Dylan’s lyrics is that they tell us stories. I feel as you do about some of what’s out there: there should be some kind of narrative drive, or else why call it flash fiction? And I also like verbal verve, and I’m therefore a bit nonplused when I read a piece that’s wasteful with language. Ezra Pound once looked at one of Louis Zukofsky’s poems and said something like “I see you’ve used 64 words when you could get by with 49.” But a lot of the old page limits have sort of disappeared with the web. Tell me, how has the internet changed flash fiction?

Kuntz: Certainly the internet has hastened the popularity of flash. There are literally hundreds of online magazines that cater to the form. Many only publish flash. So it’s created this incredible universe where there’s always fiction to read at the click of a mouse. On the flip side, it’s opened up the publishing stream for writers looking to place their work. One other added dimension is the ability to learn from other writers and also to see where they are being published.

Galef: I see a lot more communication and commerce among readers and writers, what some sites call user-provided content. That’s fine as long as it doesn’t get too incestuous. And I do mourn the passing of the old general reader, who had no artistic aspirations and simply loved to read.

Kuntz: It’s interesting you bring up the word incestuous. Cliques definitely exist in the writing world, in publishing, etc. There are boys’ and girls’ clubs that, while they don’t overtly say it, nevertheless make it clear that admission is only meant for a certain type of person they favor, and most times I don’t think it’s about the art that person produces. And it can get incestuous, because we’re all in the same ocean, maybe on different boats, but we run up against each other. For instance, I’m and editor and writer, so invariably I’ll submit to a house where I know the editor. The reverse happens, as well. It’s difficult to reject a friend, but I still do it if I don’t think the work matches our aesthetic or if it’s not good work. I hope they do the same for me, and for the most part, I do think that’s been the case.

Galef: With all those boats bumping about on the ocean, as you note, how does anyone get anywhere. In fact, what’s the future of the form? Saturation?

Kuntz: I don’t know if flash has peaked, but it sure proliferated just as the internet was becoming a vessel that everyone used. Short attention spans helped flash, as well. It’s also difficult to stick with a longish story — say 4,000 words — when you’re reading it onscreen. But to the point of saturation, I don’t think so. In my opinion, flash is here to stay in the same way that hip hop is. It might evolve, but it’s not going anywhere. My only worry is about the quality of the work. I see a lot of average or less-than-average work being published. That’s subjective, obviously, yet a great piece is unquestionably good, and sometimes I wonder if publishers aren’t just trying to scrounge up enough stories to fill an issue. Knowing many publishers, I can tell you this happens far more than it should, and so there’s a settling that occurs. The bar gets lowered, and if that continues to happen on a grander scale, the reader might eventually be turned off. If there’s a saturation having to do with the form, I’d say it has to do with the amount of magazines and zines there are without any distinct aesthetic. It’s like having 40 car rental places to choose from that are all essentially the same. Or, like in my small town of Snohomish, WA, where we have over 30 banks that all provide the same service: why do we need 30 banks that — other than their logo — are indistinguishable?

Galef: Not much to do about proliferation going hand in hand with lowered standards. It happens in making widgets, and it happens in making stories. More breeds more, and “they can’t all be gems,” as they used to say. But we can hope for some classy sites that — what’s the verb nowadays? — curate well. A lot depends on the iron whim of the editor. And since you’re in the business of continually selecting what other people will eventually read, who are some of your favorite flash fiction authors, and why?

Kuntz: This is always a difficult question to answer because I must have well over a hundred. But there’s a book that came out from Unknown Press called RIFT, which is a masterwork in the area of flash. It’s by Robert Vaughan and Kathy Fish. Throughout the book, they have alternating pieces, and each one is riveting in its own way. We get all the best things flash has to offer: lush language, pathos, quirk, surprises, wonderful phrasing, unique characters, spot-on dialogue, and so much more. I defy anyone to read this book and not be blown away. Even for the novice just breaking into the craft, RIFT is tool box and a manual for how to write flash that sings.

Galef: I’ll have to check it out. One of my favorite collections is still the original volume of Sudden Fiction that came out in 1986, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas, billed as “American Short-Short Stories.” It’s got Grace Paley, Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, Roy Blount, Jr., John Updike, Langston Hughes, Tobias Wolff, T. C. Boyle, Bernard Malamud, Jayne Anne Phillips, Lydia Davis, George Garrett, Joyce Carol Oates, Tennessee Williams . . . and I could go on.

Kuntz: I have Sudden Fiction on the shelf right behind me. It was one of the first books I bought when I started learning about flash and just writing in general. It’s a wonderful book, as is The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. There are so many others that don’t necessarily have to do with flash but are still so inspirational and educational for aspiring writers: Bird By Bird — Anne Lamott; Writing Down The Bones — Natalie Goldberg; That Triggering Town — Richard Hugo. When I first starting studying the craft, I probably read and marked up close to 100 books about writing. It was invaluable. I highly recommend that to anyone starting out, or really, anyone who considers themself a writer. I still go back to many of the volumes, and invariably I find new nuggets here and there.

Galef: There certainly are a lot of books on writing fiction out there, and in flash fiction, a growing number of anthologies.

Kuntz: But here’s an issue: If flash fiction has gained so much popularity, why hasn’t that translated into higher sales of flash collections?

Galef: This is a tantalizing question, but one that also bedevils short story writers. Practitioners and readers of short material are always being told that novels sell and short story collections don’t. Editors often acquire a short story collection with the understanding that the author’s next book by the press will be a novel. The funny thing is that, back in the golden age of the short story, say the 1920s to the 1950s, with magazines such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald would bankroll their novels by selling enough short stories to allow them to produce a long manuscript. But that hasn’t been true for many decades. Maybe the larger question is why the American reading public, what’s left of it, prefers novels. Blame the American aesthetic (and business model) of bigger is better?

Kuntz: It is a paradox. Even as late as the 1980’s most magazines published short stories — Playboy, Esquire, Ms., Redbook, etc. They’ve since stopped, and yet, at least in my circles, short fiction abounds. I think if the artists themselves felt a stronger sense of supporting the work, it would help turn the tide at least some. Most writers are limited financially, yet buying a dozen or so collections a year couldn’t be that big a burden. A writer friend of mine said this a while back, and I’ve found it so true: “I always laugh when a friend says they don’t have $15 to buy my book, but then their next sentence is, ‘Do you want to go grab a few drinks?’” What’s more important, a latte every day, or supporting the art community that you’re a part of? A related issue for flash fiction is that anyone thinks they’re capable of writing a piece, when it might just be a statement or sketch as opposed to a fully formed idea.

Galef: True, very. I’ve published two children’s picture books, and the same idea holds there: a lot of people think they can put together a kid’s book, have someone else illustrate it, and voila! The unstated assumption is that it’s short, so how difficult can it be? That’s valid insofar as it’s easier to rig up a piece of flash fiction than it is to put a novel to bed, but even the shortest story should have some kind of narrative drive, as well as a beginning, middle, and end — something to give it body and shape. That said, a lot of fiction exists in sketches, rants, dialogues, and so forth. It’s hard to pin down what flash ought to be without thinking of some talented exception.

Kuntz: I agree that it’s hard to pin down. I do think, however, that it ought to be able to stand alone, and stand out on its own merit and still have a sense of wholeness. The proverbial micro attributed to Hemingway — “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” — does just that in only six words. Here are a couple of other examples I found in Dime Show Review, which just came out in print:

  • “Bare toes on rotted linoleum. Roaches scurry.” ‘Mommy I’m hungry.’” — “Rooms-$7 A Night,” by Jayne Martin
  • “Sitting outside the home. Junkie mother’s four hours late, again.”
     — “I Wait,” by Daniel Green
  • “The computer displays images, among them my death mask.”
     — “Images,” by Clyde Liffey
  • “She beat me again for my own good. It wasn’t.”
    — “Tough Love,” by Paul Beckman
  • “Waking on bloody sheets — Bells toll. I’m twelve, refusing marriage.”
    — “Warrior Caste,” by Claire Lawrence
  • “Finally he met her, but the ring said: Too late.”
    — “The One,” by Rebecca Long

I think these are all good examples of the very shortest fiction that still tells a complete story while also packing a wallop.

Galef: It is kind of amazing what a talented writer can accomplish in just ten words. I read flash fiction before it had that label, in work like Aesop’s fables, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and Biblical parables. But those texts are rather stylized. The first time I read a tiny, realistic story with a twist at the end was in a collection featuring MacKinlay Cantor’s “A Man Who Had No Eyes,” about an exchange between two former factory workers who meet on the street. I was amazed at how much character and incident was packed into just over 1,000 words. It’s still an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser, though a bit dated for a slam crowd. As I read more of what was out there, my reaction for the stuff that worked was the same: Look at what that writer can do in such a small space! These days I like a lot of the material on Ben White’s nanoism site. It’s like a world opening, then another, then another.

Kuntz: Yes, but I wonder whether flash fiction writers get as much credit, as say, traditional short story writers, and if not, will they ever?

Galef: Too many critics consciously or unconsciously equate bulk with importance. We talk about the Great American Novel, not Great American Flash Fiction. The traditional-length short story is somewhere in between. The few flash fictioneers who get credit, like Hemingway, made their reputation in regulation-length stories and novels. I’m not sure that’s ever going to change much.

Kuntz: Yet Alice Munro recently won the Nobel Prize and George Saunders the National Book Award. Both won for short fiction, and while it’s not flash, it does seem as if there’s a new appreciation for brevity in writing. Certainly a lot of people are reading and writing it. I’m still holding out hope that flash fiction writers will soon get their due.

About the Authors

David Galef has published over a dozen books, including the novels Flesh and How to Cope with Suburban Stress (one of Kirkus’s Best 30 Books in 2006) and My Date with Neanderthal Woman (winner of Dzanc Books’ inaugural short-story collection award). His latest book is Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook, from Columbia University Press. He directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University.

Len Kuntz is the author of over 1,000 pieces of flash fiction published in places ranging from PANK to Word Riot and Eunoia Review. Len Kuntz’s two collections are The Dark Sunshine (Connotations Press) and I’m Not Supposed to Be Here and Neither Are You (Unknown Press). He’s also the fiction editor at Literary Orphans.

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