Ever since @amicgood founded #FridayPhrases last year, many of us have been spending a large part of our Fridays crafting and reading micro fiction. For those of you new to the phrase, micro fiction is a very short story, usually prose.Although Twitter has helped it gain in popularity, micro fiction has in fact been used imaginatively and effectively for close to a century. It is said, for example, that Ernest Hemingway wrote ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ Why is it then, that very short fiction still has a whiff of being a gimmick? Is it capable of rivalling traditionally recognised forms such the novel?
An evolving form
Sales of micro and flash fiction collections currently amount to a tiny fraction of book sales but who’s to say that they won’t become a firm fixture in our reading lives in the future? We operate in a fast-paced world, in which our attention spans appear to be shortening. Meandering thought is often seen as irritating rather than desirable. Smartphones have become the norm in the West, increasing the demand for information that is succinct and easily digestible. In developing countries, smartphones are accelerating access to news and literature, improving education and opportunities. In this climate, it makes sense that micro fiction should flourish alongside longer works.
The author Julian Gough wrote, ‘My generation, and those younger, receive information not in long, coherent, self-contained units (a film, an album, a novel), but in short bursts, with wildly different tones. (Channel-hopping, surfing the Internet, while doing the iPod shuffle.) That changes the way we read fiction, and therefore must change the way we write it. This is not a catastrophe; it is an opportunity. We are free to do new things, which could not have been understood before now. The traditional story (retold ten thousand times) suffers from repetitive strain injury. Television and the Internet have responded to this crisis without losing their audience. Literary fiction has not.’
Abandoning a false dichotomy
But let’s not set up a false dichotomy. I don’t know about you but my reading tastes are varied. My bookshelves are home to poetry, history books, atlases, short story collections, critical essays, children’s books, travel literature, craft books, biographies, joggers manuals (that never did work out), art books, genre fiction, literary fiction and books that I simply liked the look and feel of. Cinema and theatre exist side by side; likewise, television and radio. There is room for different art forms alongside each other.
Still, if we are going to ensure that reading continues to have mass appeal a recalibration of the hierarchies of literature is important. To instil a love of reading in the young, both creators and sellers of fiction need to be open to change and innovation. In recent years there seems to have been a resurgence in the popularity of short fiction. In 2013, for example, short story writer Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and ebooks have allowed short fiction to flourish when previously it may not have been a financially viable option. It would be foolish to write off a very short fiction as a gimmick prematurely. If we are to encourage love of the written word in younger generations, who communicate in new ways, we will need to dispense with our condescension of non-traditional forms.
A genre with unusual merits
Fiction now competes with multiple forms of entertainment, and while I will always be an advocate of the long form, we cannot deny that the world is changing. More interactive forms of entertainment are popular with the young, such as computer games and social media. It could be that micro fiction’s greatest strength is that it is interactive, and above all, accessible. Compared to other forms, there is less investment in crafting micro fiction, which is perhaps why those precious about the sanctity of art are sometimes disdainful of it. For me, micro fiction is a door into creativity. A pupil in a school library will pick up War and Peace and wonder whether she has the stamina or intelligence to read it. The same pupil will read a few lines of micro fiction without a second’s thought and be inspired to write some of her own.
This innate accessibility has other advantages too. Novels – forgive me, as a reader and writer they remain my form of choice – are too clunking to react quickly to other creative works. Their very length prevents immediacy. It takes years for the links between novels to transpire, usually because the author is still in a writing cave in the depths of Minnesota transcribing his soul. In contrast, using social media as a platform, micro fiction suddenly has the opportunity to interact in real time. Take the #FridayPhrases community, for example, where there is cross pollination between authors and you can almost feel the creative synapses sparking across the ether. Or when a world event occurs, such as the death of a public figure or the Olympics and suddenly timelines are filled with micro fiction honouring those events.
The art of reading and writing micro fiction
You may wonder whether it’s worth writing a couple of lines of very short fiction, but micro fiction is by its very nature memorable. The writer Grace Paley noted that very short stories ‘should be read like a poem, that is, slowly.’ Some of the #FridayPhrases community have noted how the structure of micro fiction can be very much like a joke with a punchline. Certainly, the genre has a resonance that is disproportionate to its footprint, and readers are likely to reread micro fiction. According to the Russell Banks ‘it’s intrinsically different from the short story and more like the sonnet or ghazal—two quick moves in opposite directions, dialectical moves, perhaps, and then a leap to a radical resolution that leaves the reader anxious in a particularly satisfying way. The source, the need, for the form seems to me to be the same need that created Norse kennings, Zen koans, Sufi tales, where language and metaphysics grapple for holds like Greek wrestlers, and not the need that created the novel or the short story, even, where language and the social sciences sleep peacefully inside one another like bourgeois spoons.’
Can micro fiction ever be literary fiction?
So is micro fiction capable of rivalling traditionally recognised forms such the novel? Many of us still equate literary fiction with the novel, but what precisely is literary fiction? It tends to be identified by a character-driven narrative and a subtle plot. While a literary novel may entertain, it is predominantly concerned with revealing truths about the world we live in. A few weeks ago as part of its genre debate, The Guardian ran an article by Elizabeth Edmondson, who asked whether the term literary fiction is it merely a marketing ploy to elevate certain novels and cast doubt on whether Jane Austen novels works would have been labelled as such if she were writing today.
Certainly, for me genre has become irrelevant. I view it as more about discoverability rather than a guarantee of enjoyable writing. It is secondary to clarity of ideas, originality and skilful expression. The very nature of micro fiction compels the author to exercise these skills, in addition to uncovering the truth and focusing on character. Just like a novel, it can have a lasting resonance, and is all the more memorable for its fleeting beauty. Even if it fails to attract the attention of a wide readership and the literary establishment, writers will continue to pen micro fiction illicitly behind closed doors. Writing is a compulsion, not a market calculation.