Jonathan Pinnock is the author of the novel MRS DARCY VERSUS THE ALIENS (Proxima, 2011), the Scott Prize-winning short story collection DOT DASH (Salt, 2012) and the forthcoming bio-historico-musicological-memoir thing TAKE IT COOL (Two Ravens Press, 2014). He blogs at www.jonathanpinnock.com and tweets as @jonpinnock.
I’m ever so slightly uneasy about the term ‘flash fiction’. In some ways, I think I’d rather begin to think of ‘flexible fiction’ or, perhaps, ‘fiction without rules’. Because the thing about flash fiction is that the writer has – depending on the circumstances – been either been coerced or given permission to write something that is shorter than the standard n-thousand word, three-act story that the world has come to know and love.
Coercion and permission are two powerful creative forces. If as a writer you are coerced into writing something very short, you are forced to use some different storytelling techniques. You simply haven’t got the room to go into every single aspect of each character’s back story. So you have to learn how to hint: how to show something in a single brushstroke, like a Japanese painting. Or alternatively, you only tell a fraction of the story. You leave the reader to make up the rest. The extreme end of this is Twitter fiction, which can be surprisingly profound, or indeed one of those six word stories like the Hemingway ‘baby shoes’ one that gets trotted out at every conceivable opportunity.
Quite apart from the fact that the end result can be just as rewarding as a full-length (whatever that means) story, it’s a remarkably good creative writing exercise, like writing poetry, that feeds into all other aspects of storytelling. It teaches you concision, rhythm and word placement. I’m convinced that writing flash makes you a better all-round writer. I have no evidence for this whatsoever, incidentally, but I have frequently observed the converse phenomenon: whenever a big name writer tries to produce a piece of flash or – especially – Twitter fiction, the end result is often very disappointing.
Permission is another important creative force. If you are given permission to write something very short, you suddenly realise you have a much wider range of stories to tell. There are stories that are just too odd to hold an audience over longer than a few hundred words. And there are others that are too slight, so that if you try and stretch them over too wide an area, they’ll tear apart under the strain. If you widen your range of stories to include very short ones, you have a much greater chance of telling a story that hasn’t been told before. And that’s surely something that every writer should be looking for.
However, it has to be said that taking this kind of flexible approach to fiction isn’t universally loved. There’s an interesting piece by Susan Hill on Lydia Davis’ new collection, ‘Can’t and Won’t’ in the current edition of The Spectator headlined ‘Don’t let creative writing students read this book’. Now I must admit I struggle with Davis (I’m slowly working my way through her ‘Collected Stories’ and I’m finding it a bit hit and miss, although I freely admit that this is almost certainly my problem, not hers), but the last story that Hill quotes in her review is sublime, and enough to force me to try a bit harder.
However, what bothers me about the review – which is generally extremely positive – is that it concludes with these words, which presumably gave the piece its title:
Still think she is probably not for you? Let me put a proposal. Buy this book and read just one long piece called ‘The Letter to the Foundation’. If you don’t agree that it is a work of genius, a profound, beautiful, moving, many-faceted jewel of a thing, then Lydia Davis is indeed not for you, as she should not be if you are on creative writing courses. What do you mean, why? Because you would catch her, and there is only room in the world for one Lydia Davis.
First of all, I think there is plenty of room for more than one Lydia Davis – I can think of several more writers like her already who haven’t yet broken through to public consciousness. More importantly, I’m not sure I like the idea of being careful of not catching Lydia Davis, because I suspect that what she’s really saying is that you should be wary of catching flash fiction.
Flash fiction, then, is a bit scary. Tearing up the rules always is. But it’s also exciting, and that means there’s no better time to be a short story writer than now. Actually, there’s no better time to be a writer, full stop.
And I’m now going to break a rule here, too. I was asked for 1000 words. But I think I’ve said all I wanted to say, so I’m going to give myself permission to stop at around 750. That OK?
Jonathan, Kevlin Henney, Jonathan L Howard, Justin Newland, Louise Gethin, Cheryl Morgan & Pauline Masurel (as well as yours truly) will be appearing at BristolCon Fringe in a Flash on Monday 14th at 19:30 - come along and hear flash performed.....