This is not only the first guest post of the autumn season, it’s also the first time flash fiction has appeared on the Literary Sofa. This wasn’t a gap I was actively looking to fill, although it’s certainly long overdue – the vitality of the flash scene and the increasing popularity of the ultimate short form had not escaped my notice. It’s simpler than that: I was sent Ken Elkes’ debut flash collection All That Is Between Us by independent publisher Ad Hoc Fiction. I read about three of the stories, was completely stunned and invited Ken to join me today. It’s a real pleasure to host him.
Now, it’s a USP of this blog that I have read the work I feature in full – that impulsive move is not the way I usually operate. The gamble I took on Ken’s collection living up to the first few pieces could have gone either way but fortunately my instinct wasn’t wrong. Regular readers will know that I’m not into (or particularly in favour of) reviewing short fiction, even the more traditional kind, so it was a relief when Ken’s post arrived giving such a great flavour of the collection. Even so, I have more to say than can fit an intro, so you can find a few assorted thoughts at the end of the post.
It’s inevitable. At some point in their writing career, a flash fiction author will be required to give what I call The Explanation. It usually starts like this:
“What do you write?”
“Really, wow, that’s…no sorry, I don’t know what flash fiction is.”
“Short-short stories. Under a thousand words.”
“But how are you supposed to write something decent with so few words?”
“Well, here’s the thing, it’s not just about what’s written…”
From this point on, things get a little more involved. The Explanation might touch on how flash is liminal, nestling in the margin between short stories and poetry. And that while flash uses prose fiction techniques such as narrative, characterisation, plot and dialogue, it also possesses poetry’s close attention to language, and the drive to create a singular effect on the reader.
Sometimes, I introduce a little fancy footwork around the writer/reader dynamic. Flash leans heavily on the reader’s imagination and their ability to gather what is implied through the text. As in music, it’s not just the sounds that are important, but the silences in between.
The Explanation works best through metaphor (although all flash authors know that the first rule of flash fiction club is don’t talk about flash fiction club by using a lightning metaphor – it’s too obvious, too on-the nose. I’ve used a panoply of metaphors in the past, but for this article I’m all about the cheetah. It’s the smallest of the big cats, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful or compelling. Sleek, lean and precisely put together, it accelerates to full tilt in a way that is heart-stopping. And though its prey chases are sudden and brief, that doesn’t diminish the cheetah’s capacity to inspire awe.
There may come a time, soon, when The Explanation won’t be needed. Very short fiction is having something of a moment on the literary scene. This year alone, a flash fiction novella (Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn) was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, while two other flash fiction books made the longlist for the Not The Booker Prize.
The UK’s only Flash Fiction Festival is slated to take place for the fourth time next year, while major literary competitions such as the Bridport Prize now run acclaimed flash fiction contests. The form has also found its way onto MA and Arvon courses. And big name, best-selling British authors such as Kit de Waal, Sara Collins and Christina Dalcher are keen advocates.
So, is this growing popularity a sign of the times? Is flash a form tailor-made for the short-attention-span generation? I don’t think so. The rise of social media and digital platforms has certainly helped the form develop. But for all its brevity, flash fiction is not pulp fiction – it requires concentration and investment from the reader.
As such, reading a whole book of flash fiction may seem a daunting prospect. All those jabs of emotion, one after the other. All those intense hits of meaning. This was something I thought about when putting together my flash collection All That Is Between Us. One of the ways to give the book a sense of overall direction and wholeness, was through theme. Though each of the 40 stories is a separate fiction in its own right, they are also pieces of a mosaic that examines at the complex, fragile nature of human relationships. The book explores the challenges of fitting-in with others, but also how much we risk to avoid being alone. It is a testament to the beauty and comfort that connection brings… and the pain when it is severed. I also devised a particular structure for the book, to help readers navigate their way through it. The stories are divided into a rough triptych, with the first section covering relationships between parents and children, the larger centre section concentrating on couples and the final section examining relationships between friends and strangers.
Back to metaphor again. All That Is Between Us is akin to wandering a gallery with an exhibition of a single artist’s work. Each painting is separate but there are connections to be made through style, technique and theme. Some pieces will evoke an immediate, visceral reaction. Others grow on you. Some you may pass on from quickly, but they do a job, providing respite and a change of mood, before moving on to artworks that require more contemplation.
Flash fiction, by its nature, has limitations. It is not as immersive as a novel, it cannot reflect the world through long haul narrative arcs and character development. But what flash fiction can give readers, is a sense of the world as it is lived, through fragments and episodes, the whole messy jumble of senses, memories, dreams and thoughts. It is a form comprised of moments. Just like life itself.
Many thanks to Ken for this brilliant piece and introduction to the art and mystery of flash fiction. I’m sure it will inspire readers to explore further and it’s inspired me to have a go at writing it!
Ken Elkes’ prose has everything I most appreciate in any creative form of writing. It’s taut, clean, not a word to spare. It doesn’t foist anything on the reader or direct our thoughts and emotions; that’s the part we play and flash credits us with the ability. The emotional potential of these spaces is super-charged to the point where it barely seems possible. There were pieces in each of the three sections (a very effective structure) which moved me as an incredible novel might, all in the space of two or three pages. Biological, in which a man meets his birth mother for the first time, conveys entire lives. In Manhattan, 2am, a woman recalls the early days of a long-gone love affair. The wrenching Send Me Down may or may not be inspired by an iconic photo we’ve all seen but it calls out to things we’ve all felt. Initially I found the title All That Is Between Us too ordinary (and similar to that of many novels) but actually, this collection is precisely what the title alludes to: love, regret, desire, sadness, laughter – from someone who understands being human and can find the right few words to connect with anyone.
Following the blog’s 8th anniversary last week, I’ll be belatedly running the annual Literary Lunch competition next week. Thanks for the nice response to my Canadian fiction special edition.