Flash Fiction and the Borg: In Praise of the Literary Still Moment
For the past several years I have been teaching a flash fiction course to my college creative writing program’s advanced students. When asked on the first day of class why they think literary flash fiction has a good contemporary audience, my students often begin by toying with the notion that flash fiction suits the short attention span of today’s busy-busy reader. They are for the most part perfectly amiable in contemplation of this putative reader, whom I imagine is reading a flash fiction while texting a friend with one hand, playing Angry Birds with the other, and filming her breakfast behind Google Glass.
The image of this reader has me obsessing that as a species we are moving from Homo sapiens (wise man, or knowing man) to Homo myopia (short- sighted man, or stupid man with a smart phone). I worry we have entered an age inimical to extended thought and, therefore, to real literacy.
Last week a friend of mine observed that our culture is fascinated by zombies because they reflect back to us our worst selves in relation to our technologies: a need to engage interminably in pointless activities; a hapless desire to be in contact with others like ourselves without sharing any meaningful emotional or intellectual matters; the compulsion to devour rather than use a brain. In short, a world comprised of addicts.
I have found an equally frightening cultural metaphor in the Borg from the Star Trek franchise. The Borg is a collection of species that have been “assimilated” into cybernetic organisms that live as mentally linked drones in a hive collective, techno-addicts made a little palatable by a work ethic and a dash of S&M. What scares me about the Borg is the notion of entering a mental landscape in which billions of competing voices without form or structure vie for mediation, a relentless, thrumming white noise of desire and fear. The idea is appalling to me: having the capacity for thought, but not being able to hear myself, or anybody else, actually think.
Our devotion to technologies and the Internet mitigates against sustained thinking, against thoughtfulness, against time+thought. We are allowing ourselves to be trained to avoid longer thoughts, deeper thoughts, more complex thinking. I find myself skipping stories, articles and essays online (the ones with multiple page numbers, like this essay you’re reading now), vowing to get to them at a later time that never quite arrives. Sometimes it takes all I have to resist it, this waterbug desire to skitter from place to place to place. We’re valuing degraded forms of the short and the quick, not brevity and concision (which can require depth of thought), but truncation—versions of the partial and the headlined (which require mostly reaction). In our headlong rush from point to point we may have no patience for the still moments necessary to extended thought.
When I get to this point in my paranoiac reveries, I remember with more
optimism that all literary endeavors—prose and poetry, writing and reading— are in pitched battle against precipitancy. Literature has always been a bastion of defense for the still, thoughtful moment. I remember the day—I was eight at the time—when I first made a conscious choice to keep reading a novel instead of going outside to play on a summer day. Some of the other neighborhood kids were throwing ripe blackberries against my window to get me to join them. I was torn; the blackberries could be thrown and eaten. But I wanted to stay in conversation with the book; I wanted to hold on to the still moment; I wanted to keep dreaming and thinking. This may well turn out to be literature’s highest virtue in our technological age: it makes us stop, pay attention, think and dream expansively. We can be in the moment rather than in thrall to the restless act of skimming moments. We can take time rather than be taken by it.
The Irish writer Julian Gough has written that his “…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 so very far from the way my students connect flash fiction to “today’s busy reader.” No wonder then that flash fiction is perceived as a sort of literary “lite”—none of that fatty text, but some of the taste of story. As one of my students said, “I’ll bet my ADHD brother would read a flash fiction and he doesn’t read anything.” It would seem that the reading of flash fiction requires no still moment, no extended thought; it is a matter of consuming and disposing of a commodity. One unfortunate subtext of this is that the literary writer who writes flash fiction is abandoning the literary, capitulating to an age of scatterbrains. Yet another subtext: flash fiction is a waste of time, possibly even a danger, to the literary writer and reader.
I don’t buy this. I like writing and reading flash fiction and, although I have a long-term anxiety about humanity’s shortening attention span, I don’t believe for a moment flash fiction appeals to it. Or to put it another way, I don’t believe that flash is the equivalent of McLiterature simply because it is short. Certainly it shouldn’t be. One can’t imagine any reasonable person arguing that poetry is a genre ideally suited to our multi-tasking modern reader, that a reading of Bishop’s “One Art” (for example) can be easily juggled among other activities. I would argue the opposite, that flash fiction seduces the reader, like all literary forms, into dropping everything else and paying attention in the moment. During that act of paying attention, we are able to quiet our fractious relationship to time. We are able to have thought after thought after thought, like footprints in a row, extending our mental reach. Things begin to make sense. We are able to dream.
What makes flash fiction tick? Flash fiction looks small, to start with the obvious. How can such a small thing surprise or startle? How can it resonate or engage when it is so little? A flash fiction takes no longer to read than the time it takes to peel a potato or two—or as the title of the excellent flash journal SmokeLong Quarterly suggests, the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. There’s a homely quality to flash fiction, which is somehow touching—that spot of prose, lonely on a page or two, when we are used to seeing (and if you’re my student’s brother, avoiding) the thicker covenants of “full-length” stories and novels and essays. The flash fiction is somehow not “full” like the “full-length” pieces. And so we condescend when we read it, don’t quite take it seriously, which may be in part why good flash fiction is constantly so surprising, so startling, so likely to give us our comeuppance.
Aligned with an alternative universe, one ruled by particle physics perhaps, good flash fiction isn’t aware that it is small in a world of larger texts. That is, it has no need to apologize for its brevity; it simply is. To us it seems impossible that something so small could operate properly, yet it does. Good flash fiction is missing nothing although we, reading it, may initially feel that we are missing something. We read more closely. We pay closer attention. We are brought up short; it takes us aback in a literal way, creating space for the still moment. We think about what we’ve read—and keep thinking. We return to the beginning and re-read it. We think again.
Throughout this essay I have been talking about literary flash fiction. Let’s say, for example, work written by Russell Banks, Robert Olen Butler, Lydia Davis, Pia Z. Ehrhardt, Jayne Anne Phillips, Katharine Weber (and many, many more writers, some specializing in very short forms, others turning to flash only occasionally because that’s the length of the story they have to tell). In its more mediocre forms flash fiction can feel like a joke told by the sort of coworker who trolls hallways looking for polite people: a pun here, an obvious twist there, everything neatly tied up by a punch-line ending. In a recent essay for World Literature Today, the excellent flash fiction anthologist Robert Shapard observed:
For a long time in the United States, the only [flash fiction] tradition was a kind of one-page story published by consumer magazines like Ladies Home Journal. (‘Tradition” may be the wrong word here— an academic study at a California university made the case that the Journal had published exactly the same one-page story in every issue for the last fifty years. Details of setting and character did change, but it was always that same plot, the one with the happy twist at the end.)
This is the kind of thing I imagine being foisted on literary readers by those who would defend flash fiction as something that appeals to the short attention span. At its best flash fiction shouldn’t stop time in a way that makes you wish you were dead, which the joke and punch-line story makes one feel; it stops time by providing a different kind of time altogether.
Lia Purpura wrote in her brilliant Brevity essay, “On Miniatures”: “Time, in miniature form, like a gas compressed, gets hotter…miniature time transcends the experience of everyday time and space by offering a special way to encounter and measure duration.” Purpura goes on to talk about a psychological experiment done with scale-model rooms, from full size scale to models 1/6 or 1/12 or 1/24th that size. When asked to imagine themselves roaming the model rooms as if sized to fit the different scales, the subjects of the experiment experienced time much faster as the size grew smaller, until at 1/24th scale the subjects believed 30 minutes had passed after only 2.5 minutes. One can easily imagine such subjects entering the world of a flash fiction and feeling time expand in just such a way.
Poetry has always offered a special way of encountering and measuring duration. I came late to an appreciation of poetry, but I have become a passionate devotee. I cannot tell you why it took me so long to come to poetry, but for the sake of full disclosure, I’ll just say that I have always, since childhood, had a secret certainty that poetry is at the apex of literary endeavor, and because of this I am rather afraid of good poets. As a fiction writer I imagine myself to be a plodding farmer of sorts, enjoying the feel of the dirt, kicking stones out of my fields, chasing chickens off the new seed, furrowing row after row after row out of rich clean loam. Every once in a great while I bend over in the field and find a small, perfect arrowhead in the mud—and then I scratch my head and think about it for a while (this is a flash fiction) before getting back on the tractor and moving on.
Poets are always spotting the potential in things like that arrowhead. Poets never get the field plowed, the tractor rusts and eventually falls apart, the land goes to seed, and yet they keep producing these perfectly envisioned, perfectly constructed things in the world. I admire this ability and vision a great deal.
When I write flash fiction I feel I’m as close to being a poet as I’m ever likely to get.
I’m a lover of paragraphs that begin this way: “Once…”
These paragraphs are almost always pieces of something else, parts of a short story or a novel, and are not true flash fiction. The “Once” paragraph is, as Lia Purpura says in “On Miniatures,” “…a snippet.” But what marvelous snippets they are. They work within context and they work outside that context. Such paragraphs often recount a singularly unusual event, something surprising or startling, something that reveals depths in character or situation by a flash, like lightning. I have spent many hours looking through books I’ve already read, searching out the “Once” paragraphs, disappearing into those self- reliant particulars which are so deliciously informed against the backdrop of the whole. Often the “Once” paragraphs read differently from the feel of the whole book—the language is tighter, like a cloak wrapped round a small body. It is as though the past, having been condensed, is precious and vulnerable and needs a different kind of care, a different language and style, a different structure, a different way of being. Certainly flash fiction necessitates these sorts of differences, routinely addressing familiar situations in experimental ways.
I very much like the phrase, “Once upon a time,” but I have never known what it actually means. I imagine the thing that happened once, balanced on top of its own history as well as its future history, small, wrapped tightly, vibrating a little so that we pay attention to it.
When I think about how flash fiction operates in the world, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein comes to mind. I have found myself shocked, electrified by good flash fiction, an intensity that can’t be (and shouldn’t be) sustained in longer works. There’s something life-affirming about this, a jump-start to the brain. In the way important moments from our lives remain indelible in our memory, outside time and its forgettings, so too do these electrifying moments that flash can provide. Certainly I remember my favorite flash fictions as clearly and immediately as my most vivid personal memories.
My sister says that she loves the time change in the fall, when she feels she’s wrested an hour back from the hands of fate. Maybe reading flash fiction (or any literature for that matter) is wresting time from the hands of fate.
A friend of mine, the poet JoEllen Kwiatek, has two terrific lines in her poem, “In the Country,” and I have spent a long, long time thinking about them. I believe them to be an essay, though only ten words long. They read:
In Chekhov, in spring,
nothing happens for the first time.
Again, a “snippet,” and again, what a marvelous piece of something else. Every time I return to them I put the lines in context of a different Chekhov story— sometimes “The Darling” and sometimes “The Lady with the Pet Dog” and sometimes…you see my point. I’m pretty sure that I have lived five years longer while thinking about these lines.
I’ve always been a sucker for the literary still moment—in my case, as the Borg say, resistance has been futile. My point in this essay is simple really, and it has been said before in various ways. Nevertheless it’s worth repeating and therefore, like a mantra, not so simple. However long or short, literature makes us stop hurtling forward, stops us from doing things without thinking, lets us (for however long we read) win our race against time. It gives us the still moments to think, and to think again. The smallest forms of literature do this for us; even pieces of literature do this for us. However long or short, literature gives us a radical focus. Literature doesn’t merely make us more human; in a profound way, foreshortened as we are by the busyness of our contemporary lives, it could be the salvation of what it means to be human.
- Aleksandar Hamon, ed., Best European Fiction 2010 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2009), 374.
- JoEllen Kwiatek, “Seven Poems,” ForPoetry.com.
- Lia Purpura, “On Miniatures,” Brevity, Issue 22, Fall 2006.
- Robert Shapard, “The Remarkable Reinvention of Very Short Fiction,” World Literature Today, September 2012.
Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award in short fiction, Leigh Allison Wilson has published two collections of short stories—Wind: Stories and From the Bottom Up. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Georgia Review, Harper’s, The Kenyon Review, Mademoiselle, The Southern Review, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. Her flash fiction has been read on NPR's Selected Shorts. She teaches at SUNY Oswego.