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A Conversation with Robert Shapard and Cooper Renner | Word Riot

August 16, 2015      

A Conversation with Robert Shapard and Cooper Renner

Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World
Edited by James Thomas, Robert Shapard and Christopher Merrill (Norton, 2015)

NB: While FFI’s publication by W.W. Norton, an independent but hardly small press, would normally put it beyond the purview of Word Riot, we’re making an exception because so many of the writers featured in the anthology began and still continue their careers in the pages of small press magazines and in collections from tiny literary presses.

COOPER RENNER: Hello, Robert. I’m really pleased that you have the time and willingness to talk about FFI with me. What I’d like to ask you about first is the decision to include work from decades or even centuries prior to the term ‘flash fiction.’

ROBERT SHAPARD: Thanks for inviting me, Cooper. Why did we include those stories? Just the idea that flash comes from somewhere. It has relatives. Our emphasis was always the best of what’s happening now, but if an oldie’s a great story, something people would like, why not, if only a few. It’s true that in our early days of collecting, before the term “flash” caught on, we wanted to lend legitimacy to very short works. Most critics, even writers, dismissed them as fragments or fluff. The only thing that rated, it seemed, was a novel, or maybe a long traditional story. So, oldies by great writers were our way of saying, hey it’s not fluff, see? A side benefit is that it maybe helps highlight by contrast what literary artists are trying to do now.

C: I like that formulation very much, that flash fiction has relatives. Do you think that the moralistic nature of fables would remove them from consideration as genuine relatives? Or what about traditional ballads?

R: That’s a poser. I imagine narratologists wrangling over it. But the practical answer is yes, the moralistic nature of fables removes them from consideration, even if they are relatives in the great unwashed tribe of prose narrative. We don’t want them tracking mud or morals into the house.

I think most modern fiction reflects realism in some way, even if it experiments with it, reacts against it, or appropriates older forms. We once ran a story called “A Fable,” a send-up that questioned the relevance of the moralistic forms in the real world–that’s a pretty common type of flash, actually. As for ballads, Denis Johnson reworked the famous old one about Skew Ball the race horse, kept the song qualities, added humor, and made it all real and moving at the same time. That was arguably a prose poem, in the New Yorker.

But if you go back far enough, before the idea of realism, or maybe even before the idea of fiction, you still have story. Recently I read some Sumerian fragments, found on ancient clay tablets. The translators called them “myths” or “poems” but they were close to flash fictions. They don’t moralize, they’re not magical, they’re not creation myths. Instead they reflect details of ordinary daily dramas and feelings — vivid, realistic. They have a turn at the end, as flashes often do (even if only rhetorical), one that has us see or realize things in a different way.

So, back to the anthology as a house. I said we don’t want the unwashed tribe tracking mud in. But let’s not be petty. Let’s say we’re throwing a big family reunion for flash fiction. We don’t check invitations at the door. Later as the party warms up we wonder if those folks laughing at the bar have the flash family DNA – they do look a little different from most of us. Maybe they’re a mixed breed. Or in-laws? Anyway listening to them, we like them, they’re good company – aren’t we all, finally, some kind of mix? For sure they’re great stories, and very short, so we’re happy for them to stay.

C: There is indeed a strong realistic element in many of the stories in FFI. Do you think it’s fair–or perhaps ‘reasonable’ is a better word–to posit realism as an essential, or nearly essential, element of flash fiction with surreal elements more characteristic of the prose poem? Is it possible that for most practical purposes–publishers’ and booksellers’ purposes perhaps–to separate flash fiction and prose poetry along such lines?

R: Yes, it does seem reasonable. But I don’t know if it would work for booksellers, because the line is blurry. A prose poem can incorporate a story, even a flash fiction. A flash fiction can be surrealistic — or as Fred Chappell has said, flash can be voiced in any known mode, be it realism, fantasy, allegory. So we’re talking not so much a line as an inclination. Also, when it comes to realism, we’re talking more American flash than Latin American (magical realism), or Japanese (fantasy), or Italian (metafiction). I like what Katharine Coles says, in the “flash theory” section of FFI. She pegs the difference between flash and the prose poem to their treatment of time via the sentence. The prose poem seeks to hold time back, by expanding the lyric moment. Fiction, or story, wants to move time forward. To hold time back you make things happen with metaphor, symbol, imagery, dream ΓǪ and since dream and surrealism go hand in glove, we’re back to your first distinction: yes, the surreal is more characteristic of the prose poem. But if a bookseller wants a sharper line, she might want to say flash fiction moves time forward, and the prose poem slows it down. That might be interesting in a bookstore, a fast time section and a slow time section.

C: What a great idea! Do you think Powell’s or City Lights would take the suggestion seriously?

Okay, taking my tongue out of my cheek, I would like to ask about national–or perhaps language-based–variations in the treatment of flash. You’ve mentioned several alternates to realism above, all of which might be analyzed or critiqued as issues of content. I wonder if you, either in reading hundreds of stories for possible inclusion in the anthology or in your own personal reading over the years, have found that certain literatures, due to their individual developments, seem to flourish more clearly and cleanly in the field, seem to have a more congenial relation to the field?

R: Latin American might be more congenial. But so much is debatable, even how short a flash should be. Look at the start of this Latin American flash: “I have three sons by three different men. The first was a Kurd in the resistance living in exile in Paris.” Now here’s an American one: “The razor looked comical to her when she picked it up, hot pink against the cracked cement walls of the bathroom that were painted a dark fungal green…. She moved her wet soapy hands gently around his head….” The first is narrative summary, or telling, the second is showing, a scene with descriptive detail. If we say a story takes less space in summary than scene, that is, fits an allotted space more easily, then maybe you could say it’s more congenial. And yet these stories, Antonio Lopez Ortega’s “Trilogy” and H.J. Shepard’s “Please Hold Me the Forgotten Way,” are both about 500 words, both are realistic, and both are brilliant.

Of course Latin Americans like even shorter works than these, especially intertextual ones like “The Search,” a 12-word story by Edmundo Valades: “Those maddened sirens that howl roaming the city in search of Ulysses.” I love the way it starts with what may be police or ambulance sirens, in a pan shot of the city, before it throws me into an ancient epic, and the way the two reverberate — it’s a kind of fabulism. On the American side, I’ve become a fan of Lydia Davis, who can make a story out of almost nothing. Yet extremely short stories can quickly seem just word games. A story with more character and scene may engage us more, and be just as challenging. It was rumored at a recent world micro conference that Latin Americans are growing weary of extremely short stories, finding them too confining. So, we may see longer flashes from them while Americans continue to move toward shorter flashes, while exploring new ground in realism.

I think this may be a “no” to your question about certain literatures being more congenial. Or, I may have just punted.

C: Actually I think that’s a great response because it digs into the issue of form and content. I mean, do we designate flash fiction entirely by length or is approach to subject matter integral? A twelve-line poem isn’t necessarily a lyric. It might be a dramatic monologue, highly compressed. So I think those approaches you mention are quite important, as are the reactions of readers in different languages to the ebb and flow of literary fashions. It’s too easy to say that flash fiction is an indication of the shrinking of modern attention spans. Fables, parables, Zen koans are ancient and short: ways to challenge the reader’s (or hearer’s) preconceptions. On the other hand there might well be a close connection to the flash explosion and the prevalence of internet connectivity, even in so-called third world countries. Or am I being too glib?

R: No, not glib at all. A lot of people think flash was created by the Internet. It’s taken flash far and wide and fast, for sure. But flash was popular before the world wide web went public in 1992. Flash Fiction, and before it the Sudden Fiction anthologies that included flash, were already in bookstores everywhere and in courses at hundreds of universities. This is worth noting because it affects your question on whether flash is a length only or also an approach to subject matter. Also your question on whether it’s essentially a form of realism.

Realistic flashes do seem more dominant in anthologies published after 2000. Earlier there were more experiments against realism, particularly the novelistic structures the larger short story emulated, usually involving several scenes and at least 20-25 manuscript pages. In the ’60s and ’70s short fiction writers rebelled against that and flash was part of it, often by grafting elements of realism onto ancient forms like fable or dream or joke, or simply creating a focal point with realistic specifics in time and place and language, arresting images, metaphor, dialogue, an epiphany, or a slash of character revelation. As I’ve said before, critics dismissed these 1 or 2 page experiments as mere fragments. But now that flash is widely accepted, as a form capable of achieving high literary value, you could argue that flash has created a new kind of realism. Anyway, the realistic flash has become the most popular kind, here and around the world.

I never saw flash as only a realist form, but for argument’s sake, let’s say it is. Why not? But what about the Germans with their odd little prose experiments? Or the Latin Americans with their intertextual reescrituras and their speculations and micro-cuentos? They seem to exist in opposition to realism, so we could call them anti-flashes. As long as we’re creating a new taxonomy we could say that anything that isn’t a flash, or an anti-flash, but resembles a flash could be a “flash-oid.” Then we could have a collection to enjoy, and think about, that has flashes, anti-flashes, and flashoids. We could put them all under the main title of “flash fiction.”

C: Do you think you can categorize many, or even most, of the fictions in FFI into those three groups? If so, which might be the most prominent examples of each?

R: About 75-80% are realistic and therefore count as “flash.” Then obviously anything non-realistic is an “anti-flash,” easy to spot. The “-oids” are the catch-all — where things are uncertain or complicated.  

For examples we can go straight to the first four stories of the book.

Etgar Keret’s “The Story, Victorious” takes the form of a spiel — it’s a story that promotes itself, an absurd metafiction, and yet the hype is something we hear every time we turn on a tv, so it’s a comment on everyday reality. I’ll call this one a “flash-oid.”

H.J. Shepard’s “Please Hold Me the Forgotten Way” is an example of what may be the most popular kind of “flash” today, with its realistic, intimate details, a breathless moment in time.

Muna Fadhil’s “Prisoner of War” is also a “flash,” but more traditional — it could almost be a Maupassant story, with the present moment or situation transformed by a flashback.

Alberto Chimal’s “The Waterfall” is obviously “anti-flash,” nothing realistic about it. It’s an overtly experimental fiction —and what a crazy, ridiculous, wonderful and strangely moving one it is.

The trouble for me is when categories blend into each other, or overlap. Take Sherman Alexie’s story, “Idolatry.” Its brief anecdotal style is as real as can be, but ends with a moral like a fable. Fables aren’t considered realistic, but this is a modern, realistic moral. Is it a “flash”? A “flash-oid”? A “fable-oid”? And what about realistic stories that travel between genres? Natalie Diaz’s was first published as poetry and Brian Doyle’s as non-fiction.  Edmundo Paz-Soldan’s is grounded in situational and psychological reality and ends in logical absurdity; so does Virgilio Pinera’s. Kirsty Logan’s is magical realism and so on. Maybe it’s not a bad thing just to say flash is any kind of fiction that’s short enough. Poets haven’t been able to agree on a single definition for poetry, after several thousand years. We’ve only been at flash for a few.

C: Excellent, excellent. A kind of taxonomy that makes clean sense, especially for readers new to the field, and gives old hands something to argue about. I wonder if, by way of winding down our discussion before we weary our audience, you have any feel yet for where the Flash Fiction anthology series might go next. Or is it simply too soon to ask such a question?

R: About where the series might go: there are two new anthologies already nearly done.

One is New American Flash Fiction. Ideally it will go on the shelf next to Flash Fiction International. The word limit for the stories will be the same, 750.

The other is Micro Flash Fiction. The stories here will be 1/2 as long.  (That’s 375 words but will likely be rounded up to 400, because it’s easier.) James Thomas notes of Micro that “we are yet deeper into Prose Poetry territory.”

The editors for both books will be James Thomas, Pamela Painter, and Robert Scotellaro. I’m stepping away to do a few other projects, and so is Chris Merrill, who always has more than a few. James, Pam, and Scotty are a great group of flash editors with a wonderful group of associates like Meg Pokrass helping them. Chris and I did vet stories in these new books, especially New American Flash, so we feel part of them, and may contribute a bit more down the road.

The trend is toward shorter works, as said. It’s been happening for years — Sudden Fiction set a limit of 1,500 words, then Flash Fiction set a limit of 750, then some anthologies and journals went shorter. As some countries had all along. We wanted to reflect that in Flash Fiction International. So 20% of the stories in that book are under 400 words (or “micro flash” length) and they’re by some of the best-known writers, like Sherman Alexie, Czeslaw Milosz, and Naguib Mahfouz.

And yet at the same time, flash is going long. Just the other day I exchanged notes with Nancy Stohlman, who’s the author of a flash novel. There’s a growing list of those now, as well as flash novellas (maybe you’ve seen the Rose Metal Press collections). According to Nancy, flash isn’t a length, but a way of writing. It’s an interesting thought, maybe for an interview with her. That’s what makes flash such an exciting field, it’s so alive and changing, even as it gains acceptance.

C: Great and interesting news all round. I suspect your suspicion is right: the discussion of what constitutes flash will be ongoing. And that is certainly healthy and beneficial for writers and readers.

Robert, it’s been a fun conversation and I really appreciate your agreeing to take part. Thanks again for giving me so much time and energy.

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