Flash fiction and the Irreal

[posted by Greg]

We are pleased to announce that some stories published in The Cafe Irreal (including Ana María Shua’s “Respect for Genres”  and Marco Denevi’s “Lord of the Flies” ) were included in the new Norton anthology Sudden Fiction Latino: Short-Short Stories from the United States and Latin America. And this isn’t the first time stories or translations that we originally published have been so honored: another flash fiction that we published, “All-Girl Band” by Utahna Faith, was included in an earlier anthology in the series Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories (2006).

And this leads us to the conclusion that there is apparently some affinity between what we publish and the flash fiction form. Why might this be? There are several reasons, I think, but I will emphasize here a very practical one: the brevity of flash fiction more or less eliminates the possibility of the writer indulging in that mainstay of contemporary American literary fiction, excessive description. This point was brought home to me by my current reading of the (and here we can speak of some synchronicity) Norton Critical Edition of Boccaccio’s Decameron, where I found an interesting essay by Robert J. Clements titled “Anatomy of the Novella.” In one revealing section, titled “Word Length”, he writes: “For two centuries most novellieri respected the word lengths they found in the Decameron. Boccaccio had encouraged simplicity of intrigue and brevity of composition by the quick plot summaries which preceded his tales, a curious counterpart to Dante’s summary recapitulations of his Vita Nuova sonnets.” However, “by the time of Cervantes, characterization and psychological justifications of behavior increase wordage,” such that “whereas [Matteo] Bandello required 2,300 words to relate the fortunes of Giulia da Gazuolo, [Elijah] Fenton helps himself to 13,000.” Or, as C.S. Lewis wrote, Fenton “loads or stuffs every rift with rhetorical, proverbial, and moral ore.”

Sadly, I believe that we are currently having to endure another era of excessive verbosity in our literature, one which emphasizes the need to fully describe the characters (whether there’s any point to it or not), to fully describe the settings of the fictional work (whether there’s any point to it or not), and which tries to compensate for a lack of content with an excess of poetic prose. And therefore a “default” positive of flash fiction is that it forces, and legitimizes, a return to Boccaccio’s brevity, which is especially a plus for a publication such as ours that seeks irreal stories. Kafka was famous for his brevity of description, after all; so much so that Raymond Carver was often likened to Kafka simply because the brevity of description that characterized his style created an ambiguity in his fiction that was reminiscent of Kafka, even though Carver was very much a realist (or, more precisely, a hyper-realist).

But for an irrealist there is more here than simply a stylistic preference, for excessive description of the setting of a story not only disrupts the dream-like quality typical of an irreal story (dreams, after all, tend not to have a lot of detail), but also disrupts the instrumental nature of the objects that constitute the setting. As Sartre writes, in Kafka’s fiction, “the protagonist never gets a glimpse of forests, plains, and hills. How restful it would be if they could come within sight of a mound of earth or a useless piece of matter! But if they did, the fantastic would immediately vanish; the law of this genre condemns it to encounter instruments only.” But if the writer, intent on demonstrating his or her writing prowess, takes several lines to fully describe the room in which the action is taking place (using several choice metaphors and similes in the process, of course), and thereby convinces the reader that this room is as real as the room in which the reader is now sitting, they will have, in essence, created such a neutral bit of matter. With this act (which the brevity of flash fiction discourages) a story that might otherwise have interesting irreal elements will be transformed into a standard fantasy story simply by virtue of the fact that it takes place against a very concrete, indeed “real,” backdrop.

Of course, there are other positives about the flash fiction form for us. Just to mention one by way of conclusion: many irreal works have an allegorical aspect — even if they are so many pointers to an unknown meaning — and many an allegory, parable, and fable is on the short side (and, again, features minimal descriptive detail).

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