This week in my short story seminar we talked about flash fiction. I missed the lecture because I left my bike keys at home and had to improvise some storage in a friend’s house. I decided to not hide my ineptitude from my students and used the fact I missed the lecture to fuel the first part of our discussion.
I went around the room and got them to write down one thing that defines a short story. (The lecture was on defining the short story.) Luckily, most of them didn’t say ‘short’. We got a range of response going from ‘it’s collected’ to ’emphasis on morality’ and ‘limited character set’. What I wanted to make them think about, though, was its shortness. Does this impose limits on what a writer can achieve? Does it prevent a short story from being considered as ‘literary’ as a novel? Is longer automatically better?
So I flip-reversed things a bit. Having said that I didn’t want to focus on ‘short’ as the defining characteristic, we spent the rest of our time analysing flash fiction, i.e. very short short stories. I cheated a little and used two of my favourite contemporary poets, Shane Jones and Ellen Kennedy, because some of their poems feel like f-f at times and I wanted to see what my students would make of them. I gave two groups ‘Axe Wants to Save’ and ‘I made the man at the grocery store nervous’ by SJ and EK respectively, one group a Dan Rhodes short short from Anthropology.
The other group I gave a ‘mystery story’, which turned out to be the ultimate flash – the apocryphal Hemingway, ‘For sale, baby shoes, never worn.’ For each text, the groups had to make a case for its short-storyness, focusing mainly on ‘literary merit’. The point was, of course, that there are no clear answers to this, but they made some good cases. They identified the fable-like qualities of SJ’s work, and the more poetic construction of EK’s text. They also explained how we could argue they were shorts because of what they offer the reader, based on the characteristics already discussed earlier.
We closed the first session with a discussion of Twitter and microwriting, as I pushed my agenda of making them think about the importance of modes of dissemination for literary content.
A good class! (Times two seminars.)
My 19thC American lit class was harder work, with Hawthorne’s short stories perplexing them with their inherent ambiguities. More on this class next week…going to try and understand the challenge of teaching second years if it kills me.