Flash of genius or flash in the pan, micro fiction is the new kid on the block in terms of truncated literature. If the short story was created in response to a growing appetite for magazine-style periodicals during the nineteenth century (stories had necessarily to be shorter in order to meet with editorial requirements) and soaring literacy rates among young adults, perhaps the emergence of micro fiction is a direct consequence of our own changing reading habits – an increasing (over) reliance on the internet and the effect it is subsequently having on our all too impressionable attention spans.
Unofficially defined as any story comprising fewer than five hundred words, micro fiction (or flash as it is sometimes called) represents an apex in brevity befitting the Twitter generation. Adjectives are the enemy; multiple characters (by which I mean the people who populate the story rather than the letters deployed) impossible to realise in depth; and a sub-plot which shadows the action like an enthusiastic Facebook stalker, regrettably loitering elsewhere.
I spent a couple of weeks in Berlin recently and, duty-bound, bought half a dozen gaudy postcards to send to friends and family back home. What I eventually scribbled across those postcards had no real bearing upon my experiences of that vast, strange, special city because the very size of a postcard denies the natural progression of sentiment. The form itself somewhat strips you of scope. The scene is already set (“I’m on holiday, obvs.”), the character established with that one swift swipe (“I”) and the rest, requiring an oddly generalised sort of specificity, too easily becomes trite and formulaic (“Berlin Cathedral not a cathedral but totally baroques – no?”).
Like postcards, micro fiction promises a degree of intimacy it cannot ultimately provide. It falls back on protracted punch lines and too often produces only a very superficial expansion of a writing prompt suggestion. Yet advocates of the form insist upon its integrity, relevance and resonance. And those same advocates convinced me to read Tania Hershman’s My Mother Was an Upright Piano. “It will change your mind,” they crowed. It didn’t.
My Mother Was An Upright Piano, despite being one of the best collections of micro fiction I have read, remains problematic. In the title story Hershman tells us, “My mother was an upright piano…my father was not the maestro. My father was the piano tuner; technically expert, he never made her sing.” This deftly extended metaphor neatly describes the imbalanced psycho-sexual dynamic between mother and father, conveying an almost professional, although ultimately fruitless devotion on the behalf of the father. The lines read well, like the lines of a poem, but the paragraph concludes smugly, cheaply; retreating back into itself like a snail in the sunshine: “It was someone else’s husband who turned her into a baby Grand.” This is not, as promised, “the world in a grain of sand”. It is merely economy, allegory and archetype.
The main predicament Hershman encounters in so boldly drawing attention to her own narrative apparatus is that the resulting stories have an inherently mechanical quality. (It’s no longer magic after someone has shown you how the trick is done.) Yes, My Mother Was an Upright Piano is clever and light and, ultimately, compulsive reading. But it also robotic and reiterative, constantly referencing its own writerlyness as if it has a score to settle. We have to ask ourselves, does micro fiction merely suffer from the literary equivalent of that which blights little, shouty men: namely, short story syndrome?
I suspect micro fiction will endure and in many, many ways that’s a tremendously good thing. It is an accessible, achievable outlet for our creativity and might encourage us to diversify our reading habits a bit. It speaks to that part of us which requires instant literary gratification whilst fitting snugly into our daily lives. I only hope that micro fiction is a gate way drug, leading us onto the harder stuff. To Tolstoy and Hardy and to Blake. I really hate myself for saying it, but to proper literature.
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