When I used to teach nights at a local career college, I would begin my Introduction to Literature class by having students read Ernest Hemingway’s “A Very Short Story.” At 633 words, the story was ideal for giving the students a crash course in the basics of literary analysis. We’d read it together as a class, which usually took about five minutes, then spend the next hour talking about things like plot, character, setting, symbolism, and theme. As a teacher, it was always interesting to see how each class received the story, especially the ending, which is rather abrupt and, to be honest, kind of icky. It was also interesting to watch them warm up to the process of analysis. Sometimes, a student or two (or three) would resist “reading into” the story or “picking it apart,” but most were surprised by how much they could pull out of such a short, short story.
Hemingway’s story is only one example of complex “flash fiction.” Others I’d use in class included several I filched from Flash Fiction Online, including Eric Garcia’s “The Materialist,” Elizabeth Creith’s “Stone the Crows,” and Ron Richardson’s “Bus Ride.” Like “A Very Short Story,” these short short stories showed students that literature didn’t have to come in novel-length form to be great. (So many believe that.) Nor did “short” have to mean “confusing,” as they often felt it did when we discussed poetry.
After the first day of class, we’d move on to longer literary works. I’d always encourage students to read outside of class, beyond the required readings. Even now, part of me hopes that some of them sought out more “flash fiction” since I think it’s a form ideally suited for their busy lives of full-time jobs and late-night classes.
But isn’t that true for all of us? How many of us really have time for literature? My guess is not many. Those of us who read literature usually have to make time to do so.
Of course, mobile devices and e-readers are changing the game. Not only have they reintroduced people to literature—revivifying the dying novel along the way—but they have also given flash fiction a fighting chance. For a reader, what could be more attractive than a complete work of fiction that can be read on a phone as you wait for your kid’s bus to arrive?
The trouble is, the average reader doesn’t think of flash fiction as a go-to literary form. My guess is that someone who wants to take up reading again will go first to novels or non-fiction—depending on taste. I mean, as literature goes, the novel is at the wheel and poetry and the average-length short story are in the backseat. Flash fiction, however, is usually strapped to the roof like Mitt Romney’s dog.
As Mormon writers, maybe it’s time for a flash fiction renaissance. During the Mormon Lit Blitz, we learned that Mormons have time for short literary works. We also learned that they are often willing (if you nudge them a little) to share these works via social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. In fact, the Lit Blitz would not have been able to reach as many people had we not taken advantage of all that Facebook has to offer.
Now, I understand that Facebook particularly isn’t for everyone. Some people are put off by its privacy settings and security. Others hate its ever-changing design. And more than a few, I’m sure, avoid it because the thought of reconnecting with high school boyfriends and long-lost relatives sickens them almost as much as grandma’s shepherd’s pie. But there are also others, like me, who love the random sampler aspect of it: the chance it gives you to share articles, videos, recipes, and even flash fiction with the click of a button. No cost. No strings attached.
This no cost, no strings attached mode of getting and disseminating good lit fast has its problems, of course, especially if you are a writer who likes being paid for your work. At the same time, however, I think flash fiction has the potential to expose people to good fiction (and fiction writers!) that leads them to seek out longer, possibly more substantial works. In a sense, I see it as a good way to publicize, to get work out there, to make a name. For Mormon writers, who don’t have a sizable publicity machine behind their work, viral flash fiction might be of some help. (The trick, of course, is getting your work to go viral. Ideas?)
But I’d also like Mormon flash fiction to move beyond the utilitarian, promotional, and ephemeral. I’d like to see it become something well-wrought and complex, something more than McFiction or the short story’s little brother. Really, what I’d like to see is Mormon writers turning it into THE literary form of the iPad age–surpassing even the flash fiction I used to use with my Introduction to Literature students.
That would be something to Tweet about.