Mormon Literature, Flash Fiction, and the iPad Age

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.

 

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20 Responses to Mormon Literature, Flash Fiction, and the iPad Age

  1. Wm says:

    I enjoy writing flash fiction, and I look forward to more of my work appearing on Everyday Mormon Writer (and really — all that build up and no plug for the only Mo-lit flash fiction venue?).

    But where I think we should focus is the novella/novellette. Some of the best stories in Monsters & Mormons are novella/novellette length. The novella is actually the perfect length, imo, for the tablet and the e-reader: it can be read in one sitting. It’s a proven form for both speculative fiction and literary/general fiction, and I bet you could make it work with romance and mystery too (two genres that aren’t really conducive to the short story). It’s also the perfect form for serializing.

    Of course, very few authors want to write novellas (outside of science fiction and fantasy where the form is still viable in terms of awards and sales) because it’s almost the effort of a novel without the pay off, but since Mormon literature isn’t making anyone rich anyway…

    • Scott Hales says:

      You’re right! Everyone: check out excellent Mormon flash fiction at the new Everyday Mormon Writer (http://www.everydaymormonwriter.com/) and “like” its Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/EverydayMormonWriter).

      I think preference and time commitment play a big part in what people read. I’m a slow reader, so I can’t just sit down during a lunch break and read a novella. It would take me two or three lunch breaks. I can, however, read a few pieces of flash fiction and feel satisfied.

      But I think you are on to something when you suggest that the novella opens up far more possibilities for genre writers than flash fiction. True, excellent science fiction flash stories have been written, but I’m hard pressed to think of good romance, historical fiction, or especially mystery being written in 1000 words or less. I’m sure it can be done, and has been done, but those genres tend to need more space to develop, grow, and engage reader interest.

  2. Wm says:

    But to speak more directly to the post:

    I don’t know the viral-ness is the same when there isn’t a contest involved, but what it does provide is a venue for authors in a way that requires less of a commitment in terms of time writing and also the possibility of more frequent publication, which means there are more of us out there promoting our work to friends and loved ones more often.

  3. Th. says:

    .

    The lowlevel viralness we saw with MLB may be less constant, but the odds of any one piece going truly viral remains the same.

  4. Moriah Jovan says:

    Best flash-fiction ever:

    Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

    The problem with flash fiction’s distribution is that there is no clearinghouse. You can put a novella/short story/poetry collection/anthology/novellette on Amazon and list it on Goodreads. You can’t do that with flash fiction. So what you have are diverse sites you have to deliberately go to in order to read it. That applies to Facebook, too. How many FB users are posting their flash fiction on their walls?

    My twitterstream is chock-full of of people who are touting their flash fiction and, to a tweet, they’re each on a different blog site. Unless I’m keeping up with my bookmarks and/or a specific writer, there is no way I’m going to remember it’s there. Without an ebook equivalent I can download and keep in my reader’s library, I’m not going to remember it’s there.

    I follow a guy who tweets short stories in 140 characters or less. They’re brilliant and sometimes hilarious, but mostly of the pathos variety.

    But I will admit that I’m not really a fan of anything less than a novel, so take what I say here with a grain of salt. I like to immerse myself in a world and not come out of it for a while.

    (Aside: I noticed something last night in my first perusal of the fiction stacks at my library in ten years (not exaggerating). All the doorstopper books in the adult section were published years ago. About half the books in the young adult section were doorstoppers. I think it’s odd that the kids are “allowed” doorstoppers, but the adults…aren’t. Then again, I also think it’s odd that YA fiction goes where romance these days fears to tread–but didn’t used to.)

    • Wm says:

      MoJo said: “YA fiction goes where romance these days fears to tread–but didn’t used to”

      Could you expand on this a bit? I’m highly intrigued by this claim, but have no idea what you’re alluding to even though I read quite a bit of YA.

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        Violence. Moral ambiguity and/or self-empowerment of the female protagonist. Derring-do of the female protagonist. Ensemble casts. (Of course, having an ensemble cast that’s well drawn necessitates more words.)

        YA (or at least what I’m familiar with) has these or a combination of these in spades. The old bodice-rippers used to, and apparently the “golden age of romance” in the early to mid 90s (which I missed) did, but now…no.

        I would say “love triangle,” but that’s not the point of romance (which is a monogamous pairing), so I’m on the fence about whether to include that. I would be interested to see it done in romance, but inevitably somebody hits the Team Edward/Team Jacob point and romance readers don’t like that.

        • Wm says:

          That’s very interesting. I had no idea.

          I wonder why a love triangle is more appealing to YA readers than romance readers.

          • Moriah Jovan says:

            Well, I broke a few major romance “rules” in the writing of MAGDALENE.

            1. I used first person (which is never done in romance; it’s done in YA and women’s fiction and chicklit).

            2. I used a mixed first person (her) and third person (him).

            3. My female protagonist is not only morally ambiguous and self-empowering but has a sexual history that is an outright no-no in romance. For instance, you CAN find former-courtesan heroines in (historical) romance (you will not find it in contemporary), but they’re some innocent flavor of it and/or the whore with a heart of gold who was forced (and thus, needs to be saved) into it is totally excusable. (My narrator in MAGDALENE actually makes this point. Being a prostitute was her FIRST choice for getting out of the mess she was in. She felt it was a self-empowering choice.)

            I would tend to believe that romance readers who read YA are getting their fix (of whatever) there. You’ll also find more of those muddied relationships and motives in urban fantasy, and those romance readers who like that gravitate to that and YA.

            I actually thought of a specific example of an urban fantasy wherein the heroine is a drug addict. Oh, the outcry. Romance readers who had followed the author DID. NOT. LIKE. I have it in my TBR pile, but you know how that goes.

          • Moriah Jovan says:

            And I will add that the heroine I’m writing now is completely anathema to every the current “rule” of romance heroines. When I first started writing her back in the early 90s, she was a sweet little thing (the pirate equivalent to the virgin whore with a heart of gold), but here I am 20 years later thinking, “I can’t buy that.” And since I’m writing for myself and the fanbase of 3 people that I have, I decided to make her as outrageous as I can stomach. As long as a reader can buy the idea of a female pirate, which concept does have historical precedence (though not a lot) (and if you’re buying a book with a female pirate, you’ve already bought into the premise), the reader should be able to buy her level of outrageousness.

            See, in romance, nothing she does would be blinked at if it were the male doing it, but have a woman doing it, and… Yeah. Let the rage begin.

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        Interestingly, this was in today’s Dear Author news post:

        One thing we don’t see much of in romance is risk taking. This NYTimes article argues that the number of adults reading YA is increasing because YA authors are taking more risks.

        It’s because adults are discovering one of publishing’s best-kept secrets: that young adult authors are doing some of the most daring work out there. Authors who write for young adults are taking creative risks — with narrative structure, voice and social commentary — that you just don’t see as often in the more rarefied world of adult fiction.

    • Scott Hales says:

      I think in respect to Mormon flash fiction, if enough quality work is generated through a site like Everyday Mormon Writier, one aim might be the eventual publication of an anthology of Mormon Flash Fiction–a first of its kind, I’m sure–something like the Flash Fiction Forward anthology (http://www.amazon.com/Flash-Fiction-Forward-Short-Stories/dp/0393328023).

      And, for what it’s worth, I’m now following the guy on Twitter, too. Thanks for the link.

      • Wm says:

        I was thinking the same thing re: the anthology.

        Re: Twitter — there’s also Very Short Story. Not all of them land (in fact many of them don’t) but some do. And I enjoy those quite a bit.

        • James Goldberg says:

          One of the biggest advantages I see for Mormon Lit in Flash Fiction is that it lowers the reader’s disappointment when a story doesn’t land.

          I’m most of the way through Dispensation now, and I really love some of the stories in there. “Thanksgiving” for example, is awesome. But how many readers are going to make it to “Thanksgiving” in a sequential reading? I wish we could run a study with electronic copies and just track where people stop reading.

          • Scott Hales says:

            I suppose I agree with this observation on a practical level. Because you’re right: one of the advantages of flash fiction is that it doesn’t require a great deal of investment, so if the payoff is less than hoped for, the loss is not that devastating. At the same time, I’d like to think that the short length increases the chance of a story landing because the reader goes into the reading experience without the high expectations he or she would have for a longer work like a novel. Maybe that’s saying the same thing, though.

            Anyway, I liked all of the stories in Dispensation except the story by Orson Scott Card, which I thought went ten or fifteen pages longer than it needed to. If the story had ended when the main character stepped out of his giant house and realized that he had become a more or less terrible person, the story would have been perfect. But Card had to ruin it by adding a tidy ending with a sweet message that undermined the power of the first half of the story. I see “Christmas at Helaman’s House” as one of the few weaknesses of Dispensation.

            Of course, I didn’t read the anthology straight through. I jumped around based on author name recognition and title.

          • James Goldberg says:

            I just finished Dispensation and will be writing a review in a week or two for Everyday Mormon Writer, and am trying to anticipate how the various stories might go over with Lit Blitz readers.
            Has anyone recommended Dispensation to friends in their ward? If so, have you heard about reactions to individual stories?
            I’d love to hear from you if you have. Either here, or everydaymormonwriter at gmail d. com.

  5. Noticed that Deseret Book was advertising an app for Deseret Bookshelf with free ebooks. Anyone know any more about this or how this app works?

    • Wm says:

      It’s an app for reading digital books. It would be of most use to those who mainly want to read Deseret Book products. It works on any iOS device and most Android devices (so basically a smartphone or a tablet). It requires registering an account with DB. You can see the list of 8 free books here (scroll down). They are all doctrinal or historical titles (including The Miracle of Forgiveness, Lectures on Faith and The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt). Several of those titles are in the public domain and may be available as ebooks from other sources.

      It doesn’t work on a Kindle or Nook e-reader (with an eink screen), but may work on the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet since they are both technically Android tablets (although it depends on if the app is available in their respective app marketplaces and/or if you hack it to be able to include other app stores). You can, however, buy Deseret Book titles for the Kindle directly from Amazon.

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