Emma Weatherhead employs the help of Tania Hershman, who recently published her second collection of flash fiction, to introduce this unexplored genre of literature.
Tania Hershman has won a ton of awards and prizes for her short but very sweet stories. Her credentials in the genre of flash fiction are unquestionable. Generally speaking, flash fiction is a form of literary minimalism; the shorter and punchier the story, the better. Despite many affiliations, including ‘nano fiction’, ‘micro fiction’ and ‘short shorts’, Tania finds it tricky to pinpoint an exact definition, ‘I’m wary of labels, boxes and definitions’ she explains, suspecting that the genre may hold ‘its own form entirely’. However, when pressed she offers ‘a piece of prose, no longer than 1000 words, with no minimum word count.’
By intentionally choosing to write 200 words instead of a 200,000, you present yourself with a colossal challenge. Every single word, comma and full stop is critical, and must leave a lasting impression.
So, how does flash fiction differ from a typical short story? ‘A typical short story doesn’t exist’, Tania quips, ‘there are as many types of short story as there are writers writing them’. The crux of a successful piece of flash fiction, and indeed any short story, is a good ending. Tania explains that, for her, subtlety conceives a good ending, instead of the dramatic or revelatory flourish frequently used at the end of a short story. Flash fiction in particular has the ability to be incredibly memorable, leaving you with ‘that feeling that you’ve been punched in the gut’, a sensation that she relishes.
These uber-short stories have been around for a long time. Aaesop’s Fables, originally dating back to 600 BC, could theoretically be classed as a collection of flash fiction. Additional authors through the ages include Franz Kafka’s work (1883-1924), and the Austrian poet/writer, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). ‘Both were influential contributors to the history of the short story, and were known for their surreal creations, improbable scenarios and uncanny characters’.
Similarly, Tania observes that short pieces of fiction provide a far greater opportunity for experimentation than longer ones, which may explain the attraction for many writers. One of her favourite works is a collection of stories by Richard Bratigaun, entitled Revenge of the Lawn, and published in 1972. She politely declines to dish the dirt on her least favourite pieces, but offers Wants by Grace, The Egg Pyramid by Nuala Ni Chonchuir and Haruki Murakami’s collection, The Elephant Vanishes as a good starting point for my literary exploration.
Considering that flash fiction is no recent development, I wonder, then, why the genre seems to be enjoying a sudden renaissance. Recently, the Costa Short Story Prize was launched; it joins a dedicated cluster of other awards, from The Sunday Times and the BBC. Those specific to flash fiction include the Creating Reality Flash 300 prize; the Binnacle ultra-short story competition and the Diamond Synchrotron Light Reading flash fiction prize – Tania has won all of these, and more!
Tania suggests that flash fiction’s increase in popularity may be due to the increasingly technology-dominated conditions of modern life; ‘flash fiction is much easier to read on a screen, whatever size the screen is…while it requires intense concentration, since there is nothing superfluous, it only requires that focus for a short amount of time.’ This is undoubtedly very true, only, to me, it seems a little sad that the work of talented authors are only beginning to be recognised because of the increasing prevalence of computers and tablets.
How long does it take to write a short story? ‘Sometimes twenty minutes, sometimes a few days’. I can’t help but feel bad for the authors who endure 5 years of blood, sweat and tears over a hot keypad to produce one 700 page novel. Is it fair to bestow equal praise to flash fiction authors for what seems like less work? Tania is familiar with these misconceptions, and also acknowledges another, which is that stories are difficult to read. In a society where we are spoon-fed information through documentaries, films and the internet, I find this notion unsurprising, even if slightly depressing. ‘Neither of these are true, just like all generalisations’, Tania states before telling me about the 800 word story she recently published, that took three years to complete. Touche!
Tania has tackled various obstacles when it comes to publishing her work. ‘I have been writing for 15 years, and it was 8 years before I had any success with a story’. Her story, The White Road, was first broadcast on Radio 4’s Afternoon Reading; it was the perfect opportunity for her to expose her work. Inspiringly, though, she has learnt to look on rejection letters from publishers, which she assures me she still receives, in a positive light; ‘it just makes the acceptances even sweeter’.
I wrongly assumed that short story publishers would be thin on the ground, but Tania tells me there are ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of literary magazines publishing flash fiction, many of which are dedicated entirely to it. Small independent presses such as Tania’s publisher, Tangent Books, and Salt Publishing are ‘the life blood’ of short story collections, which will hopefully increase as this ‘neglected genre’ blossoms, to quote the Guardian.
Mark Twain once joked ‘if I had more time, I would have written a shorter story’, this sums up the ethos of flash fiction. By intentionally choosing to write 200 words instead of 200,000, you present yourself with a challenge. Every single word, comma and full stop is critical, and must leave a lasting impression. Whilst writing a 2000 word essay, I have often fumbled for the perfect words to accurately illustrate my argument, but flash fiction is even more unforgiving.
I love what Tania describes as the element of ‘freedom’; there is no baggage, no preceding bumph, no setting the scene, the action begins, ends, and the reader is left stunned.
Tania Hershman: www.taniahershman.com
Plymouth International Book Festival: www.plymouthinternationalbookfestival.blogspot.co.uk