The following is a link from “The Long of the Short of It,” a craft essay on the short short, posted in OPEN: Journal of Art & Literature. This here is a “short history” cut-away from that essay. You can return to OPEN, or other options, at the bottom of this file.
Short History (of Flash Fiction)
I was reading recently an Introduction to a translation of Gaspard de la Nuit, the collection of prose poems and shorts that was Baudelaire’s model and inspiration for his 1869 Spleen, and came across this howler by the translator:
First published in late 1842, Gaspard de la Nuit…formally began the supremely French literary genre of the poem in prose, a genre that has really never taken root in English, apart from a very small number of authors...
Eh? ‘Never taken root in English’? I went to check the date of publication, figuring late 1950s or early ‘60s, predating the resurgence of the form in the U.S. after its own 19th century, hardly humble, beginnings. Guess what!
English adaptation, introduction and afterword Copyright © 2004
Really?! 2004?? How could anyone write that in 2004? Maybe the English in ‘English adaptation’ refers to the British, who lagged behind the Americans in this latest run-up since the 1960s, though Oscar Wilde is writing prose poems in the 1880s and publishing them in the ‘90s. I’ll withhold our 2004 author’s name, save him further embarrassment, but will make the obvious point that one should certainly read more than one history or introduction, even when they’re good, like Tara Masih’s thorough little historical introduction in Field Guide to Writing FLASH FICTION (Rose Metal Press), which is doubly good for my money—its subtitle: “Tips from editors, teachers, and writers in the field.”
And in this Field Guide her own 27 page “In Pursuit of the Short Short Story: An Introduction” spares my belaboring the finer details of the American and other roots of the form. But in brief, and filling in for a couple of oversights, we have Washington Irving, E.A. Poe, Louisa May Alcott, Twain, Kate Chopin, Ambrose Bierce, O. Henry, Hemingway, Saki, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Virginia
Woolf, et al. As for the European—the Parisian Charles Baudelaire, of course—often cited as le père original of the genre—him followed closely by Mallarmé, then Maupassant; later, Reverdy and Max Jacob; Rimbaud (at age 18!); and the Sweed, August Strindberg (see his Tales); Rilke (cf. Notebooks of Malta Laurids Brigge), and some German expressionists (Georg Heym, Trakl); the British (Oscar Wilde). Kafka! Borges, Marquez. The Dutch fairytale king Hans Anderson; the Russians Chekov and Turgenev, and Asians, some of whom influenced the likes of Yeats and Ezra Pound, as well as Neruda and Octavio Paz (of Chile and Mexico, both awarded Nobel Prizes)—to wit, Rabindranath Tagore with his expanded haiku and proverbs, lapidary prose flashes he called Fireflies.
But such a cursory list ignores equally important (for models, influences, beginnings) the ancient classical prose shorts, like the Bible’s parables (Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, et al.), Aesop’s fables, Milesian Tales, with their direct influence on Petronius’ Satyricon and Apuleius’ Golden Ass—compilations mostly of bawdy yarns strung together in the guise of a travelogue. They influence Boccaccio’s Decameron, too, though these are slightly longer than the short’s usual 2000 words or less. But Theophrastus’ Characters—some 30 types (Glutton, Hick, Sex Fiend, et al.) all of them are under 1000 words—and so on and on. Jean de la Bruyère, in the seventeenth century court of Louis XIV, translated Theophrastus and wrote his own Charactères, each maybe a page in length, often less, along with a couple of hundred short snippets on the times and mores. These are fascinating, a speculum into the 1680s and ‘90s, where the sun couldn’t shine without great risk to the writer. The recognizable portraits of la Bruyère’s contemporaries therein, even with his royal protection, got him into significant trouble.
But really, can’t we go back to the beginning of literature? There’s an Egyptian fool’s picaresque story—The Adventures of Wenamun—whose episodes are short chapters, probably gathered piecemeal though there is a strong coherence toward a whole—they all happen to him, rather than being tales he’s heard—found on parchment from around 1000 B.C. It’s a travel narrative, brought out by the modern travel writer Rolf Potts and rendered as a graphic novel by his teen age nephew—a genre and collaboration newly dear to my heart! (cf. this website on #Translations, re collaborations on ancient texts). Potts and junior call theirs “the first comic book.”
Going back further—about as far as you can, in fact—there’s the ancient tale of “He Who Saw Everything” (the Gilgamesh epic), outdating them all—around 2500 B.C. in Sumerian versions—along with its related half dozen or so episodes of the overbearing and randy hero king that don’t make it into the epic proper; they run around 2000 words each, give or take 500. How Gilgamesh Defeats Agga of Kish, or Gilgamesh, Inanna, and the Huluppa Tree. And like the epic itself, these are all inscribed on clay tablets, in cuneiform syllables, literate-ture, nothing oral about it (as Homer is thought to be), except that it was most likely read aloud in court, and possibly performed.
If we reach further back, the obvious question arises: what else could early oral (before writing and alphabets) tales be, but short? ‘Come back tomorrow (bring your coins), there’s more where that came from.’ Though memory in those times is astounding (authors walked around with their entire oeuvre in their heads; Plato is said to have had The Iliad committed to memory), even in spite of those feats, Homer’s great epics—which are not rhymed, so no aid to memory there though they do proceed in a haunting chanted rhythm of a set pattern of long-held and short-held syllables—daaa da da, daaa da da. . .(six of these to make a line)—they nonetheless break up into episodes or movements, which if not ‘short-short’ short, are at most ‘short-story’ short—anywhere from 300 to 7000 words long. And what of the Homeric Hymns, all short-story short and shorter. So really, the longer forms, the epic and the novel, the picaresque and the epistolary, the extended allegories, dialogues, travelogues, imaginary histories, they all develop out of the shorter form, often as just episodic expansions of a potpourri of tales.
But back to Baudelaire’s legacy and the modern short form of less than half a page to not more than 3 ½ pages of prose. What he developed over time (he was writing shorts and publishing a few as early as 1855; Spleen is published a year after his death in 1868), was to produce a kind of tour of the modern city, an anthology of its denizen, whether in first person or third. He and Mallarmé both looked back at the relatively unknown Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la nuit (1842, a year after his death), which itself is a kind of Spoon River anthology on Ecstasy; or less hauntingly Gothic, like the Dylan Thomas radio play Under Milk Wood (Gaspard is all prose, however feverish), Bertrand’s being about the folks in his rendering of Dijon as a medieval city in Burgundy. Compare Winesburg, Ohio, also revolutionary in form (which includes some shorts, “Hands” being the one most commonly excerpted), and revolutionary in subject matter, too: portraits of the little guy, the loser, the predator. Bertrand’s is even darker:
Que vois-je remuer autour de la Gibet.
What do I see milling about (brooding over) the gibbet?
Or, Deux ladres se lamentaient sous ma fenêtre… Two lepers were complaining under my window, a dog was howling at the cross-ways, and the cricket on my hearth was prophesying in a whisper.
My point in grouping this cluster of works is to suggest that, in the beginning, they share a similar purpose—a ‘symphony of the city’ (more often a cacophony, or a dirge), whether Paris or a French/Dutch medieval town, or Welsh or American Wild West, or a small town in Ohio. And most of these snap shots are short takes on small-mindedness, or wishful thinking or innermost despair, amounting to implicit social criticism—satire, a rub-your-nose-in-it indictment sometimes spilling over into an all out fury and rage at conditions. Dylan Thomas’ Welsh town of Llareggub (Under Milk Wood, 1945) is born in response to the atomic bomb at Hiroshima: Despite the nuclear holocaust, there is still beauty in the world—of people, of ordinariness, the humdrumming beat of our lives in lock step with the world’s movement toward annihilation. Llareggub spells “bugger all” backwards.
As early as 1925 the Soviet Dziga Vertov is produceing a similar thing in documentary film, Berlin: the Symphony of a Great City, using the Eisentein montage to build dialectic ‘shorts’ that tell a story—of revolution.
And today? Maybe this is pushing it, but it seems to me the general subject matter of the short short, vast, wide, and seemingly all-inclusive as it is, is still “city,” though in a larger, looser sense: maybe our inner city—the media, the internet, advertising, posters, loneliness and the tweets and posts to allay it, and a plethora of alternative facts right in with the real ones. Mental and spiritual drek, buggering all. I propose: the shorts today, in all their variety, are a rich cacophony of now. Often with a satiric edge. They may well become a better way, a sharper instrument, to study the times than the short story or novel, decades hence.
You could say the same of novels, sure, but they’re too big and involved to be able to give that laser burst of focus on our multifarious foibles and frenzies and flesh—les sousbresaults de la conscience, as Baudelaire called them—the convulsions of consciousness (usually translated as ‘flip-flops,’ but I think you’d use the same word to describe post-coital shudders, too).
Then, moving on, in the United States, contemporaneous with Vertov and Eisenstein in film, there are the magazines of the 1920s and beyond: first time the term ‘short short story’ is used is in Colliers and Liberty in mid- and late-1920s. Sci fi gets into it— anthologies, contests. The 1500 word limit starts here. Liberty ran a famous yearly contest in the 1930s for shorts of 1200 words; other magazines set 500 word limits. I’m skimming through the Masih book for all this, and will cry uncle only after this apt little quip: the first book about the short short, and how to write it, had a discussion of a 500 word story the writer had published which had induced a rash of queries about what it was—a sketch, a prose poem, some missing pages? So he called it a vignette—“a fancy name for holding your breath while singing.” ☺
Then anthologies begin to crop up. I myself, co-editing with my instructor at Iowa’s Writers Workshop in the late 1960s, can lay claim to assembling one of the earliest in the US. There’s an unusual criti-fiction, built around that very book, over in FLASH#OssaEatsDoilies (this website), should you want to see an anthology in the making, plus a couple of others things, too (in the making). A few years earlier, I recall us in our program at Johns Hopkins writing these ‘mini-tales’ or ‘short shorts’ or ‘snappers,’ and even publishing a precious few of them—later 1965. My own solo-history kicks in even a little before that: I’d discovered and was messing with the ‘emerging’ form as early as 1961 or ’62, whenever it was I first encountered Baudelaire in my undergraduate French major, Charles Baudelaire as we’ve noted, arguably being the father of the modern form, dating from his Paris Spleen: petits poèmes en prose, published in 1869, a year after his death and nearly a century before I ever encountered him:
Which of us has not, in his ambitious days, dreamt the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple enough and striking enough to suit lyrical movements of the soul, undulations of reverie, the shudders of consciousness.
Elsewhere in that same Introduction the author of the scandalous Les Fleurs du Mal says his little poems-in-prose “…are The Flowers of Evil all over again, “…but with more freedom, much more detail, and much more mockery,” that is, the satire, even sometimes the rage or despair. See a couple of my translations of him in Translations, herein. (Also, Mallarmé, Rilke, Sappho, and a couple of Japanese hibakusha.)
These ‘prose poems’ of Baudelaire’s are wildly free—from little dialogues to anecdotes to castigations to a peon to Franz Liszt. Essay bursts, fables, memoir, and yes, narrative stories. One critic (Casto, see her excellent and useful newsletter, to which one can subscribe, at: email@example.com has pointed out that with his mix of models, Baudelaire doesn’t just establish the mini-tale, he also “. . . provides us with an exemplar for the whole gamut of short prose forms.”
But here’s Baudelaire at length, 150 years ago, writing to a friend about discovering this form (not that he didn’t also have his fervent American love as a model, E. A. Poe):
I’ve a small confession to admit to you. In leaﬁng through, for at least the twentieth time, the famous Gaspard de la Nuit of Aloysius Bertrand (a book known to you and to me and to a few of our friends, don’t we have the right to call it famous?) that the idea came to me to try something analogous, applying to the description of modern life—or, rather, to a certain modern and more abstract life—the procedure he applied in painting a life long gone, strangely picturesque. Which of us has not, in his ambitious days, dreamt the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple enough and striking enough to suit lyrical movements of the soul, undulations of reverie, the ﬂip-ﬂops of consciousness. Above all, it’s from being in crowded towns, from the criss-cross of their innumerable ways, that this obsessive ideal is born. Have you yourself, dear friend, not attempted to translate into song the strident cry of the Glazier, and to express in a lyric prose all the distressing possibilities his cry sends even to the dormers through the street’s upmost haze?
Movements of the Soul, Undulations of Reverie, Flip-Flops of Consciousness
Not a bad title for an anthology of shorts, though maybe a little long-winded.
What about just:
Movements, Undulations, Flip-Flops (or Shudders) (Aftershocks?)
For that’s the way real histories unfold—undulations, major and minor collisions and convulsions, but mostly imperceptible movements when seen through prisms of time. False leads, closed down initiatives, stolen kisses, ghosts of dead ends. Dead letters come to light decades hence. Greater writers taking over lesser writers’ inventions (Joyce’s “stream of consciousness,” for example, taken over from an 1880s novel, Les lauriers sont coupés—by one Edouard Dujardin. Not only was Dujardin’s stream of consciousness technique appreciated and lifted, so was his time frame: his novel is about a bright student wandering through Paris over a six hour period. Joyce expanded to 24 hours, and on the wanderings, overlaid the Odyssey.). That maxim, so true: good writers borrow, great writers steal.
Who was Baudelaire writing to, above, for instance? Maybe he’d found a model first, and Baudelaire was matching him. Did Hemingway really accept a bet at lunch (at the Algonquin, no less, or was it Luchow’s) to write a story (or was it a novel) in six words or less—or did that Baby Shoes: for Sale. Never Worn peel off of some public media? If you Google it, there’s an actual news story from 1910 in the Spokane Press: Tragedy of Baby’s Death is Revealed in Sale of Clothes. And the actual ad: ‘Baby’s hand-made trousseau and baby’s bed for sale. Never been used.’ But Hemingway is ten years old in 1910. Who knows; was it just in the air? Or, Hemingway fudged? Friends made it up and he didn’t know anything about it? By the bye, this news story is worth looking at: it is so saccharine that it will incline you to try a parody. But along these six- word lines, and that fraught question of how short can a short be, one Larry Smith slipped himself into the undulant chain of six-shooters and wound up spawning a whole series of books of six word memoirs.
Living in an existential vacuum; it sucks.
Nixon childhood, Reagan teenager, hope finally.
I think in my essay at OPEN I mentioned I’d been submitting a lot of work lately, and not always getting the desired response. Apropos, I knocked one off (or suffered one out):
Suicide note rejected. Please try again.
I think this next one is Smith’s: I would have, you never asked.
Pretty good for a dash of sweet remorse, a love missed. Check out the movement:
But really, aren’t these closer to the punch lines of jokes, a common enough feature of flash to be sure, but as I’ve said, if you read a collection of them, they cloy pretty fast. They’re sort of like that last page in The New Yorker, but in reverse: you have the caption, but the cartoon you have to produce from your own experience. Maybe I should spread them out, just stumble across a clever one now and then, but even then, I think they’re a different animal from flash. The extreme shortness requires them to be referential. Uncompromising fragment of bone, and up to you to supply the marrow. For me, not many carry the heft (or reach) of, say, some of Lydia Davis’ shortest ones. Her “Tropical Storm” is only a dozen words, and though it’s as ‘referential’ as any 6-worder, her twelve words are suffused with a lot of emotions, plus technique—disorder in life, good intentions to fix that, sardonic self-knowledge, pleasing pun, effective design:
Like a tropical storm,
I, too, may one day become “better organized.”
They’re almost notes-to-self, but that’s a disguise. They’re meant to be shared.
Idea for a Short Documentary Film
Representatives of different food products manufacturers try to open their own packaging.
Both of these are from her The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (Picador, 2009).
Here’s another of mine, in closing:
Will it never end – “Short” History?
I’ll end these historical musings where I began publishing with the form, in that dear little anthology that I co-edited with my teacher, Robert Coover, at Iowa, going on half a century ago, “ . . . likely the first anthology of literary short shorts published in the U.S.”
As I’ve said, it’s not. Though we were gathering its ‘nuts’ as early as 1968, but it wasn’t published until ’73. (Cf. “Ossa Eats Doilies, Some Say Antimacassars” in FLASH)
But there are a couple of collections in the 1960s, and 1952 to 1960 saw an annual anthology of shorts, edited by a Robert Oberfirst. I’ve never seen these. Maybe they weren’t as ‘literary’ as ours, which besides the eight shorts by Coover’s Iowa students, included Borges, Merwin, Richard Brautigan, J.C. Oates, Michael Benedikt, Elie Wiesel, Donald Barthelme, Coover, Nicholas Mosley, Russell Edson, Jack Anderson, Rikki, et al., really giants in the genre at the time, or any time, harbingers for us all. You can tell, I’m proud of our little Stone Wall Press of Short Fictions that we put together with the Iowa City printer Kim Merker, all 325 copies of it, a single one of which I found on amazon recently for $89. ☹
So, Not to propose myself as any bellwether, but just to note how “un-new” this genre really is, and how individual impulses can become shared and turn collective—grow into small movements, fade, revive, become a new thing, spawning in turn other new things, maybe even encouraging you, Dear Reader, to write some of your own.
I really hope so.
I’ll end with Bob’s Preface to our book, which covers most of the above in a 900 word short short:
This book is a tree, growing in a shifting light, its branches reach one way, then another. Other trees have died for its sake, not many—feel the pages.
It is already several years old, it seeded itself, more or less (thus, like all of us, it is a gift to the world, wanted or un-wanted), grew without gardeners or grand aspirations, and if it has a certain beauty, it is the beauty of the odd nut tree in a grove of cypresses.
It no doubt has deep roots, but they cannot be examined without destroying the tree. We all understand this. Though it flowers briefly, its nuts are sweet, with hard translucent shells.
It might have been a bigger tree, for we all have friends and our friends have friends, but perhaps instead it will seed others, nobler than itself. Grown in a better light perhaps. With more care.
It will probably not weather a severe storm, and perhaps it is too late to hope for good weather, even to wish for it—who are we to flower and drop nuts in an apocalypse? Yet perhaps it will survive through its own weaknesses: what storm worthy of the name would rage at a nut-tree?
The Stone Wall Book of Short Fictions,
edt. by Robert Coover & Kent Dixon,
Iowa City 1973.
Coover & Dixon, 1970s
Click here on OPEN:JA&L to return where you were in OPEN: Journal of Art & Literature
Links to other pages in this website for and about the short short:
FLASH#Ossa Eats Doilies, Some Say Antimacassars: A Rondez-Voos w James