Go Small or Go Home

by Annabel Jackson

‘Literary magazines,’ as Lit Hub put it in 2018, ‘are born to die.’ Indeed, hawk-eyed pundits have been lamenting the protracted death of the literary magazine for years. However, this is a death perpetually locked in the present tense: new literary magazines spring up as often as others go stale, and the lamenters look like apocalyptists sheepishly standing on the mountaintop as their calculations fall to pieces. There is some truth to their prophecies, of course. Literary magazines — and especially their more experimental, ludic cousin, the little magazine (small periodicals devoted to serious literary writing) — have always been dying. After all, the little magazine of all little magazines, Wyndham Lewis’ Blast, became defunct after only two editions: the First World War quickly blew the candles out on what had been promised to be a (or: the) potent new publication of the British avant-garde.


You’d hope that contemporary versions of the little magazine would find something wonderful in this tradition of brevity. Fully aware of its pithy lifespan, the editor would commit to a radical manifesto and produce an edition that is sparky and eclectic, and willing to embrace its own transience. And yet they appear invested in a different strategy. With ever-dwindling readerships, and an ever-saturated market, the little magazine editor only ever seems to ask themselves: what can we do — for this is the classic 21st-century conundrum — to stay relevant?


The answer seems to be to go small. Publishing flash fiction — that is, stories with a word count of 1,000 words or fewer as an absolute maximum — has become the modus operandi for independent magazines. Examples of what we generally conceive of as ‘flash fiction’ date back to the late 19th century, although, as John Barth notes, all kinds of microforms can be found throughout history — from the ancient oracle to the fortune cookie. Perhaps the best-known examples in the flash fiction tradition include the work of Raymond Carver, alongside Ernest Hemingway’s 1925 collection In Our Time. It was in these micro stories that Hemingway advanced his ‘iceberg technique’ or ‘theory of omission’, a strategy by which the greater part of the story’s context is hidden, leaving only gestural, ‘surface-level’ markers of the text’s meaning. Starting from rare experiments in economy of language and literary minimalism such as In Our Time, flash fiction has spawned a huge market in and of itself, with the 21st century incarnation notable for its tight craftsmanship and cool affect. If you look for magazines admitting flash fiction in Poets & Writers, around 421 appear. Some have specific word counts — for instance, works of only 75 words, or works with a word count between exactly 6 and 600 — while others commit to the upper end of 1,000. Where other forms of journalism are investing in the long read, the little magazine is telescoping the micro and publishing iotas.


Beyond its brief word count, what does contemporary flash fiction actually look like? At one end of the spectrum are the well-written, albeit conventional stories which deploy sentimental or soap opera beats, with anaemic cliffhangers reminiscent of the ghost stories children tell each other at sleepovers. For instance, Kirsti Wishart’s ‘One for the Display Cabinet’, published in Battery Pack, takes place in a museum of taxidermy. Among the frozen animals, there is ‘that one member of staff’ who ‘sits stiller at his desk than the others, hand hovering over pinned butterflies for longer than is humanly possible ...’. Gotcha. Then at the other end of the spectrum, there are the writers who explore the potentialities afforded by minimalism — who use the fact of brevity to zone in on the concentrated nucleus of form itself. In ‘Touches’, from the first edition of online flash fiction magazine Tar Press, Andrea Mason re-conceptualises performance artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ piece 'Touch Sanitation', in which Ukeles shook hands with 8,500 employees of the New York Sanitation Department. Mason’s flash fiction begins, ‘Mierle touches the sanitation workers. Mierle touches...’ followed by another 8,500 or so ‘touches’. Here, the form allows the kind of aesthetic risk unimaginable in a mainstream contemporary novel or short story.


Those pieces of flash fiction sitting somewhere in the middle of the spectrum are noticeable for what I mentioned earlier as their ‘cool affect’. This is the neither-indulgent-nor-flat, neither-sensuous-nor-perfectly-cerebral style that writers seem to reach for when confronted with compactness. Verbs dangle loose, individual nouns are jammed between full-stops, and adjectives are frequently jettisoned. Rather than being strictly imagistic with an aim to create an ekphrasis of place or material world, however, this mainstream type of flash fiction often turns inward to the closeted psychology of individual character — only without the space to do more than gesture or rehash.


And how are these magazines marketing their flash fiction? Every Day Fiction claims to offer ‘bite-sized stories for a busy world’; Right Hand Pointing publishes ‘short work for smart people with short attention spans’; while Escarp (now defunct) asked for work which, with ‘the immediacy of text-messages,’ provides a ‘literary appetizer’. More cryptically, Abridged answers ‘why call it Abridged?’ in their FAQs with: ‘because we are. You are. Everyone is.’ All three descriptions refer to the zippy pace of modern life and the comparatively easy consumption of the literature — at which point, it is hard not to think about the ways flash fiction benefits the editors, too. Ted Genoways, ex-editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR), claimed in 2010 that ‘back in the 1930s, magazines like the Yale Review or VQR saw maybe 500 submissions a year; today, we receive more like 15,000'. The number will of course be smaller for independent little magazines. But given most editors are either underpaid or unpaid, plugging away at magazines alongside their salaried work, the labour of sifting through submissions alone is immense. With flash fiction, you can tie up your editorial duties by 8pm, and still manage to make it to your friend’s book launch later that night. The same goes for writers: when juggling day jobs and dreaded inboxes full of commissions or rejections, a flash fiction competition — while by no means easy — must bring with it a sigh of relief. 75 words — that is to say, 3% of what The New Yorker is asking for.

In a way, then, the turn towards flash fiction is egalitarian — for the reader on the commute cramming in time to read for pleasure, the writer burning the midnight oil after a long teaching shift, and the unpaid, ever-diligent editor. This is a generous, and not inaccurate view of contemporary flash fiction. But from the magazines’ paratextual details, it is also clear that the internet — as the source stimulating the freneticism of modern life — and the easy pleasures of immediacy also play a significant part in flash fiction’s meteoric rise. Roland Barthes claimed modernity ‘tends to be more wordy,’ as it is ‘haunted by the idea that it’s being prevented from speaking’. Of course, Barthes said this before he could rack up a 17,000-tweet count. Now, in our modernity, social media has pulverized the idea of there being hindrances to speech, at the same time as compressing the form that that speech takes. Slidable infographics, TLDRs, weekend roundups: just as our desire for content is ever-increasing, our attention spans are atrophying. Suddenly, to be able to see the entirety of a piece of fiction ensconced in the five-inch rectangles of our screens — not only that, but to be able to read multiple stories in one sitting, ticking each one off like a checklist — satisfies our cravings of productivity.


We might, then, read the turn to the micro as a sign of editorial opportunism. The editor wants to be considered a real rival when competing with other forms of online life, to edge closer to Twitter and TikTok’s pattern of micro-content generating bite-size satisfaction. The editor perhaps seeks to stake a claim at relevance in the anti-Pantheons of ‘twitterature’ and ‘drabble,’ to participate in this new, alternative digital-literary economy. Consider Tar Press, which publishes entirely on Twitter. Each ‘parent text’ is broken down into ‘chunks’ and then published as a Twitter thread. Editor John Johns explains that each chunk equates to ‘the components of a collage ... the bullets in a list of bullet points’. We are no longer even happy with flash fiction as a whole: we need it broken down further, smashing atoms into protons.


The stories in Tar Press are written to ‘suit the Twitter form,’ but also, presumably, to break through what the editor calls the ‘shitstorm that is Twitter’. To suit and subvert in the same instance is no mean feat and brings up the question of how fully Tar Press is trying to insert itself into the ‘Twittersphere’. Despite being published on Twitter, the chunks are not actually tweeted as tweets: instead, they are published as screenshots of the text attached to the tweets themselves. And, more noticeably, many chunks exceed Twitter’s 280 character limit for text. These collage components and bullet points are revealing of flash fiction’s relationship to the online world. By not being published in the textual form of the tweet itself, the story’s aesthetic value is preserved — nobody could mistake it for an ordinary tweet; it’s literature — but the literary magazine can still take part in the digital sphere. It seems to be a way of keeping one foot in the ‘shitstorm’ and one foot out.


In his 2006 analysis of literary minimalism, James Dishon McDermott identified the impulse to go small as a ‘rebuke’ to the ‘perceived decadence of a contemporary discursive practice’. Placed within a sanitised framework, minimalism is used to enact the ‘purification, simplification, and reform of the “excessive” discourse’: it is literary bloodletting. In 2021, the minimalism of flash fiction attempts to both reform and integrate itself into the prevalent online discourse, restrained to a word count that resists the endlessness of online text, and reliant on the internet to find and imitate newer, shorter forms. The uniqueness of the longform read is inevitably lost, alongside flash fiction’s own potential to be more abstract, aberrant, and playful - that is, more towards the ‘Touches’ end of the spectrum - than it is today. But for the half-living, half-dead literary magazine, online relevance is important. Editors want to avoid their own doleful piece of flash fiction — For sale: lit mag, never read.


If this epigrammatic style feels familiar to you, it is probably because flash fiction has percolated out of its usual homes — the e-zine, the anthology — right into the novels on your Amazon wishlist. The style of some of the most talked-about novels from the past three years is either, depending on who you ask: spartan, meticulous, and economic in its prose; or flimsy, insubstantial, and YA-esque. We can place in this camp the likes of Ottessa Moshfegh, Naosie Dolan, Xiaolu Guo, and (avert your eyes!) Sally Rooney. They all deploy a sparse, abbreviated style, and construct thinly built worlds, where place is only very distantly refracted through the confined subjectivities of their protagonists. In such an economy of words, descriptions of cityscapes — from Hong Kong in Dolan’s Exciting Times to Manhattan in Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation — are clipped down to lists of proper nouns: sentences are mercilessly pruned to the hilt. Their novels are high on quips and low on descriptive verbiage, almost as if they were written in exquisitely scrupulous shorthand. And although they mass hundreds of pages, their cool, finely calibrated style bears a striking resemblance to the minimalist texture of flash fiction.


Contemporary fiction, then, is in danger of breaking itself down on the level of setting and sentence to mimic flash fiction’s easy, satisfying consumption. Guo’s A Lover’s Discourse takes this to the level of chapter, too. Each chapter begins with an italicized passage of dialogue, like a self-referential epigraph, taken from the chapter we are just about to read: a micro-fiction of the ‘parent text,’ a solitary ‘chunk’ before we delve into the chapter proper. So, if the flash fiction in Escarp was the ‘literary appetizer,’ these novels are certainly the main course.


Yet simply the fact of these texts being long, in sustaining their style across hundreds of pages, alters the reader’s experience entirely. If flash sits uncomfortably along the reform and integrate divide, the work of Moshfegh, Dolan, Guo and Co do the work of purification and simplification; they manifest a disciplined response to the hyper-loquaciousness of the digital age, but refuse the form that makes it quite so instantly gratifying.


Halfway through Exciting Times, the narrator, Ava, teaches school children how to write haikus. ‘Katie Cheung, nine, disliked the haiku format,’ Dolan writes. When Katie refuses to commit to the five-syllable limitation of the opening line, Ava lets her write a short story instead, ‘but to at least use paragraphs. She acceded to this with great reluctance. There wouldn’t be enough room, she said.’ There is, indeed, never enough room to encompass what we really mean. But it is the work of the writer to find room for play and anomaly in the smallest of spaces — and to know when those spaces fall meagrely, miserably short.


ANNABEL JACKSON reads for an Mst in English 1900-present at Jesus College. Her greatest work is co-running an Instagram account about fringes.


Art by Izzy Fergusson.