Quick as a flash: the rise of short fiction

A view of Opua, Pine Island from the bow of Michelle Elvy's boat is an inspiration for her flash fiction.
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A view of Opua, Pine Island from the bow of Michelle Elvy's boat is an inspiration for her flash fiction.

Technology may be shortening attention spans, but flash fiction ensures we get a taste of poetic prose in our haste.

There was a time when you could snuggle up on the couch with a good book and get lost for hours. Now finishing a single chapter is a challenge: the phone rings. A text dings. A dozen Facebook and Twitter notifications come through. There are work emails, Instagram posts, and before you know it you've got three new Snapchats, a LinkedIn request and no memory of what the last paragraph said.

As our attention spans shorten, the internet rushes to accommodate us. Online briefs, YouTube videos, vines, listicles, and social media in which you're only permitted 140 characters to say something worth saying.

National Flash Fiction Day organiser and founder; Michelle Elvy.
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National Flash Fiction Day organiser and founder; Michelle Elvy.

Surely it was inevitable that the literary world would join the race. That's where flash fiction comes in.

Formerly known as sudden fiction or even short, short stories: flash fiction is the extremely brief, tech-age friendly literary form gaining popularity in a world running out of time for page-turners.

Flash fiction is usually a single page and no more than 1000 words. It's easily accessible as (as Edgar Allan Poe once advocated) it's able to be read in one sitting. It's gained enough popularity to even have its own day: National Flash Fiction Day (NFFD) occurs in New Zealand on June 22.

Flash got a kickstart here in 2010, when NFFD founder and organiser Michelle Elvy started her first flash project.

Since then, the prolific Kiwi writer has gone on to become editor of three different journals, including Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction.

Now, the day is celebrated simultaneously in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington with events, releases and a national competition which this year drew more writers than ever, with 320 entries for a shortlist of 10 finalists.

Elvy equates flash fiction to her own lifestyle and travelling on a sailboat: "less is more".

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"I have lived in the tiny space of a small sailboat for more than a dozen years now, and I see things at the speed of about five knots. I like the way life can be stripped away to its simplest form. Wind and sails, breath and heartbeat," she says.

Which is romantic enough, but this surge in flash popularity begs the question; is this the death of the novel?

A study by Microsoft earlier this year found the average human attention span in 2000 was 12 seconds, but by 2013 it was only eight - one second less than that of a goldfish.

Massey University English and media studies lecturer Sy Taffel says for that reason, media is aimed at us in a way that veers away from the "mode of deep attention" - ie. immersing yourself in a good novel - to a more hyper-stimulated form of engagement.

But there's still hope, he says. "At the other end, people are engaging with more media now and some of that is quite long and requires full attention. Think about Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad; huge numbers of people having really quite sustained attention over five, six, seven years. Games like World of Warcraft: people are spending hundreds, if not thousands of hours on one gaming system.

"Think about it in music terms; people used to own maybe 30 or 40 CDs, but you probably knew every lyric of every song. Now you have an almost infinite variety of content, it's more about being able to sample lots of things and then focus in on what you really want."

Having carried out her PHD studies on the subject of flash fiction, writer Leanne Radojkovich claims the form might actually slow things down, rather than add to the speed of the info-highway. "People are used to surfing the net and having a whole burst of updates and little bursts of information, and flash fits that context," she says. "But it leaves space for readers to fill in their own thoughts and feelings which, for me at least, makes it feel like reading the story is slowing time."

Not only that, but she - and many others - are quick to point out that flash fiction is by no means new.

Radojkovich says this latest wave of popularity started in the 80s, with the likes of short story writer Raymond Carver drawing attention to the form, but it actually dates as far back as Aesop's Fables, which date to between 620 and 560BC.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes appeared in more than 50 short stories, Charles Dickens was noted for his shorts, and Ernest Hemingway's 1923 In our Time collection featured his infamous story of only six words: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn".

For that reason, Elvy rejects the notion that this tech-driven age is the death of the longer literary form, but perhaps a pointer back to it.

"Flash, like poetry, is a small and enduring thing of beauty in the midst of a noisy, cluttered day that can be enjoyed alongside other pieces of writing," she says.

The general consensus seems to be that while we are now consuming literature on a mobile device or reading poetry in a 140 character tweet, at least we are still reading it.

Flash writers on writing flash and what it means to them:

Michelle Elvy

(NFFD founder and organiser)

My tips: Don't beat around the bush. What you omit is as important as what you say; there's beauty between words - in the space you create, at the edges of the story. Don't go for gimmick. Edit: when you think you're done, cut it in half. Quality over quantity.

Owen Marshall

(NFFD 2015 judge)

It's about control of language, perception of human nature, originality, emotional power. A lot has to be done by insinuation and subtext, every word has to do its job. It really has to have something to say.

Gill Ward

(creative writing teacher; 2015 shortlisted writer)

It's like when people tell a story. They don't use a lot of words but they still tell it in a way that you understand. In a lot of modern fiction, they like to try and stay mysterious, but when you've only got a certain amount of words you can't afford that luxury.

Hayden Pyke

(2015 shortlisted writer)

There's something quite cool about finishing something; the satisfaction of actually having something completed. I just try to write about the things that are happening with the people in my life. It's important to me that those little things that happen in people's lives that are maybe looked over and seem quite mundane, that those things get written about as well.

Frankie McMillan

(previous NFFD comp winner and judge, 2015 twice shortlisted writer)

Flash leaves room for the reader to respond, you can publish on your own Facebook page, people get used to being efficient with language. As a tutor, it's good for teaching students about using imagery to suggest, rather than spelling it all out. Most of all you want something that lingers in the mind; so you put it down and it's still with you half an hour later.

 - Stuff

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