Flash of genius or product of our shrinking attention span?
Time for some flash fiction background, basics. Where did it come from and what’s all this about our attention span shrinking? This two-part entry will first examine the origins of flash fiction, then look at attention spans, the Internet and stories so short you can swallow them whole.
Part 1. Where did it come from?
The term flash fiction is apparently only 20 years old, but the notion of telling a complete story in a number of words fewer than the number of pages some novelists have filled goes back centuries, perhaps millennia. People have been telling stories ever since the advent of conversation. Parables, tales, fables were being spread long before Gutenberg. As to the first printed short fiction, authorities don’t seem to agree. Certainly early newspapers carried various forms of stories, but most would be classified as journalism rather than fiction.
It wasn’t until the publication of popular magazines in the United States and Europe in the early 1800s that an effective and profitable forum existed for short story writers. “But what is the first literary text we can point to, classify and declaim with confidence: ‘This is a modern short story’?” writes William Boyd in a 2006 article in Prospect Magazine. “It has been argued that the honor goes to Walter Scott’s story The Two Drovers, published in Chronicles of the Canongate in 1827. It’s a convenient starting point….” But later Boyd says that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales published in 1837 could be the starting point for modern short stories.
Short stories were frequently published in magazines and anthologies, their popularity waxing and waning into the late 20th century. Some early short story authors, notably O. Henry, Chekov, Poe and Kafka wrote stories that might have been classified as flash fiction, if the category had existed.
Hemingway, who gets credit for a multitude of literary innovations, published A Very Short Story in 1925. Weighing in at a little more than 600 words, Papa’s tiny fiction has a beginning, middle and end. It’s a love story with a World War I soldier as the protagonist and a nurse as his girlfriend. The ending is unexpected. My kind of story.
The Hemingway tale is a touchstone in the introduction to a 1992 book, Flash Fiction, 72 Very Short Stories. This collection, edited by James and Denise Thomas and Tom Hazuka, is the book that created the term flash fiction and the editors use Hemingway’s story (which they say is “about 750 words”) as the outside limit for the fiction in the anthology.
In the book’s introduction, James Thomas says the term was created to differentiate the under 750-word stories from longer stories published in two previous anthologies he edited under the title, Sudden Fiction, which contains stories of up to five pages long. In fact, some of the stories in Flash Fiction are under 300 words. Thomas notes that “public taste for brevity in fiction has fluctuated over the years.” In the 1940s, he says, very short stories could be found in magazines such as Liberty, but by the mid-1970s, he says, it was unusual to find a story under five pages in respected magazines and literary journals.
The first true flash fiction writer may have been Aesop, in the sixth century BCE. Given that his stories were not published at the time and that as part of an oral tradition the fables survived in many forms, an approximate word count still can be made using several current versions of the fables. Androcles (and the Lion) contains only 265 words, and The Ant and the Grasshopper is a mere 150 words.
Next: Part 2. Short attention span theory
Hemingway’s A Very Short Story