Flash fiction. Also known as short shorts, or—my least favorite term for them—small fictions. If the short story is seen as the bastard of the literary world, then the flash fiction is its saddest child, the runt of the litter. Possibly this is because women tend to be the writers of these “small” fictions. Men write big, important doorstops of novels. Women write small fictions, tiny little unimportant stories that most of the literary world (not to mention everyone else) roundly ignores.
Except, of course, that they aren’t little. Or unimportant. And except, of course, that many of these small fictions are masterpieces, giant stories and visions in their own damn right.
One of the biggest criticisms my first book received – and I got to know them all well – was that the stories were just too short to be good. As if the number of words had anything to do with the scope of the vision. As if a Paul Klee were somehow lesser than a Picasso. A brilliant flash fiction can illuminate a world in a moment. It can tell an epic story in the space of a page. The compression necessary to a flash fiction piece means it takes on a greater urgency, a controlled burn that means every single word on that page is necessary, is living and breathing and is saying the thing that so desperately needs to be said. Every piece of kindling is cut and placed and perfect.
I submit that women are better at flash fiction because they have learned to speak large in the smallest spaces. They have learned to be heard through the cracks; to be brief because that moment is all they’ll get; to make the most powerful case, the most powerful art, in the seconds between the men and their doorstop novels. I submit that women have learned how to make small fictions because they have had to, and like everything women writers do, they have turned a “small” form into an art and started a fire in the world. (Obviously, there are some amazing men who write these fictions, too. But this is not a story about them.)
And with that, I would like to introduce you to some of the people making these powerful pieces. You probably already know some flash fiction writers: Tara Laskowski, who also runs the wonderful Smokelong Quarterly, dedicated to publishing short fictions; Kathy Fish and Kim Chinquee, legends in the short-short world; Lydia Davis, of course, who somehow manages to be the “respectable” exception in the world of flash fiction; and Erin Fitzgerald, Lauren Becker, Andrea Kneeland, and Laura Ellen Scott: longtime literary citizens and practitioners, too. But I’d like to introduce you to some women you may not know, some women who are still, as they say, emerging.
1. Rahawa Haile
You might recognize Rahawa Haile’s name – she’s a bit of a literary citizen extraordinaire, like so many of the writers I most admire. In between writing her own short stories, she moderates panels and readings and events and, in 2015, she undertook this wonderful project where she read a short story a day by anyone other than a white dude, and tweeted an excerpt. She said of her project, “I am highlighting a short story every day by authors who aren’t white men because ‘diversity matters’ deserves to be more than sentiment.” In addition to being an awesome supporter of a truly diverse literature, she also writes fiction and essays. I love these pieces – they’re some of the best flash fiction I’ve read in the last few years, and her voice is crazy original. I’ve got her name on my shortlist of writers to watch.
2. Melissa Goodrich
Melissa Goodrich just published a book called Daughters of Monsters. I feel an affinity with Goodrich because we have both been compared to Tim Burton—which is possibly annoying but probably useful—but she is not like anyone, anywhere. And her book is amazing. Get your hands on it. Her stories are electric—seriously, I could identify her writing anywhere because of the sheer insane bright white energy pouring out of it. Please read her. Please read this sentence—“All of the boys in school are breaking their hands”—and then TRY NOT TO READ THE REST OF THAT STORY. Just try. And then once you’re good and sucked in, go here and dive in for more.
3. Sejal Shah
Okay, so Sejal Shah is not exactly unknown. Sure, she’s been published all over the place, from Brevity to Conjunctions. She also served as a biweekly columnist for the Kenyon Review blog in 2016. So okay. But have you read her stories yet? More specifically, have you read this story? It’s called “Skin,” and it starts like this,
This is what the white boys say: your hair. Your skin. This is what the black boys say: we together, together. This is what the Asians say: you date out too, I can tell. This is what the Jamaican boys say: I never liked you Indians. This is what the desis say: Get out of Massachusetts. Move to New York.
So now you know. And now she’s on your shortlist, too.
4. Annie Bilancini
Sometimes, you come across a writer who you feel such a wild affinity for that you want desperately to reach across the internet and borrow their clothes, go out for drinks, airmail them packages of marked up novels and homemade bookmarks. As soon as I read Annie Bilancini, I felt that way about her—her writing makes me want to both sit down and read everything she’s written, and go home and write for days myself. (And okay, I’ve met her in real life and she was immensely charming then, too.) She has an intensely curious mind and a wide-ranging, far-flung style that is graceful and strange and also slightly feral. She got a lot of (well-deserved) attention for a long and marvelous story called “Little Miss Bird-in-Hand,” but I would like to draw attention to some of her shorter work, in particular this gem. Anyone who writes about Saint Stephen is okay by me.
5. Tara Campbell
Tara Campbell is very funny IRL (yes, we are friends, confession) and this also translates to her writing. She does this absolutely unique stuff; crossover sci fi, she calls it. I call it smart wonder fiction. She can be so brilliantly humorous and then she will break your goddamn heart while you’re laughing. It’s expertly done, and beautifully rendered. And the imagination here! Read this, and make of it what you will (and if you don’t know what to make of it, well, isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t it wonder fiction?). And then please read these “Woke Disney Song Lyrics,” if you didn’t see them when they were all over the internets, because you will want Campbell to be your friend, too. (Oh, and she’s got a book coming out, so maybe best pre-order that, if you love what you read?)