The Godmother of Flash Fiction


Volumes of collected stories are often difficult documents. The career of any writer who has been successful enough to warrant one is likely to be long enough that there are a number of duds. They also often come after a writer’s legacy is set, making the publication more of a coronation than anything else. But neither is the case with Diane Williams, whose collected stories were recently published by Soho Press. Williams, the godmother of flash fiction, is widely unrecognized for her talent and influence; the Collected Stories, which features all of her nearly three hundred pieces of fiction, is a call to arms.

The work spans from her first book publication in 1990 to her most recent in 2016, with some previously unpublished stories thrown in. It’s nearly eight-hundred pages and includes three novellas, themselves each comprised entirely of chapters that are less than a few pages in length. The longest single story in Williams catalog is only seven pages. Most are between one and two pages. Many are only a few sentences long.

Her blunt style has stayed remarkably consistent across decades of writing. In one story, Williams writes, “She spent most of her time in the company of people like herself who said they knew what they were thinking. For instance, she thinks any penis is ugly.” What makes this distinctive, ironically, are the extra words. These are not people who say what they are thinking or know what they are thinking, but say that they know what they are thinking. Williams often uses dashes where they seem grammatically incorrect or descriptions that appear redundant. But, on second read, what might have seemed extraneous is in fact crucial.

The most distinctive characteristic of Williams’s writing is, to steal a word from Italo Calvino, exactitude. This idea is distinct from specificity or precision or other near synonyms. A great deal of her work relies on obscurity. She often leaves ambiguous things that might be considered essential to a story—the genders of the characters, how they relate to one another, where or when it’s taking place—and instead focuses on whatever very narrow idea or feeling she is trying to convey. In “Careful,” a story from her 1996 collection The Stupefaction, an undefined narrator collective begins by lamenting that that an unnamed woman “arrived home unhurt. The situation had grown intolerable. A week or so after that, we saw her again, still no accidents.” Later, they see her conversing with people who are not them, and consider calling out to her, but don’t. “We have nothing for—we have no plans for—we have no ideas for your—we have no wish to make you—we are—we feel no—Let’s just say we have other people, other than her, that we could speak to.” This stammering sentence expresses viscerally the anger-without-anger of feeling spurned by someone for whom one feels an alternating sense of resentment and entitlement. The sentiment is exactingly rendered, though the language refuses to resolve itself into precision.

She is perhaps most effective when her stories have first-person narrators. In “Nude,” a woman says: “I bought a robe, too, from that shop, which I could have had in any one of three different colors—which I will not name—the colors. But I could have.” The story about the robe is an aside to an aside, but it evokes the way this character grasps for control. At first, it’s annoying that a character would share such an innocuous piece of information and decline to give any details. Then, it simply feels sad.

Other times, Williams forgoes narrative and character altogether. Those pieces are the most difficult to reckon with and yet oftentimes the most fun to read. Take “The Idea of Counting,” which is short enough to relay in full:

It is five gems. It is eight gems. It is ten gems.
It is three gems.
It is eighteen gems.
It is five gems. It is four gems. It is five gems. It is three gems. It is three gems.
It is five gems.
It is eighteen gems!
It is three gems.
It is more than one gem.

The reader is not made privy to any actual gems that are being counted. But Williams never states a final correction, but instead repeats the same phrase while changing the number. The last line reads like a compromise, a recognition of the impossibility of determining with any stability how many gems “it” is. Like all of Williams’s stories, it feels like it couldn’t possibly be any longer or different than it is. And yet, it feels like it could go on and on forever just the same.

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This style of writing has not been around very long. The oldest anthology that tried to highlight “short shorts” for their literary quality appears to be Short Shorts: An Anthology of the Shortest Stories, edited by Irving Howe and Ilana Wiener Howe, in 1982. In the introduction, Irving Howe writes that the impetus for the book came from a discussion he and his wife had about “Swaddling Clothes” by Yukio Mishima:

[It] seemed different from the usual kind of short story. How so? It is fiercely condensed, almost like a lyric poem; it explodes in a burst of revelation or illumination; it confines itself to a single, overpowering incident; it bears symbolic weight. Struggling to define this story’s distinctiveness, [we] began to wonder: Were [we] talking about a separate literary genre, or subgenre, which might be called the short short?

Mishima’s story is two pages longer than the longest story in Williams’s oeuvre (and that story is a few pages longer than anything else). “Swaddling Clothes,” though it has its structural quirks,  is more or less the length of a conventional short story. In Irving Howe’s words, their “short shorts are indeed like most ordinary short stories, only more so.”

A few years later, Robert Shapard and James Thomas put together Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories. This anthology hews much closer to what we now call flash fiction. Most stories are under five pages. Shapard attempts to explain what unifies them at the end of his introduction:

The fundamental quality, our American writers say, is life. Highly compressed, highly charged, insidious, protean, sudden, alarming tantalizing, these short-shorts confer form on small corners of chaos, can do in a page what a novel does in two hundred. If they can stop time and make it timeless, they are here for you, above all, as living voices.

Sure, there’s something to this. But it also feels like Shapard is reaching, like he’s in search of the right language both to justify these stories as literary items and to justify their grouping as a literary idea. Instead of pulling from older work, like the Howes did, Shapard and Thomas tried to keep things contemporary, pulling mostly from pieces that had come out in the eighties. They note an emerging trend, citing journals like TriQuarterly at the forefront of it. But with few aberrations, these, too, mostly read like short stories but shorter. The style espoused in that rousing closing paragraph was rarely embodied before Williams.

Even more than thirty years after these introductions were written, at at time when the genre should be out of its critical infancy, writers are still struggling with what it is and what to call it. In the 2016 edition of The Best Small Fictions, an annual anthology series, edited by Tara L. Masih, first published in 2015, Stuart Dybek writes that “[essays] on small fictions repeatedly acknowledged that a feature of the form are the protean names it goes by.” He lists a few and relays a memorable Grace Paley quip—that “short-short sounds more like a stammer than a literary genre”—and moves on. This quibbling is silly. Let’s call it flash fiction, let’s call it anything, something. The question of what to call it is a poor metonym for the question of what the genre is.

So, what is the genre? Critics have accepted that a short story is not just a shorter novel. Similarly, flash fiction is not just a shorter short story. Compression does something fundamental to the writing form that changes its DNA. Length is sometimes an effective definition of a genre convention, but it often fails to highlight what makes the genre special. It’s possible to write something under a thousand words, or under five hundred words, that includes all the characteristics of a short story. An essential element of flash fiction seems to be prizing force over narrative. Or, something like this: if the novel is a marathon and the short story is a 5K, then flash fiction is a 100-meter dash. You use the same tools, but they are very different in training, approach, and execution.

The emerging popularity of the form is due to a number of factors, some of which, like the constant evolution of fiction writing, are difficult to trace. Others, like the rise of online journals, such as wigleaf or SmokeLong Quarterly, and the online sections of print journals, like Tin House’s Flash Friday feature, are easier to follow.

Although Williams is underread, new flash fiction is clearly born from her innovations. This can, no doubt, be attributed to her towering presence as the editor of NOON, the literary annual she founded in 2000. The first issue features writers who have perhaps surpassed her as avatars for the genre: Deb Olin Unferth and Lydia Davis. In 2003, she published Ottessa Moshfegh, whose debut novella, McGlue, was a novella-in-flash. In 2010, NOON published work from Syrian writer Osama Alomar, which helped introduce an American readership to a different style of short-form fiction writing, sprung partially from the difficulty of distributing longer work in Syria under Bashar al-Assad’s oppressive regime. If one were seeking a canon of flash-fiction writers, the NOON archive would be a good first place to look.

Ironically, given the importance of the Internet in popularizing flash fiction and the influence of NOON in steering the genre to where it is now, NOON is about as offline a journal as one could imagine. The website is simple and many of the links are broken. That seems fitting for Williams. She continues to do the work her way. On the occasion of the publication of her collected stories, hopefully more people will see that.

 

Bradley Babendir is a freelance and fiction writer. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The NationThe New Republic, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Boston

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