Yes, Not All Flash Fiction Is Bad

Note: A few years ago I wrote a series of monthly reviews for The Fix Short Fiction Review. Unfortunately, The Fix is no longer around so I'm reprinting these reviews on my website.

When my editor asked me to review the November 2008 offerings from Bruce Holland Rogers’s, I was tempted to ask if said editor knew of my reputation around flash fictional lands. After all, an essay I wrote a while back stirred up some angry feelings among flash fiction writers. This feeling was added to, no doubt, by my decision to exclude stories under a thousand words from consideration for the Million Writers Award for best online fiction, which I run each year.

That’s just me. As a reader, I prefer longer stories. And I sometimes wonder if that’s simply the nature of flash fiction. People either love these short short stories, or they hate the entire idea of them.

I’m well acquainted with the hurt feelings my view has caused because people email their feelings on the subject to me. Repeatedly. Years after my essay was buried in the wilds of the net, I still receive messages with words like “ignorant” and “unfair” in them. Perhaps I should have warned my editor, but I didn’t. So if any short short pitchforks need to be raised at such a biased reviewer as myself daring to review an author’s flash fiction, take the anger out on me. My editor is innocent.

That long introduction is my way of admitting I’m not a fan of flash fiction. So it is with baited breath that I await the reaction to this review, in which I totally enjoyed one of Bruce Holland Rogers’s flash fictional offerings, liked a second, and was frustrated as hell by the third.

The first story, “Acknowledgments,” is a hilarious take on all those pompous author acknowledgments we see at the start of books. How many times have you glanced over one of these acknowledgments—glanced over, because honestly, who reads them except the people named within—and you find your eyes glazing over at a clichéd opening like: “A book like this one is never the work of only the author…”

Well, what’s a cliché in the hands of one author turns into pure gold in another’s, as Rogers uses that very opening for “Acknowledgments.” From there he plumbs the depths of those people who truly helped the author in the creation of his latest literary masterpiece, people like that jerk of a professor who slept with his undergrads and got fired, thereby ensuring the author fell into the professor’s tenure-track job. While it’s probably a stretch to call this a true short story—it’s more of a wonderful joke—the story is great fun and laugh-out-loud hilarious.

The next story, “Alexandrian Light,” is a more traditional flash story. Two geologists sit in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest, waiting for one of three armies to reach them: the Russians, the Americans, or the Sino-Japanese. The three great powers are racing to claim the geologists’ discovery of an alien spaceship complete with dead aliens and all the secrets humanity can dare to imagine. But the geologists know none of these armies will treat them well for the discovery, so they do the only unspeakable thing they can think of.

The story is extremely well written and extremely visual, and starts off with a bang. But just as you settle in for the ride, it is over, with far too many questions unanswered. And that is my continual frustration with flash fiction. I’m the first to admit that if a story only needs 500 words to tell the story, then dang it, stick to the 500 words. But if a story needs several thousand to do the subject and setting and characters justice—which is the case with “Alexandrian Light”—please give me those extra words.

The last story is appropriately titled “The Last Man on Earth.” Not a word is said to why this is the last man on Earth, but once the man satisfies all his physical needs—food, shelter, and packs of dogs to protect him—he realizes that a man just isn’t a man without a woman. One day, he discovers a department store manikin and brings her home. From there, his descent into true loneliness and insanity begins. A good story, which accurately describes in only a few words what it took Richard Matheson an entire novel to accomplish with I Am Legend.

So there you have it—three stories, three different reactions. I repeat my earlier admissions of bias against flash fiction and leave it to others to determine whether I’ve been fair or not.