It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.
— Friedrich Nietzsche
Brevity and succinctness are often misunderstood. Put a piece, a very short story, up for peer review and — though it may receive favourable feedback — there’s often a comment tacked on: ‘It feels like it could be developed into something longer.’ This entirely misses the point.
If it’s good in its brevity, there may be a lingering after the reading. The reader may not remember every word, or every detail, every placement of every subtlety, but they may be left with the possibility of the piece playing around in their mind. Sometimes, that playing is the embodiment of the tale itself; sometimes the piece read may turn itself towards the reader, asking ‘so, how do you feel?’; sometimes, a reader’s other memories may rise to the surface as a result.
Writing micro-fiction is a challenge in itself. Let’s not confuse the terms ‘micro’ and ‘flash’ fiction here: the former, as I see it when I write it, is a craft, an art-form in the developing; the latter, though it may result in something good, is a quick race through of words, a sprint — something splashed down quickly.
Holly Howitt-Dring’s essay on micro-fiction, Making micro meanings: reading and writing micro-fiction in Short Fiction in Theory and Practice (Published by Intellect, 2011) provides an excellent research background to the form. Although she does include flash fiction along with ‘short shorts, postcard fiction, sudden fiction and even prose poetry’ under the general heading of micro-fiction, I’m inclined to disagree because of the reasons already given. As a brief overview of the form, in an essay version for Planet Extra she writes:
There’s much to condense [in a micro-fiction piece], much left unspoken to the point that the writer makes a pact with the reader: you will not be told everything, you will guess and then, in return, be allowed to interpret the stories as you wish.
As notable examples of micro-fiction, even if they weren’t termed as such at the time of their writing, I think of work by Richard Brautigan, Franz Kafka, and Italo Calvino.
In 1955/56, Brautigan wrote a subsequently unpublished ‘novel’ called The God of the Martians. He experimented with twenty ‘chapters’, the total word count of the work coming in at just six hundred words. It was rejected by the editor of the literary magazine he sent it to. Brautigan was, it would appear, ahead of his time.
Kafka was also, perhaps, writing short pieces before they could be accepted. However, in this case it was the author himself who didn’t consider them worthy. In the editor’s notes to the 1992 version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Malcolm Pasley quotes the author, regarding his series of short meditation pieces (1906-1912): ‘The few unsold copies of Meditation need not be destroyed, I don’t want to give anyone the trouble of pulping them, but none of these pieces should be reprinted.’ The editor goes on to write that the book met with favourable review when it was published. Metamorphosis also includes a series of short fictions under the collected title of A Country Doctor: Little Tales.
Calvino’s Invisible Cities (English translation 1974, 1979) is just an exceptional series of short fictions, all of which relate a fictionalised account of a different Venice. It may never have ever been termed as a series of micro-fictions anywhere else, but to my reading eye that is exactly what it is.
Micro-fiction is misunderstood: it is something to aspire to (and there is a body of work to act as precedent). Writing with brevity and succinctness takes some great skill and, although the examples I offer up contribute to greater wholes, each piece is also something in itself. Each micro-fiction need not be the start of something longer because each micro-fiction is a beauty in its own right.