A quote from Nabokov and then a few words:
A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting … The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.(Good Readers and Good Writers, from Lectures on LIterature, 1980)
Sometimes I get the question: What’s there to like about flash fiction or compressed fiction? Many things and different things for every reader and writer, I suspect. One thing that I love about (very) tiny fiction is that it kicks me into the work of real reading as Nabokov describes it. It brings out the good reader in me. Compressed work, its re-readability, lends the reader an opportunity to practice good reading, to step outside of optic interference, to be a mindreader. That I have a tingling spine to read with is easy to forget. Compressed fiction reminds me, helps me to find it. I like that, for one.
What Editors Want
What do editors look for in flash fiction? A panel set out to answer this question at AWP. Answers included a good opening line, a good closing line, a beginning, a middle, an ending, plot, depth, clarity, movement, transformation, and meaning that lingers. Of course editors, and readers, appreciate these qualities in fiction regardless of form. Flash, then, is simply traditional fiction writ small. Flash modifies fiction, a casual adjective, but does not really change its makeup. The trick is to cram as many of the trademarks of good, long fiction into as small a space as possible, to lodge Moby Dick in the belly of Jonah, or something along those lines. Uncomfortable, it seems to me.
How exciting to be working with compressed creative arts, where, I think, part of the joy of reading and writing is realizing that compression challenges us to search for unconventional stories. It could be that we pass over some of these stories when we indulge in the comforts of big fiction. And compression challenges us to tell our fictions through different, daring, even disturbing styles of storytelling. Disturbing in the sense that the reader is uncomfortable. The reader is on unfamiliar grounds, tasked with learning to interpret a different kind of narrative.
So, the laws of good writing, amassed and expressed in their entirety in one tremendous bang of concision. Is that what editors are looking for in flash? In compressed fiction? And if they are, should they be? Sure, I think so. But my feeling—it’s just one out of many paths leading to very tiny fiction that matters.