Long Story Short: Flash Fiction by Sixty-Five of North Carolina’s Finest Writers offers a concise, comprehensive, and compulsively readable collection of short-short stories. Concise on two counts: In total, the stories number less than 200 pages, and the longest of the stories is less than 1,700 words (the shortest is a mere 95). Comprehensive: The authors featured here make up a who’s who of writers with ties to the Old North State, including Russell Banks, Doris Betts, Will Blythe, Wendy Brenner, Orson Scott Card, Fred Chappell, Angela Davis-Gardner, Sarah Dessen, Pamela Duncan, Pam Durban, Clyde Edgerton, Philip Gerard, Gail Godwin, Randall Kenan, John Kessel, Michael Malone, Doug Marlette, Margaret Maron, Jill McCorkle, Lydia Millet, Robert Morgan, Michael Parker, Bland Simpson, Lee Smith, June Spence, Elizabeth Spencer, and Daniel Wallace, just to sample the list of contributors. And as for compulsively readable: Despite the pile of books I should have read first, as soon as Long Story Short arrived in the mail, I couldn’t resist reading at least one of the stories. Since that one was so short, I tried another. And then a third. And, as with a box of bon-bons, before I knew it….
The anthology, edited by Marianne Gingher (who also contributes a story) and published by the University of North Carolina Press, is a timely one. While Gingher points out in her introduction that short-shorts are as old as Aesop, there seems to be a growing trend toward the popularity of very short fiction in all of its forms: flash fiction, sudden fiction, microfiction, even twitter fiction and hint fiction. While many of the stories in this collection tend toward the traditional, to my mind, the book as a whole offers an array of different storytelling strategies and narrative structures, and they’re short enough that you’re able to re-read them easily to figure out how they work. Pam Durban’s “Island,” for example, struck me as so marvelous when I read it the first time that I turned around and read it again, aloud, to my wife. (And the stories are ripe for discussion too: Tara (a flash fiction writer herself) and I disagreed about whether Durban’s piece was as effective as it could be — where the heart of it was, where it might have been cut further, how it all played out.)
Today (Sunday, September 13), Gingher debuted the new collection on the closing day of the North Carolina Literary Festival, and tonight the book will be the focus of the Chapel Hill Public Library Foundation’s 50th anniversary, but even if you miss those events, there are plenty more opportunities to catch readings by the contributors. (See a full list at the bottom of this post.) In advance of the NCLF, Gingher and I talked about the book via email, and I’m grateful for her time (especially in the midst of all the festival’s busy-ness!) and glad to share our interview here.
Art Taylor: In your introduction, you talk about Max Steele as not only an “ardent practitioner” of very short fiction but also as an inspiration to others, and his own story, “The Playhouse,” kicks off the collection. How has his example guided what you yourself admire in flash fiction, and why did you choose this particular story from among his many works to include here?
Marianne Gingher: I admire “The Playhouse” for many reasons: its clarity and directness, the precision of language, the mix of somberness and playfulness. One couldn’t possibly guess the ending, but when the protagonist experiences his revelation, it seems absolutely earned and right. How simple the child’s play in the story seems; but how freighted with meaning it is for the adult. If only we could remember childhood better, the story seems to suggest, we might be more successful as grown-ups. Brevity, surprise, flickers of humor, irony, trouble, insight, a change — no matter how subtle — these are some of the elements I look for in flash fiction, and this story seems a classic example of the form. It’s not gimmicky or self-congratulatory in its cleverness. It’s saying something deeply moving about human failure and regret that has universal implication beyond the story’s crystalline and specific world.
More than half of the stories presented here are new. Were writers given the option of either submitting previously published work or writing new stories, or were there some authors whose published stories you knew and already had your eye on for this collection? (And with the new stories, how extensive was the editing process? lots of back and forth to get these stories shaped?)
Some of the stories I had read elsewhere and very much admired (Wendy Brenner’s “Nipple,” for example; Lawrence Naumoff’s “Revolutionaries”; Jill McCorkle’s “View Master”; Fred Chappell’s “January”). I wrote to a number of authors whose work I knew and solicited particular stories I thought might fit the criteria for short-short best. At the same time I invited them to send new work as well, and suggested we’d work together to decide which story should be included. Some authors like Robert Morgan and Ben Fountain (neither had written shorts-shorts before) went on a short-short writing binge and submitted three or four for my consideration. I received multiple stories from quite a number of writers, and more than half the stories in the anthology have never seen print before. I made very few suggestions for major overhauls on these stories. Most of my suggestions to authors of new work had to do with length or rewriting some particularly obtuse sentence or perhaps rethinking a word choice. I helped facilitate a major rewrite in only one case. Everybody was wonderful to work with — generous and accommodating.
You note that all of the authors included are “primarily known for their fiction” and also define flash fiction (in part) as not a prose poem. Yet, given the elasticity of the form, isn’t there some overlap between a narrative-driven prose poem and a more lyrical flash? Peggy Payne’s contribution here, for example, has the “look” of a poem — and at the very least, proves that the rules are flexible at best — and several of the contributors here have also distinguished themselves in poetry. What do you see as the dividing line? Or how can the different forms learn from one another?
I do think that the short-short borrows heavily from both lyric and narrative traditions. But it is a pipsqueak rebel and just when you think you know how precisely to define what it is and what it does, it morphs into something new and delightful — like Peggy Payne’s jokey little spoof or Lynn York’s alphabet story. I’ve read that the French poet Baudelaire wrote a book called 50 Little Prose-Poems that is considered by some to be the precursor of the modern short-short. I sometimes think of the short-short as part poetry, part narration, part riddle or game.
Even the shortest of the stories here (Carrie Knowles’ “My Family,” at 95 words) is still long compared to some of what’s being produced these days, when you consider the growing trends of hint fiction (a Norton Anthology due next year), one-sentence stories (Lydia Davis leading the way and winning a Macarthur Genius Grant), and even twitter fiction (140 characters or less). Is there a point, in your opinion, at which brevity keeps a story from doing what a story should?
I do believe that “what a story should do” or “be” has a lot to do with who the reader of that story is. I would never presume to say that “hint” fiction or twitter fiction isn’t a worthwhile enterprise for lots of readers and fans. As a kid, I remember long family trips to the midwest, punctuated by bright red Burma-Shave ads. The ads (they were actually story boards) popped up from cornfields, delivering a line or two every few miles until the “story” became clear (usually with a humorous punchline). “The bearded lady tried a jar/and now she is a movie star — Burma Shave.” Or “They shaved the wolf so neat and trim/that now Red Ridinghood’s chasing him.” Those bits of rhyming narrative contributed to my first inklings and expectations of the short story form. They were entertaining, often funny, sometimes cautionary, suggested a conflict and a way to resolve the conflict — shaving with Burma Shave shaving cream! But they were also gimmcky and had a clear advertising agenda. There may indeed be a fine line between writing that provokes, unsettles, inspires, and informs and writing that is too brief to do all that. I don’t really think that sound bytes and slogans can compete with War and Peace, say, as great literature. Besides, isn’t one of the reasons we draw pleasure from reading is that it slows us down from our hectic modern, multi-tasking pace and asks us to think?
Not unrelated perhaps: Do you think that the our society’s decreased attention spans (in the midst of that “hectic, modern, multi-tasking pace” you mention) has influenced the rising trend of very short fiction in any way?
I’m not sure our attention spans are shrinking, but sometimes it does feel that we are having to grow extra brains to manage all the external stimulation that’s bombarding us in the way of an ever expanding array of media. Our time to do everything we need or want to do seems to be shrinking because there are so many demands on our 24 hours that even the expert multi-tasker feels compromised. I think what’s gone missing from our lives and what artists need most is privacy. Time to reflect, to think, to dream, to dawdle, to mull without interruption or distraction. We’re too accessible to everybody 24/7. And so it seems that our attention spans are shrinking, but the problem really seems to be a lack of time for in-depth focusing. Perhaps we need to be more vigilant about turning off media sources that waylay us in our efforts to be contemplative — which is something reading requires.
Finally: What did you learn about your own craft — what can you apply to your own work — from your work on this collection?
We writers are always learning from one another. In fact, I think the most wonderful compliment one writer can pay another is to feel wildly inspired to write after reading somebody else’s writing. I felt this way about lots of these stories. They had a big WOW factor for me, and I read each of them many times, trying to discern their tricks. That’s probably as futile an exercise as taking a watch apart to try to see what minutes and seconds look like. There’s always something elusive and unpindownable about an individual writer’s craft. One lesson I take away from this project is just how powerful brevity can be. I’m still feeling the emotional impact of little stories like Wilton Barnhardt’s “Stoma,” Angela Davis-Gardner’s “The True Daughter,” Pam Durban’s “Island,” Ruth Moose’s “Ten Words,” and Tracie Fellers’s “Reverb.” How did they do that? On a good writing day, and only because I’m inspired, I’ll try to find out. ♦
Gingher will join contributors to Long Story Short for a number of events throughout North Carolina: Thursday evening, September 17, at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop in Durham; Tuesday evening, September 22, at the Cary Barnes & Noble; Tuesday evening, September 29, at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books; Wednesday afternoon, October 21, at the Bull’s Head Bookshop in Chapel Hill; and Sunday afternoon, October 25, at both Malaprop’s Bookstore and the Grove Park Inn in Asheville.