Flash Fiction From Baudelaire to Lydia Davis
Updated August 24, 2017
Over the past few decades, flash fiction, micro-fiction, and other super-short short stories have grown in popularity. Entire journals such as Nano Fiction and Flash Fiction Online are devoted to flash fiction and related forms of writing, while contests administrated by Gulf Coast, Salt Publishing, and The Kenyon Review cater to flash fiction authors. But flash fiction also has a long and respectable history.
Even before the term “flash fiction” came into common usage in the late 20th century, major writers in France, America, and Japan were experimenting with prose forms that put special emphasis on brevity and concision.
Charles Baudelaire (French, 1821-1869)
In the 19th century, Baudelaire pioneered a new type of short-form writing called “prose poetry.” Prose poetry was Baudelaire’s method for capturing the nuances of psychology and experience in short bursts of description. As Baudelaire puts it in the introduction to his famous collection of prose poetry, Paris Spleen (1869): “Who has not, in bouts of ambition, dreamt this miracle, a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple and choppy enough to accommodate the lyrical movement of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the bump and lurch of consciousness?” The prose poem became a favorite form of French experimental writers, such as Arthur Rimbaud and Francis Ponge.
But Baudelaire’s emphasis on turns of thought and twists of observation also paved the way for the “slice of life” flash fiction that can be found in many present-day magazines.
Ernest Hemingway (American, 1899-1961)
Hemingway is well-known for novels of heroism and adventure such as For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea—but also for his radical experiments in super-short fiction.
One of the most famous works attributed to Hemingway is a six-word short story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Hemingway’s authorship of this miniature story has been called into question, but he did create several other works of extremely short fiction, such as the sketches that appear throughout his short story collection In Our Time. And Hemingway also offered a defense of radically concise fiction: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.”
Yasunari Kawabata (Japanese, 1899-1972)
As an author steeped in the economical yet expressive art and literature of his native Japan, Kawabata was interested in creating small texts that are great in expression and suggestion. Among Kawabata’s greatest accomplishments are the “palm-of-the-hand” stories, fictional episodes and incidents that last two or three pages at most.
Topic-wise, the range of these miniature stories is remarkable, covering everything from intricate romances (“Canaries”) to morbid fantasies (“Love Suicides”) to childhood visions of adventure and escape (“Up in the Tree”).
And Kawabata didn’t hesitate to apply the principles behind his “palm-of-the-hand” stories to his longer writings. Near the end of his life, he crafted a revised and much-shortened version of one of his celebrated novels, Snow Country.
Donald Barthelme (American, 1931-1989)
Barthelme is one of the American writers most responsible for the state of contemporary flash fiction. For Barthelme, fiction was a means of igniting debate and speculation: “I believe that my every sentence trembles with morality in that each attempts to engage the problematic rather than to present a proposition to which all reasonable men must agree.” Although these standards for indeterminate, thought-provoking short fiction have guided short fiction in the late 20th and early 21st century, Barthelme’s exact style is difficult to imitate with success.
In stories such as “The Balloon”, Barthelme offered meditations on strange events—and little in the way of traditional plot, conflict, and resolution
Lydia Davis (American, 1947-present)
A recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, Davis has won recognition both for her translations of classic French authors and for her many works of flash fiction. In stories such as “A Man from Her Past”, “Enlightened”, and “Story”, Davis portrays states of anxiety and disturbance. She shares this special interest in uneasy characters with some of the novelists she has translated—such as Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust.
Like Flaubert and Proust, Davis has been hailed for her breadth of vision and for her ability to pack a wealth of meaning into carefully-chosen observations. According to literary critic James Wood, “one can read a large portion of Davis’s work, and a grand cumulative achievement comes into view—a body of work probably unique in American writing, in its combination of lucidity, aphoristic brevity, formal originality, sly comedy, metaphysical bleakness, philosophical pressure, and human wisdom.”
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