I should start by saying I’m not going to argue that we don’t, or that we do. (OK, I might argue a bit, but mostly with myself). I’m writing this as a reaction to the fact the National Flash Fiction Day failed to get Arts Council funding and (perhaps more interestingly) to reach its target of £2000 via a crowd-funding website. I’m sure that it will still take place in some form this year (and it may well still receive some funding from the Arts Council if the rejection is appealed) but now is as good a time as any to look at what it is, what it should be, and what purpose it serves.
I don’t know why the National Flash Fiction Day did not receive Arts Council funding this year but, in a time when the Arts Council is working with a smaller and smaller budget every year, I wasn’t appalled by the decision. It is important that the Arts Council help as many expensive projects and organisations as possible through the economic downturn. If a project such as National Flash Fiction Day cannot fund it itself for a year, if it has be less ambitious or even not take place for a year, there is nothing to stop it starting again twelve months later. Once buildings are lost they are lost. (This, as an aside, is why closing libraries is always an ideological and never an economic decision – it is always cheaper to keep a library open in some form than to close it and build a new one later – nobody who closes a library has any intention of building a replacement, whatever they might tell you. Sorry, getting off track). All I wanted to say in this paragraph is that the Arts Council’s decision was almost certainly more about what projects they felt most needed the money than an artistic decision on whether a National Flash Fiction day is a worthwhile endeavour.
It is hard to argue the same thing about crowd-funding. The push to raise money was aimed predominately at those of us who write very short fiction. Most of us didn’t donate. I didn’t donate. I suppose I should say why.
The money raised was to pay for a new website and to fund a second anthology. National Flash Fiction Day is on its second website in a little over twelve months. Honestly, I preferred the first one. I don’t want to upset whoever created the present one, but it has a ‘Keep Calm and Write Flash’ logo on it. I don’t know a writer who doesn’t want to gouge out their own eyes whenever they see another ‘hilarious’ variation on Keep Calm and Carry On. It has no place on a serious literary website. That makes me a snob, I know, I’m sorry. The current website also proudly advertises the fact that it has Arts Council funding, which presently it doesn’t. I’m sure this is an oversight, but it looks bad. For me a writing website should look better than my blog, which is a free, off-the-shelf, WordPress theme. Look, for example, at Kirsty Logan’s website, which is a thing of beauty, and then compare it to the National Flash Fiction Day site. So, yes, I want a new website, but I want to know who is designing it before I offer to help pay for it.
I know I run the risk of sounding cruel by writing this article, I don’t want to upset anyone, I am playing devil’s advocate, please bear with me.
Jawbreakers, last year’s National Flash Fiction Day anthology was a great collection. I would like to see another book this year. But not paid for by crowd-funding. If the people who hope to be in an anthology also finance it how does that differ from vanity publishing? Presumably because some won’t make the final anthology? Is that a strong enough difference? Put bluntly, if the first anthology didn’t make a large enough profit to fund at least a first print run of a second anthology, should there be a second anthology? Put more bluntly, what is the purpose of the anthology? If it is a memento of the day, a souvenir, then print it more cheaply or even give it away free as a pdf or on a website. If it is a statement on behalf of the form, then it should be modelled on Salt’s excellent Best British Short Stories series, edited by Nicholas Royle. If you can’t get someone like Salt to publish it, don’t publish it as a book.
Manchester has a thriving literary scene. Bad Language, First Draft, Magic Animals, Tales of Whatever, #flashtag, Stirred, Shangri La!, and about a milion billion other nights/groups/collectives. They all have one thing in common – great people who are prepared to put the effort in to run events for as close to nothing as humanly possible. That is the spirit that National Flash Fiction Day should, and in part does, embrace. The anthology is a distraction. The day should be about events and participation, and about telling people about flash fiction…
And here in lies the second problem; what is Flash Fiction? What are we promoting?
Personally, I hate the term Flash Fiction. It implies something that is instant, and therefore disposable; something that is written in one sitting and not edited. I don’t set out to write a story to a certain length. I write a story to the length I think it needs. I like brevity, I like writing (and reading) stories that are very short, but not all stories are short. More importantly, however short a story is, it must be edited. As Raymond Carver said, “for the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given.” Very short stories are little more than details, they are lives revealed through glimpses, and they must exist outside of themselves, live on beyond the text. They might have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but one, or even two of these things might not actually be on the page. The writer of any kind of fiction knows that the reader will write part of the story. The shorter the fiction, the less you can tell the reader.
It will be easier to explain if I give an example. This is my story, 17 Word Story About Sting.
“When they drag the lake they find two corpses. Neither of them are Sting. The search continues.”
OK, so it is quite a silly story, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look at it seriously. It consists of three sentences, which you could argue represent the beginning, middle, and end of the story. But actually they are all middle. The beginning and the end of the story exist in the reader’s imagination. If a reader finds the story funny it is precisely because the beginning and end are missing. The story has been through an editing process, moved around until each line is a joke that plays on the previous joke. A very short story, like a very short poem, needs as much effort and editing as a longer one.
But if I don’t like the idea of ‘Flash’ fiction, if I see no real difference (or at least no clear divide) between short stories and very short stories, then how can I argue that we need a National Flash Fiction Day? When I started this article I genuinely thought I could, but I’m not sure I can. I think that if we try to make the shortest of stories into a thing separate from other short stories we risk cheapening them instead of celebrating them. Too much of what is labelled as Flash Fiction is actually anecdote, or draft, or-
Or maybe I’m being a big grumpy. If National Flash Fiction Day gets people writing and reading then, surely, it is officially a ‘good thing’. Very short fiction is certainly not a new thing (Aesop anyone?) but the internet is making it an increasingly popular way of producing and consuming fiction. Perhaps we do need a National Flash Fiction Day after all.
I don’t know really.
Let’s do comments…