Whether it be referred to as flash fiction, postcard fiction, a short story, a sudden narrative, or even twitterature designed to echo the 140 characters allocated for a tweet; there can be no doubt that fiction is becoming increasingly more concise.
Designed to fit in with how technology is changing human memory and attention span, micro fiction attempts to tell a story in as few words as possible, usually preferring the simple, active language and meaningful omissions of everyday life to the rich metaphors and vivid prose which were previously held up as defining features of good writing.
Often, there is also a technological component involved: the most forward-thinking micro fiction, originally designed for dyslexics but now finding much more widespread appeal, incorporates multiple images and sound clips alongside sparse text to convey its meaning. Predictably and rather similarly to the eBook, the response to micro fiction from the literary world has been strongly derisive, not to mention apocalyptic, with many authors sadly forecasting the end of literature, in an age where people can no longer appreciate any less interactive forms of entertainment.
Yet there are various reasons why these prophecies of doom are clearly false, and why micro fiction should be embraced as a valuable alternative literary form. Firstly, micro fiction has been surprisingly ill defined, in order to suggest that it is all composed of only six words. In fact, micro fiction can include stories of up to around 1000 words, such as have been accepted by literary magazines for many years with little fuss. For instance, James Thomas, the editor of the 1992 anthology Flash Fiction: Seventy-Two Very Short Stories, one of the very first usages of the term, stipulated that its contents fit on two facing pages of a typical digest-sized literary magazine.
Moreover, micro fiction is far from a phenomenon unique to western adolescents whose minds have been corrupted by too much time spent on Twitter. In fact, it actually harkens back to the roots of what we now term fiction: from pre-historic times, the fables and parables, such as Aesop’s Fables, The Brothers GrimmTales and One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, that we now recognise as containing the tropes that form the building blocks of all literature, were much shorter. Following on from this, cultures whose literary history is primarily oral, whose unique worth the post-colonial movement in literary theory has encouraged us to recognise, also by necessity have shorter works of fiction.
It is, perhaps, only in British literature that this is a relatively new phenomenon: American literature, alternatively, which has been built around American English’s more practical use of language, has always recognised the value of shorter fiction, boasting great writers of shorter works like the nineteenth-century figures Kate Chopin and Walt Whitman. Indeed, fiction which is often billed as summing up the American psyche, such as Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and even ionic novellas, like Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, tends towards brevity. Likewise, the literature of Far East cultures has often favoured succinctness. For instance, in Japan there is the zuihitsu genre, which began more than a thousand years ago, in the seminal text The Pillow Book, written by Sei Shonagon, a lady at the court of the empress Sadako. In his Six Memos for the Following Millenium, Italo Calvino praised this unique literary genre’s brief style as paying tribute to the fact that:
“Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly reshuffled and recorded in every conceivable way… Who are we, if not a combinatorial of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined.”
Indeed, literary puritans forget that literary form has constantly altered throughout history to better suit the way that we tell stories to the circumstances and concerns of our contemporary lives. Most strikingly, the full-length novel, estimated at between 70 000 and 120 000 words by publishing houses, and now the staple genre of out literature, was only truly invented in the eighteenth-century, and at the time was scorned as anti-intellectual and amoral, compared to the more established genre of poetry. Nonetheless, the shift towards the novel both reflected and aided the rise of the middle-class, rather than solely aristocratic, consumption of fiction, and female literacy, since the division of chapters allowed women to raise children and care for the house whilst reading and writing.
The greatest comfort bibliophiles can surely draw is that the continued progress in the literary form demonstrates that human-beings, even in an increasingly image-centric world, will always possess an innate need to tell stories. If micro fiction allows us to still appreciate the power of words in the digital age of constant change, then so be it. This is not to say, of course, that it should be a replacement for more traditional works of full-length fiction. There is certainly something very refreshing, and beneficial for our brains, in opening up a 800-page Victorian novel, and retreating into the pace of a different, slower way of life. Just as we continue to have poetry as well as prose, so should we retain macro fiction even as we move into the micro era.