annotation by Aaron Gansky
book edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas
WHY I PICKED IT: I wanted to read a collection of flash fiction (though, as I learned, there is a subtle distinction between “sudden fiction” and “flash fiction”—this difference is in length. “Flash” refers to even shorter stories—1 to 2 pages—and “sudden” allows up to about five pages) for a variety of reasons. The first of these was to find good examples of stories to share with my Creative Writing class. Their brevity appealed to me because we could easily cover on in one class setting (though, ideally, a truly good piece could be analyzed for days on end). Secondly, there’s something to be said about our current ADD culture. While I can sit and read a novel (in my spare minutes between work, school, and odd jobs around the house), many of today’s youth, the generation of the 15 second commercial (I know, I know, they’re normally 30 seconds to a minute, but watch them—you’ll see a lot more 15 second commercials these days) lose interest after a page or two. So this style of writing, in my mind, would be immediately compelling. It would get to the heart of a story in as few beats as possible, and then ratchet up our pulses—0 to 600 bps (beats per second) in two pages or less. This was my dream—that each piece would be so riveting, so compelling, so absolutely arresting, that I’d devour each of the stories, then go back for seconds. This, sadly, was not the case. While there were a handful of stories I loved, there were fewer I could use to teach a high school class (because of language or subject matter). And those handful of stories that I loved, that I will re-read time and again, the ones I will teach, they will stay with me. Regretfully, though, the vast majority of these stories were forgettable. Maybe it’s because I’m sick and tired (I mean this here literally—I got that two-week cold that’s beating inside my head and chest, and haven’t had a moment to sit down and unwind since … well, I’m sure I’ve done it at some point—but enough of my pity party). Likely, it’s because some of the stories were too cute for their own good, and others didn’t, in my estimation, truly get the idea of tension. What I wanted were amazing openings and inspiring closings. I got it at times. More often than not, I got confused. At some point I thought that I’d missed the literary movement that insisted that confusing the reader was the highest form of literary accomplishment (here, I see a famous author in a clothing store, the clerk asking him, “Have I read anything of yours?” and the author replying with smug condescension, “Well, it’s possible, considering how perplexed you look). My professional, well thought-out criticism at the end of most of these stories consisted of two primary responses: “huh?” and “What in the hell…?” But it was not all bad, and ultimately, it was well worth the read and, though it may not sound like it just yet, I’m very glad Rob Roberge recommended it to me.
WHY I LOVED IT: To a certain extent, I tried to read this with a certain mindset. After the first five or so stories, in which the primary reader response was confusion and discombobulation, I reminded myself that Rob had recommended that I read this when I asked for a good collection of flash fiction. Why, then, did he do it if all the stories are so confusing. Was I missing something, did the better stories come later (in fact, they did). What I started to see, though, was a pattern. The stories, as the book continued, featured a variety of styles and conflicts. When looked at as individual stories, the result can be a little disheartening. When looked at together, they start to paint an image of something greater than the sum of their parts. This, for all it’s perceived faults, was a canvas of the sudden fiction form, it was exactly what the editors said it was. My personal taste may not have been appeased immediately, but it was appeased. I’m sure most anyone who reads this collection would find a handful (or, ideally, two) of stories that they loved. Here’s a short list (which includes some of the first few that I’ve derided so mercilessly. I’ve since learned that there were things about them I liked—teachable moments, tender moments, etc.): “Can-Can,” “Even Greenland,” “Sunday in the Park,” “No One’s a Mystery,” “Yours,” “Thank You, Ma’am,” “Popular Mechanics,” “Say Yes,” “The Hit-Man,” “I See You Never,” “The Personal Touch,” “Tickits,” “Reading the Paper,” “Thief,” “The Sock,” “Speed of Light,” “Any Minute Mom Should Come Blasting Through the Door,” “The Signing,” and “The Quail.” Most of these I liked because I could understand them, but more so because they had a great opening, an inspiring ending, poignant writing, or made me think. Carver’s story, specifically, “Popular Mechanics,” had this response from me: Good God. Wow. His simplicity and commitment to simple detail had the desired effect—the story told itself. It’s a great example of the writer getting out of the way of the story. “Even Greenland” had my favorite ending. “I know I am looking at John’s fucking triumph. His poem.” “Reading the Paper” made me laugh and laugh—a classic example of a man with a simple desire (to read the paper) and life simply getting in the way (his family being run down by a drunk driver the previous night, his only living kid being kidnapped, an escaped convict coming in to rape and cut him “a little,” etc.). For some of them (“The Quail,” “Can-Can,”) were so well crafted that, though I’ll never remember the character names, I’ll always remember the story, the expression of the characters, the details and minutia that make it so ingrainable.
WHY I HATED IT: At some point I was frustrated that some authors (it seemed) took FAR too long to get to the actual story. They’d give a page or two of background information that felt superfluous. I was, after all, reading a book from the perspective of an ADD high school student. So, while some clearly fancied themselves fantastic writers, masters of their crafts, it seemed a bit showy. “Look what I can do! I can write two pages of extraneous information without a payoff!” It was as if they got caught up in the TELLING of the story rather than simply letting the story breathe (a la Carver in “Popular Mechanics”). I would list these, but there’s no need to chronicle the disappointing stories.
Lastly, the gimmicks. Why is it that a relatively “new” form invites people to try gimmicks. I’m thinking here of one that was about five pages of clichés all strung together, presumably, to tell a story. I never got story or character—I got irritated. We’re told, as writers, to avoid these bad boys for a reason. Why did this guy (or girl, can’t remember off hand) think that putting them altogether would make it okay? If two wrongs don’t make a right, I’m pretty sure 1700 wrongs STILL don’t add up to a right (but then, I’m not up on my new math). Writing a story in the form of a questionnaire may be cute, but didn’t seem very practical to me. Using awkward inversions (a la “Even Greenland,” though it was one of my favs) only makes me picture two Yodas in the crashing F-14. And lastly (I mean it this time) it seemed like, because of the word count restriction, that many authors felt that they had to force information in to make everything understandable, rather than simply trusting the reader. I guess that’s why I like Carver—he trusts the reader to get it. His description is sparse, sublimely so even, but we, as readers, get it. We get it all. And we like getting it without having to be force-fed it (like some father making airplane noises to get his son to eat peas—the kid hates ‘em, man. Airplane noises don’t do much to change the vomit-tasting food!) Same thing with background information that is kicked into our mouths like a foot with a smelly sock (this analogy, admittedly, doesn’t work nearly as well as my previous one, but you get the idea).