What The Hell Is Microfiction?
Note: I wrote this essay well over a decade ago, and though some of the ideas, particularly about poetry, are less ripened than I might prefer them to be, I think overall the piece holds up well.
Also, my definition of microfiction here is a bit more restrictive than many might be used to: I consider flash fiction to be in the hundreds of words and microfiction to be in the tens.
I was sitting in a bar with a friend when he told me what he thinks most peoples' attitudes toward microfiction are, those tiniest stories of 15, 40, or 70 words: 1) I don't get it; and 2) Who cares? My friend said these are an extension of most people's thoughts on haiku, which take three prongs: 1) I don't get it; 2) Who cares?; and 3) Doesn't it have something to do with mood—wintery, summery, or green and springy?
I thought his observations were astute in a couple ways. First, and we might as well get it out of the way, Who cares? It's a pretty standard idea in writing circles that the only people who read, much less care about, poetry are poets. That means that maybe 1 in 10,000 people read poetry (a wild guess; don't cite me). In the same way, a case could be made that the only people who read microfiction are microfictionists. This means that seven people in the entire world care anything about the form. Maybe (and I can only hope) this essay will change a few minds, that the range of fans will grow, that two or three of you will be convinced.
We'll dig into "I don’t get it" later, but the other shrewd thing about my friend's comments was that he compared microfiction to haiku. I think this is right. If microfiction can be compared to any other writing genre, it's not short stories, it's not prose poetry—though a lot of people would argue this—but rather it's haiku. The way it's read, the way it's understood, or not, as the case may be, the way it works in the mind of the reader, is closest to haiku. I'll take a second to say, though, that he's wrong about point number 3, that haiku (or microfiction) has something, anything, to do with mood. I suppose that may be the way it's taught in school, but it's wrong. Haiku has nothing to do with mood. Not good haiku. The best haiku doesn't even have anything to do with nature.
But let's back up a minute. What is microfiction, at its most basic? It's a story, a narrative, usually with at least some of the elements of short fiction: characters, dialogue, setting, descriptive language, a scene, an occurrence. Something moves through time, even if just a few seconds of time, and something happens—people interact. It's a story, though it's only 10 or 40 or 85 words long.
It'd be good at this point to read a couple examples. First, here's one that appeared in the magazine elimae, written by the microfictionist Kim Chinquee (with permission from the author):
The toddlers wore lace. "Mamma," one said, bottle-mouthed, pulling on a pants leg. Parents sat on chairs. Daughters wore small outfits. There were days of stretching, gearing up one's mind, warming up one's body. Rehearsing the route. Some girls had to pee a thousand times beforehand. The gun went off. They ran: sisters, nieces, girlfriends -- children. There was a last placer, shoving herself. Everyone stood watching. "Go," they said, clapping.
And now here's one by me:
She burned the shirt in the backyard, the green smoke an ugly whiplash, the buttons popping.
I still don't get it, he said.
What? That I have one less shirt?
The fire was pale, shining on her arms.
First thing we can see is that, yes, it's true, these little strings of words have many of the elements of short fiction. To start, both have characters. In Chinquee's, the characters are more generalized, children who fill the necessary roles of the action, the actors, so to speak, of the story. In mine, the characters are more specified, two people, a he and a she, who are talking with one another. In my story, these people are perhaps less vividly rendered than the children in "Cross." Both pieces, however, have dialogue, both are set somewhere specific, backyards or races, and both entail some sort of happening, an event.
In "Cross" the event is a foot race, which appears to be open only, or perhaps mostly, to children, to girls. It may be that it takes a couple reads of "Cross" to gather exactly what is going on, to stitch together the whole of Chinquee's scenario, but once we do, once we navigate the rhythm of the story, it's pretty clear what's occurring. In my story, the scene, the event, is a bit more mysterious. We glimpse what is happening, this burning of a shirt, but the details are left sketchy enough, the dialogue clipped enough, that there are probably some who are left scratching their heads, asking, What's going on here? Nevertheless, we know something is happening, a conflict maybe, a tension between these two people.
So, here we have two stories. Or at least Chinquee and I would claim to have them. To others, and perhaps many others, this claim would be in doubt. Yes, someone might say, we do have characters, of a sort, dialogue, of a sort, and happenings, of some kind, but what does it mean, what does it add up to?
We are used to stories to which we can attribute some meaning: A character goes through some demonstrably life-changing event, she makes an important decision, he has a realization about life or god or humanity that makes sense to us as readers, a revelation to which we can relate. Perhaps as readers of contemporary or modernist short stories we've become used to the fact that the writer might not spell out this change in broad strokes, that the story ending might be subtle, slight. Even so, with a bit of looking, there it is: meaning, emotion, change.
What is the meaning of "Loss"? What do these 38 words add up to? She burned a shirt; the fire was pale on her arms. Even I, the author, don't know exactly what's going on. No, not exactly. I don't know why these people are doing what they are. It's not even clear what they are doing, this funny backyard ritual. I know this scenario presented itself to my imagination, this small story of gesture and odd attention, one I was compelled to write, but as far as saying, this story is about this thing, I can't. And if this is so, then how can I, much less you, know what it might mean?
A similar line of thought could be followed with "Cross," you asking, Okay, they stood clapping for the last placer, I can see that, but for goodness sakes, why, what can it mean? And even more, why write about it? This is perhaps the reason many people would rather move microfiction toward poetry, away from a designation of fiction at all. We're used to poetry, at this late date, being inscrutable. Language poetry? Found poetry? Cut-up poetry? Flarf? Even the bulk of prose poetry is dense enough with obfuscation to keep us uncomfortable with the idea of definitive meaning. It's something about anti-meaning perhaps, something dreamlike, nightmarish, surreal.
And yet, nothing in either of the above stories is so entirely weird, they're not really dreamlike at all, and the words, their order and grammar, are relatively clear and clean, certainly not flarf. The meaning then is not lost in the language, so much as in the story itself—there is lack of conclusion here, an ending without completeness.
At this point, I'll propose something that might, for now, feel like too much: Meaninglessness, a lack of ability to attract meaning, is in fact the goal of microfiction. The words, the characters, the events in this type of work are meant not to mean anything at all. Their purpose is to point beyond meaning, to a kind of emptiness. What happens in these stories is too big, or too small, or too bland, to attract meaning. Or, to think about it another way, they are meant to present something unmitigated, more open, to ask something about a continuous of things, which can't be broken down and given specific relevance. Microfiction tries to say (and certainly not always successfully), Here is this, which is just this, being it all. It doesn't attempt to corner off one portion of life, break it into a demonstrably meaningful chunk of experience. It's nothing, being everything.
Again though, I stress that the idea is not surreality or non-sense, as might be true in some kinds of poetry. And neither is it to create a metaphoric reflection of some life truth. That's poetry's sphere. Poetry creates a finely crafted set of images and ideas through which, metaphorically, we understand some other thing, in which dislike things become like. That is the revelation of poetry: Aha, things I don't understand (or didn’t previously) are like things I do! I get it!
In microfiction, there is a greater tensility, ductility, of language. It might be just as lush, or highly wrought, or tricky as in poetry, but its underlying structure is leaner, more skeletal, there are more spaces through which an emptiness can be seen. Look at "Cross." The spaces in the narrative, between sentences, between actions and characters, not only give the story its halting, fragmentary feel but also open it up. The usual texture of a short story, made up of scene and description, has been replaced with white space. And yet, this space is not something unknown, it's not plot or information about the characters that Chinquee has left out, knowledge that we are supposed to fill in on our own. Rather, she is carving out space in which nothing exists, an emptiness. The story echoes with this emptiness. By the time we reach its end, it fairly tolls with it.
In this sense, we see through the language of microfiction, not to a metaphoric Aha of meaning, but to meaninglessness. And this is where we can return to haiku, since, of any form, the void is haiku's clearest target.
Here are two poems by my favorite haiku writer, Issa:
With his radish The radish picker Points the way.
Emerging from the nose Of Great Buddha's statue: A swallow comes.
In both poems we recognize the same strange lack of meaning, of consequence, as we did in the microfictions given earlier. What does it add up to, we ask, this radish picker pointing, this swallow coming from the nose of Buddha? What revelation or movement or change proceeds from these words? We also recognize the same echo in these haiku, a similar emptiness. Perhaps the echo comes not so much from between sentences, or between words, but the echo is there, around the poems, before they begin and after they close. There is a sense that we are leaving off into white space, that a space for nothingness has been approved.
The result, as before, is that we look through the poems, to meaninglessness. The haiku are not about something else, in the manner of many kinds of poetry, because the actions they contain, the narratives they relate, do not mean things in any metaphoric sense. Haiku are about everything, a wholeness of experience, conveyed in 11 or 17 syllables, and thus they are about nothing at all, no one broken-off piece of meaningful occurrence. Which is why I claim that haiku are not about mood, and not about nature. To say they are about mood is to claim they take one thing, a wintery sky or grassy spring, and compare it to something else, a human feeling, in a poetic, metaphoric sense. This they don't. A sky in a haiku is a sky. A swallow is only a swallow. And they are not about nature either, not in the way of most nature poetry, in that their goal is not to beautify human experience, or to give meaning to a lover's lament or the poet's thoughts. No, in haiku, what's behind nature is not love or loneliness, it's the void.
None of which is to say that haiku, or microfiction, is devoid of feeling, or of humanity. Issa's poems are witty and earthy, and Chinquee's "Cross" is suffused with human detail. Microfiction is, after all, fiction. It's about people, characters, their desires and hopes and conflicts. It's just that it isn't meaningful in the way we are used to stories being. You don’t walk away from microfiction feeling that something was obtained, revelation revealed.
And so you ask, perhaps justifiably, what's the point? Who cares? Why read it, and why write it? The answer is, because its meaninglessness opens up worlds of possibility that meaningfulness simply cannot get to. Very good haiku, and excellent microfiction, bloom in the mind. You read them and a flower of perception spreads through the head, across the synaptic spaces. Their meaninglessness opens up opportunity, a chance, a grasp of luck and possible futures, that is impossible to get to when tied to causal thought. They provide a look at the void that is brim-full with nothing, with emptiness, like the spaces carved through a sculpture. They show us a chrysanthemum blooming, a ballgame, two people arguing about a dog. There's nothing here, nothing at all.