Little Fictions, Big Questions

photo by Jackie Roiz

by Ursula Hurley

Short short? Flash? Micro? Skinny? Nano? 55 words? 100? Less than 500? We may not be sure what to call them or how to define them, but we recognise these miniature fictions when we see them. Until recently, such fictions have existed as a non-literary form, what Jerome Stern calls the ‘unrecognized literature of everyday life’ (18). Only recently have literary concerns begun to embrace this subversive little kernel, which has been there all along in popular magazines, in conversation, as the joke inside the Christmas cracker. It’s populist in a way more conventional, longer short fictions often are not. So, why at this moment in our cultural context have very short fictions begun to sprout complex and subtle sub-genres? Why the critical interest and readerly appetite?

It is of course pointing out the obvious to suggest that very short fictions lend themselves to our fractured postmodern world. But very short fictions are not a new phenomenon. One could argue that their history can be traced back to the origin of our species. Biblical parables and Aesop’s fables are two obvious examples of ancient forms of this genre. Aesop’s tales were almost certainly drawn from pre-existing material originating in the early Buddhist traditions of India (Holzberg, 15). Looking back into our pre-history, narrative jokes and anecdotes with a moral point could be said to be the fore-runners of all narrative fictions, possibly even the bridge between oral and written cultures. Miniature fiction is therefore an ancient and yet quintessentially post-modern form, which is still developing in many directions. As Jerome Stern writes:

This is a strange little form, demanding fictional strategies that are both ancient and yet to be discovered… there are very old stories of enormous power that can only be called short shorts. Earlier than written language, there was the anecdote, the brief telling of an adventure on the hunt, a narrow escape, or a piece of good fortune (16).

What is interesting about Stern’s point is his use of the word ‘little’. Usually, describing something as a ‘strange little form’ would be interpreted as dismissive, a diversion, or a quirk, but ultimately nothing of note. And yet Stern goes on to use the words ‘ancient’, ‘demanding’ and ‘powerful’. Thus we have the curious juxtaposition of a tiny yet massively significant form, which possibly holds within it the history and future of the prose narrative.

Until the 1980s, the short short was a slumbering pygmy, practised by those with a specialist interest, but largely ignored by the literary establishment. So I ask again: what is it about this moment in our cultural context that has brought them to prominence? It is not difficult to argue that this fragmented postmodern world, with its distrust of coherent meta-narratives and its time-starved multi-tasking citizens seems ideally suited to bite-sized morsels of text rather than more substantial narratives demanding an investment of time, emotion and attention, which many these days cannot afford.

This cultural shrinkage can be seen in many aspects of the world around us. Mobile phones and lap tops are now about as light and slim as current technology allows, yet the sophistication of their functions far outstrips their bulky counterparts of ten years ago. Broadsheets have become tabloid, are consumed on tablets; record collections have become memory sticks; magazines shrunk to fit our lives ‘and our handbags’ (according to UK women’s magazine Glamour). So of course it follows that literary production should be influenced by and seek to respond to these social and technological developments.

However, I believe that this move towards miniaturised fictions is more than a consumer-driven trend. Donna Haraway, in her seminal Cyborg Manifesto, identifies miniaturisation as a potent and potentially dangerous ideological activity: ‘Miniaturization has turned out to be about power; small is not so much beautiful as pre-eminently dangerous…’ (153). In the case of miniature fictions, what kind of power might be involved? In what ways might they be dangerous, and to whom?

Miniature fictions ask a lot of their readers. Skilfully written, they present a snapshot, subtly weighted with clues, hints, and suggestions from which readers construct potential pasts and futures for the briefly delineated characters.

There is no closure, indeed there is no definitive ending. Such texts can be so weighted with symbolism, or have such an apparent lack of narrative, that many are classified as prose poems. Jerome Stern asks ‘Can a short story be too short to be a short story?’ (18), while James Thomas does not even finish the question: ‘how short can a story be and …?’ (14).

Longer prose forms have to go to a great deal of effort to create and then explain their attempt to refuse closure (see, for example, The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles). Miniature fictions by their very nature present polymorphous versions of themselves, creating what Haraway describes as ‘pleasure in the confusion of boundaries’ (150) as we encounter ‘the play of a text that has no finally privileged reading’ (176). Haraway might see this as a political action, extrapolating the refusal of closure as a refusal of the ultimately oedipal narratives of the Western canon. A text which does not depend upon the plot of original unity could signal the literature of a post-gender world (Ibid., 150). But that’s another research paper.

So, miniature fictions do not have to labour under the weight of the realist narrative, of reader expectation or the pressure of genre. Rather than being a simple form well suited to the allegedly gnat-like attention spans of the iPod generation, this is a genre which demands imaginative and intellectual engagement; it does not tolerate passivity. Readers are not consumers but co-creators, at least the equal of the author.

Instead of spending hours interfacing with a text, in the way that a traditional narrative is consumed, the physical interface with a piece of miniature fiction is very brief. It may take moments to read the text, and it may happen via the internet, via text message, perhaps via the pages of a book, but that text is then saved to the reader’s own memory, where almost like a computer programme it begins to run, and in its interaction with the reader’s unique imaginative and contextual circumstances, will live on for hours, days, maybe years, as something which no longer exists on paper, but in the memory structures of readers who in a sense come to embody the text. What we can see here is Haroway’s suggestion of the ‘powerful infidel heteroglossia’ (181) of the cyborg text, imagining an ‘“experimental ethnography” in which an organic object dissipates in attention to the play of writing’ (162). Not so much written on the body as in it, writing and re-writing itself within the neural pathways of living organisms. Which also begs the question: why bother with a novel, when you can do all this with (arguably) a few hundred words?

Such texts question and problematise and worry at generic boundaries in a way that literary short fiction in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, on the whole, has not. The confusion in naming and defining such texts adds to their refusal of categorisation, eclectic nature, and kaleidoscopic incarnations. As Stern notes: ‘it’s a challenge. A problem in narrative’ (15). By their very natures, miniature fictions push genre to breaking point – when does a narrative cease and a collection of words emerge? To use the analogy of a black hole, perhaps the material contained within very short fiction has become condensed to the point where it is beginning to collapse upon itself, until it creates a rift in the reality of text as we know it, where the rules of genre do not apply. Haraway does not make the link explicitly, but I believe that miniature fiction is one of the arenas in which ‘our story-tellers [are] exploring what it means to be embodied in high-tech worlds’ (173).

To conclude, I propose that miniature fiction could be a powerful, even dangerous development within prose narratives. To what or whom is it dangerous? Defying postmodern nihilism and ennui, miniature fictions are proving wrong the theorists, such as Frederic Jameson, who claim that ‘…all that is left is to imitate dead styles…’ (7). Miniature fictions are alive and innovating, and in so doing they offer an alternative to the realist narrative, celebrate the transfer of creative autonomy to readers, explode genre and are utterly at home in our polymorphous Ethernet culture. Disrupting our conceptions of stories, of reading and writing, they become virtual, viral, collective, distributed endlessly in digital form. We may be witnessing the evolution of a post-postmodern form, capable of functioning in a cyborg society.



Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman. London: Vintage, 2004. Print.

Haraway, Donna J. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books, 1991. Print.

Holzberg, Niklas. The Ancient Fable: An Introduction. Trans. Christine Jackson-Holzberg. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998. London and New York: Verso, 1998. Print.

Stern, Jerome. “Introduction.”  Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Really Short Stories. Ed. Jerome Stern. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996. 15-19. Print.

Thomas, James. “Introduction.” Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories. Ed. James Thomas, Denise Thomas and Tom Hazuka. London and New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992. 11-14. Print.


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