Less is more

First, let’s get the definition out of the way: “Flash” fiction refers to stories that contain 750 words or less. It’s a sub-genre of a wider category of short fiction called “mini fiction” that includes “sudden fiction” (1,500-word limit) and “micro fiction” (250-word limit).

Thankfully, though, word length isn’t the only criteria for inclusion in this or other such collections. As Flash Fiction Forward’s editors, James Thomas and Robert Shapard, write, “the subject of a flash should not be small, or trivial,” and “the essence of a story (including its ‘true subject’) exists not just in the amount of ink on the page—the length—but in the writer’s mind, and subsequently the readers.” In other words, the stories should say something big in a small space.

Given that Flash Fiction Forward is a collection of 80 stories, this might seem like a tall order. Remarkably, the editors, with an essential assist from the writers, make it seem easy. The stories cover a delightfully diverse range of experiences, styles and themes. Many—more than one might rightfully expect—are excellent.

There are comic stories: about a man who goes on a date with a Neanderthal woman (“Some couples are separated by decades, but we’re separated by millennia”), about Nelson Mandela’s parole officer (“The recidivism rate for a guy who does twenty-seven years in the clink is up there with the chances of your Beemer getting jacked in Johannesburg”) and about voices in the head (“I just wish the voices would tell me something useful once in a while, like how to say things in French or where my gloves went”).

There are stories about marriage: a philandering husband comes home to find that his wife has super-glued her feet to the ceiling; a mesmerist mesmerizes a woman on an airplane, marries her and moves them to Cleveland.

There are stories by well-known writers. John Updike shares an uplifting story about a mishap-prone child who, despite expectations, ends up a successful father. Dave Eggers offers a life-affirming story about an accident (“You have done him and his friends harm, in a way, and you jeopardized their health, and now you are so close you feel like you share a heart”). Grace Paley writes a sly story about a woman grappling with justice. (“Many people, some friends, really hated the way she moved from daily fact to planetary metaphor. Others thought she was absolutely right.”)

There are stories that defy easy categorization. One is about a sloth. Another is told backward. Another is presented as a test. Another is a taut, unnerving story about war called “Three Soldiers” that ends, “White meat, or dark?”

There’s even a story written in second person set not far from Sacramento, called “Why You Shouldn’t Have Gone in the First Place,” in which a woman drives to Vallejo to meet a man at Rod’s Hickory Pit (“As soon as you see him, you will realize that the whole thing was a mistake”).

Most of these stories show how little it takes to reveal much. They artfully present a multitude of possible lives, powerfully evoking emotions—hopes, dreams, desires and regrets. At about two pages each, the stories pass by quickly (perfect for waiting in line or reading on the sly at work), though an impressive majority invite savoring. And though not all the stories may equally satisfy, if a story on one page doesn’t flash for you, odds are good the one on the next page will.