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SUBHODEV DAS

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 12/15/2016 |



There are short stories – writings that are typically over a thousand words – which many of us enjoy reading and penning, the flash fiction – those super short stories of 1,000 words or less – and the micro fiction, a subset of flash fiction told in 300 words or less. With such vehicles of storytelling, I would think letting literature into our everyday life along with other non-literary activities would pose no problem. For example, the micro blogging site Twitter with its 140-character universe would be ideal for micro fiction. Yet, on a daily basis, we miss opportunities to tell our stories. Instead, we look for those rare occasions to spend time reading classics.

As is often said, “It’s not the size of the word count in the story, rather the size of the story in the word count!” So, what are our incentives to tell/read/write stories as part of everyday life?

The incentive comes from the fact that literature connects individuals with larger truths and ideas in a society. Literature creates a way for people to record their thoughts and experiences in a way that is accessible to others, through fictionalized accounts of the experience.

Consider the fact that the average adult’s attention span isn’t much longer than the time it takes to click a mouse or tap a touch screen. This may be true, however, more than convenience, a reader yarns for a good story. Good stories come in all shapes and sizes—all lengths and forms. If a novel can be thought of as a ten course meal, and a short story as an excellent deli-sandwich, then a micro fiction piece might be an exquisite chocolate truffle. All are food. All are enjoyable. But they’re each very different. Micro fiction is a scrumptious, bite-sized nugget of a story. It packs big flavor and satisfaction into a small package.

Jerome Stern, in his introduction to Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Fifty Really Short Stories, writes, ‘Before the days of television, popular magazines regularly used to publish fiction, and the short existed as a sort of trick form, a quick little story with an unexpected twist – something you read while you waited for your turn at the barbershop. All part of the unrecognized literature of everyday life.’

Consider the following, often misattributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” This may serve as an advertisement or perhaps it’s an example of micro fiction in which all events are ‘implied’.

The baby shoes story has spawned so many websites and publications devoted to six-word stories that it merits special mention here. Readers and writers have clearly been captivated by the depth of emotion hinted at by these six words. An interpretation may run something like this.

A young couple starting family
The woman getting pregnant and preparing for the baby’s arrival
The couple acquiring baby shoes
The baby died before or during birth
The shoes were preserved as reminder of the loss or in hope of having another child
The shoes were eventually put up for sale in a newspaper advert.

The real key to micro fiction is efficiency of text. You don’t need to tell less of a story, and you don’t need to summarize the story. You need to make careful word and phrase choices that are able to paint vivid pictures and imply more than their brevity would suggest. “Show, don’t tell” most certainly still applies. Beyond that, consider all the features that tend to make any story good—characterization, plot, conflict, setting and atmosphere—if you want a reader to engage with the piece, there should be a hook, and some sense that something important happens. This is no small feat to perform in so few words, but it can be done.

There are plenty of examples where these micro-vehicles of literature have become intertwined with daily life. There are historical precedents in Japan, China, Latin America and Europe, where micro fiction has been used for many centuries.

In Japan very short fictions have a rich history. Forms such as haibun (a mixture of prose and haiku poetry) have been slowly developing since the seventeenth century, linking with the use and proliferation of haiku. The haibun, as an older form, has led to the much more contemporary ketai fiction – stories long enough to fit in a text message – which also originated in Japan but at the end of the twentieth century. In the West this type of fiction has also been dubbed ‘mobile-phone fiction’ or even ‘thumb novels’. The ketai is also linked to the development of Twitter Lit.

Microfictions are also popular in China, in various self-descriptive terms: palm-sized story, minute-long story, smoke-long story. In France tiny stories are called nouvelles. They too have been increasing in popularity and visibility as the twentieth century has rolled into the twenty-first.

Jerome Stern, the practitioner of micro fiction, argues that micro fiction is ‘deeply rooted in the human psyche and in the history of human communities’, as a result of its reflection of sub-forms such as the fable, parable or the anecdote. These tiny tales are also forms of fiction which have influenced micro fiction, or perhaps could even be considered micro fictions themselves: after all, they have a beginning, a middle and an end, they have plot and structure and purpose, and they are written relatively sparely. In fact, of all short forms used both in the present and in the past, the influences of early fables, Biblical parables and the oral tradition of anecdotes are important and illuminating.

Microfiction started to take a more solid shape in the twentieth century, becoming recognizable as a block of text, much like traditional prose, but is usually very short, rather like a poem, and in tandem with the rising popularity of the prose poem that came to full bloom as modernity came to power, emigrating from the pen of Francis Ponge and into the notebooks of T.S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein on its way. As the century developed, micro fiction came alive in the hands of Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges and other literary heavyweights. There seems, however, to be a rather postmodern feel about micro fiction: its knowing challenge, its desire to show things through a new lens, to reshape or even remake.

Micro fiction feels ultra-modern because it looks so striking on the page: micro fictions are brief blocks of text on the page. Despite their innovative look and ties to our contemporary culture, we have seen – through its possible historical sources – that micro fiction was not created to satisfy the small attention spans sadly synonymous with the twenty-first century, or to benefit readers who would prefer to peruse online material rather than paperbacks. Its historical uses in world literature show a form perhaps even centuries older than this assumption supposes and, rather like the theory of evolution tells us about adaptation, it survived because of its uses and possibilities and is now developing further to fit on laptop and PC screens, on Twitter and on mobile phones.

It is through such literary engagements, that one understands life by taking a closer look at the different facets of life. In many ways, such experience can change one’s perspective towards life. Therefore literature is rather important in our lives. It does help us to cope with the society. Literature brings us face to face with the essential human conditioning with all its sublimity and all its degradation: All its powers and abilities as well as all its limitations.

[SUBHODEV DAS]

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