Here we have forty very short stories — Tiny Crimes — bundled into a shape you’ll identify as a common trade paperback, a bit too large to fit into a standard (male) back pocket and with a sturdy heft to its form, pleasant in the hand. The shortest of the forty is two pages (“These are Funny, Broken Days” by Amber Sparks) and the longest…well, Adam Sternbergh’s “Loophole” spans eight, but its formatting muddles the issue. Most stories occupy between four and six of these small pages. Let’s say a few minutes each. Several hundred words.
I’m focusing on size at the outset because size is one of two things that the form insists. Flash, or very short, or sudden fictions—as they were coined in Robert Shapard and James Thomas’s seminal, 1986 anthology of the ascendant form—must be brief. How? Less than five pages, declared their book, Sudden Fiction (Gibbs Smith, 1986). Today’s online journals like Wigleaf and Smokelong Quarterly say 1,000 words or fewer. Anyway, short. Always.
The second thing is a rather unsurprising, Napoleonic defensiveness regarding the first thing (size). Short as they are, these stories are, or at least can be, their authors tell us, powerful. “Enough to do in a page,” as the one-time Poet Laureate Mark Strand famously said, “what a novel does in two hundred.” If that sounds like a bold or frankly weird claim, it’s also one that’s been around for three decades, so we can return to it later.
What’s clear is that Tiny Crimes, like many anthologies, is a tricky object to review. Editors Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto have assembled a diverse crew of emerging and established authors to round out what’s a generally entertaining collection of stories. I myself read it piecemeal, over the course of a month in perhaps 30 different places, rarely consuming more than one story in a sitting. Someone could, I suppose, read through it in a single sitting, but I can’t imagine why, given the nature of this book. Probably the truest review I can offer of Tiny Crimes is that it is pretty much what you’d expect from a contemporary collection of forty anythings: a handful of them stand out and will not soon be forgotten (more on these below), but the majority has, or will, fade from this reviewer’s mind. On a commercial level, such unevenness is no surprise. Though I do wonder whether their forgettability is a more a matter of tininess or of crimes.
We all think differently of brevity in 2018 than we did in 1986. Authors of course have always pondered the relationship between length and meaning, poets in their own way, prose-narrativists in others. I myself have been doing so more actively since Amber Sparks threaded a series of tweets on the subject. It was “baffling and infuriating,” she said, that flash fiction is “somehow considered an unserious curiosity by mainstream publishers and audiences.” What about Lydia Davis?, she asked. What about Amy Hempel, Italo Calvino, Franz Kafka, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway and other serious writers who write or wrote briefly? Sparks blamed “the peculiar American fetishization of the novel,” and argued that in her experience, the market is misreading their customers. “When people tell me their favorite stories from my books, it’s not the longer pieces but the shorter ones,” despite the fact, as Sparks said, that, “the establishment has told them that flash is weird and silly.”
I should admit, here, that I am what Sparks would likely call a novel fetishist (and while I’m at it, disclose that I’m real-world friends with two other Tiny Crimes authors, Jac Jemc and Amelia Gray). I find flash fiction uniquely and profoundly valuable for creative writing pedagogy. Nothing clarifies the constituent gears of narrative engines like the extreme constraint of, say, a 3×5-inch notecard. I have written and taught the form and maintain a kind of candle-lit shrine for the few impossibly effective, magical successes I’ve encountered (by Davis and Kafka, Krasznahorkai, Bernhard, Lon Otto, and others). But the experience I come to literature for is most often the sustained one, an act of devotion, a struggle against my limited perspective and attention alike. The vast majority of short-shorts read to me as a bit too eager to have themselves consumed. As James B Hall said in 1986, “The form’s origins are obscure, but always there were commercial implications.” They were market-driven long before Chipotle started printing them on paper cups.
Though, in their introduction to Tiny Crimes, Michel and Nieto avoid any mention of their stories’ lengths. Instead, their focus is crime, which the editors treat first as a concept and only later as genre. They asked contributors to “examine the current state of the criminal, the illegal, and the depraved.” Indeed, the volume’s best stories latch as much onto “examine” as “current,” operating in an summary-driven, diegetic voice to move quickly the incredibly un-quick depravity of modern existence.
Misha Rai’s “What We Know” tells of a series of capers charged by an initial goofiness that is increasingly offset by a lurking, vague emergency. “There were rumors of the Emergency ending and people asking for accountability. So many arrested without clear cause and kept without trial.” In Danielle Evans’ marvelous “Nobody’s Gonna Sleep here, Honey,” two mild-mannered librarians become “pirate librarians” mostly as a lark, when things are “only just beginning to go to hell.” Then they’re shot at by border patrol, story time ends, and they begin to “actually traffic in illicit texts.” Evans’ gentle language paints the nation’s dissent in broad, affecting strokes, as America becomes “not so much a country people tried to get into.” Ultimately, her summarizing narrator lands in a present tense clenched by fear for a child lost “Somewhere in what used to be her country.”
Other standouts include Adam Hirsch and Rion Amilcar Scott, who examine by way of epistle. Paul La Farge’s “Ratface” compacts time to expose the seriousness enclosed within the absurdity of constraint. Laura Van Den Berg’s entry, “Friends,” achieves horror by way of a literal twisting, or wringing of its plot through classic fairtytale conventions. But the most revealing story apropos flash fiction as form is surely Michael Harris Cohen’s “A Bed to String.” In it, an unnamed criminal narrator chastises a detective stand-in for the reader who’s hungry, as both readers and detectives are, to solve this and every story’s mystery. Some “whys,” he says, are easy, like the “battered woman who’s had enough and immolates her husband in his bed.” But it’s the bafflers that haunt us, like “the loving father, dressed in his perfect life, who returns from the office and drowns his six-year-old in the tub…Those inscrutabilities live in your gut. They own you, the dead, and their killers.”
And the rest of the Tiny Crimes pack? Well, mostly they’re stories determined to show us events and allow what Cohen calls the “shrink-cop” reader to translate the cause-effect relationships into meaning. Which in practice means a whole lot of scenes. Some of this scene-driven work succeeds, like Jac Jemc’s routine coffee-shop scenario upended by an obvious and totally haunting surprise. Or Amelia Gray working her comfortable terrain of warped romance via a series of vignettes yoked into meaning by the central theme of their warp. But there is something lost after, say, the fourth consecutive story that exists on the page the way images appear on a screen. Again and again we are introduced to one or two characters in a specific place at a specific moment for a specific purpose. Truncated exposition and characterization fill the gaps between dialogue. These stories end abruptly, often after a twist or reversal, and do not come anywhere remotely close to doing in a page what a novel does in two hundred. And why? Because while meaning isn’t necessarily tethered to length, it is absolutely dependent on time.
And with all respect to Sparks and her defense of flash, this for me presents a much more worrisome fetish of American literature. I mean the way, terrified by the screen’s modern dominance over the narrative domain, contemporary authors contrive to link scene after scene, constantly churning time forward, turning to the past, and memory, only occasionally to provide only that which the rushed present requires to feel psychologically “real.” The past as grounding for the dominant present. In Tiny Crimes, the pairing of formal constraint and genre expectation yields a few compelling results and a lot of what we might call perfectly capable, if unexciting, flash. Immanently collectible, effortlessly consumed, and ultimately forgettable. Is the book “serious,” to use Sparks’ term? Should it be?
I’m not sure. In 1986, the editors of Sudden Fiction called the form “Highly compressed, highly charged, insidious, protean, sudden, alarming, tantalizing.” But in 2018 there’s nothing inherently transgressive about brevity. To work briefly today is indulge the evaporating attention spans of people who devote waking days clicking from one browser tab to the next. The novel, too, has seen itself flashified in recent years, chopped more and more frequently into short, punchy chapters that present their own micro beginnings, middles, and ends, ever moving, ever forward, ever effective. Rhythmical monotony and temporal texture aside, I suppose part of me worries for the labor we’re no longer asked to exert as readers. I mean the sustained attention, the focus nothing else in 2018 asks of us, except maybe existence itself. Happily, the standout stories from Tiny Crimes affirm that the brief can still be insidious, and can still haunt the way literature must. It just means reaching for something, even—or especially—when you’re way, way too short to get it.
FICTION – FLASH FICTION
Tiny Crimes: Very Short Tales of Mystery and Murder
Edited by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto
Published June 5, 2018