Very Short Fiction: Fragments of “Real” Narrative?
John Freeman, editor of the literary journal, Granta, authored a recently-released book entitled The Tyranny of E-mail. The primary thesis of the book is that that the relentless flow of e-mail with which we deal has left us disconnected from one another, reduced our attention spans and decreased our abilities to live with mindfulness and deliberation. I find it difficult to disagree with his observations and am certain that his book is deserving of its many impressive reviews.
However, in listening to a recent radio interview with Freeman, I found myself extrapolating, somewhat indignantly and perhaps without merit, that Freeman might consider both the writing and reading of very short fiction to be among the unfortunate results of living in the fragmented age of e-mail. Though his observations about writing were made in support of his position that communication is no longer as thoughtful and meaningful as it was in the past, I couldn’t help but hear some of what he said without considering it in context of his role as an editor of a literary journal.
Most directly, Freeman stated that, in dealing with a “grazing” style of reading, “we never get into the deep submersion that you get in a long-form narrative,” using novels, biographies and narrative poems as examples. He went on to say that “when you give yourself over to a text in that sense, you engage a part of your imagination which is crucial … to developing empathy and a supple understanding of how people interact with the world.” My frustration reached its pinnacle at this point, as I thought of numerous writers who demonstrate and evoke those very elements masterfully in remarkably few words.
These, along with other indirect statements, left me wondering whether Freeman’s opinions were an indictment of my preferred form of writing. As I did not wish to draw such conclusions unfairly, I e-mailed, (in a true instance of irony), a question to the station, by which I asked Freeman whether it was his opinion that very short fiction is a byproduct of the disruptive e-mail phenomenon he describes, and is therefore less legitimate in that, by nature of its brevity, it cannot capture the imagination as longer form narrative can. I provided the context of my own writing experience, and proposed that this form encourages significant imagination, in that its readers must be capable of inferring information that, in the interest of conserving words, its writers do not actually state.
My question was not addressed on air. To find if there was, indeed, any foundation for my suspicion with regard to Freeman’s views on very short fiction, I listened to the interview again, pulling relevant quotes, some of which I cited above. I found additional evidence of that foundation in his assertion that the book Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert, was successful in large part due to its presentation in short sections, most of which did not exceed 1200 words, a word count that dwells in or adjacent to that of very short fiction. He referred to Dan Brown’s use of very short chapters to make the same point.
Still curious, I reviewed Granta’s submissions guidelines. I do not subscribe to Granta, nor have I recently read an issue, and cannot attest to the length of the fiction it generally publishes. Its submissions guidelines state that there are no restrictions as to length, and Duotrope indicates that Granta accepts work consisting of fewer than 1000 words. I am, however, doubtful that Granta publishes a significant amount of very short fiction. Though my arguments are circumstantial, I believe that his statements indicate that Freeman, the editor of the well-respected journal, might be dismissive of very short fiction, especially that which is published online, as a means of communicating anything more than the “200 pithy short e-mails” that he crafts daily.
I hope that I am wrong in this regard; if I am not, I hope that Mr. Freeman looks at such quality literary journals that highlight very short fiction, as Wigleaf, Quick Fiction, Smokelong Quarterly and Vestal Review, and realizes that this form has the potential to demonstrate exceptional depths of imagination, empathy and understanding of human relationships within its own restrictive word limits. Though the nature of today’s frenetic means of communicating is inarguably disruptive, it does not follow that our ability to create effective narrative is likewise compromised.
Bio: Lauren Becker lives in Oakland, California. Her active imagination and overdue deadline on this commentary led to her admittedly ill-supported postulations that ensure that she will never be published by Granta. Her work has appeared in PANK, Opium Magazine, Wigleaf, Pindeldyboz and elsewhere.
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