Flash Is the Future
February 6, 2023 § 2 Comments
By Matt Weinkam
For the last two years, Literary Cleveland has been running flash fiction and flash nonfiction festivals online via Zoom. During these week-long programs, we hold panel discussions, workshops, and open mics designed to help writers learn about the genres, draft new pieces, share their work, and learn where and how to publish.
Not only have we gotten to work with some of the best flash writers in the country (Venita Blackburn, K-Ming Chang, Kathy Fish, Daisy Hernández, Lindsay Hunter, Michael Martone, Elena Passarello, Amber Sparks), we’ve also seen participants go on to publish work in Split Lip, Necessary Fiction, Fractured Lit, Tiny Molecules, Portland Review, and more.
Running these festivals and talking with panelists brought into focus what flash fiction and nonfiction have in common, what makes short form prose special, and why flash is central to the future of writing and publishing.
Engine of Innovation
During past festivals, Michael Martone, K-Ming Chang, Elena Passarello and others have spoken about flash as an engine of literary innovation, as a place where writers can experiment with new voices, forms, and tones. When you can draft a flash piece in a few days or even a few hours you are freer to take bigger risks than when you spend a few months or years working on a full-length story or essay or book. At the same time, short form prose places fewer demands on readers, allowing writers in flash fiction and flash nonfiction to try new things without overstaying their welcome.
Consider Diane Seuss’s single sentence “I hoisted them, two drug dealers, I guess that’s what they were,” (a much loved essay often cited during our flash nonfiction festivals), or the hilarious body horror list of “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover” by Amelia Gray (a personal favorite). Flash pieces like these accomplish things formally, tonally, emotionally, and politically that are harder to sustain in a longer story or essay.
At the same time, publishing at large is less receptive to experimentation than online flash journals, which are the tide pools of the literary world where strange new writing can evolve. Occasionally experiments from the flash world break out into the mainstream. For example, I suspect the recent popularity of novels in fragmented form (Dept. of Speculation, Memorial, No One is Talking About This) can be traced at least in part back to the rise of flash. Still, mainstream acceptance is not the goal. Flash fiction and flash nonfiction are not just farm-league systems for the major publishers, they are meaningful genres in their own right. They are essential to the future of literature.
That is why one of our major takeaways from these festivals is to be bolder, take bigger swings, and use flash to really explore what writing can do.
Catalyst for Change
Our festival panelists in both genres also identified flash as a potential space to dismantle the cultural redlining that still dominates publishing as a whole.
White writers made up the majority of contributor lists and mastheads and MFA students for so long. But in recent years not only do we see more flash stories and essays published by writers of color, writers who are queer or transgender, or writers who are disabled or neurodivergent, there are also more flash outlets with diverse mastheads and equitable models of publication.
Flash is uniquely suited genre to take back power. As a network of small (mostly online) journals, the world of flash in both fiction and nonfiction largely exists outside of the major established structures of production, reception, and recognition making it more responsive to calls for change. Flash can be a powerful outlet. As Vanessa Chan put it in one of our festival panels, “I think that writing for me is an exercise in regaining power and correcting the imbalance of power structures that exist for someone that looks like me in spaces that are maybe not made for me.”
Not that the flash community has fixed publishing or defeated white supremacy, of course. Genuine multicultural magazines and diverse contributor lists are still too few. But journals like The Offing, projects like SmokeLong en Español, special issues like Brevity’s upcoming Trans Experience, and anthologies of flash by writers of color like Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction edited by Megan Giddings help lead the way to an equitable future for all of publishing. A major takeaway from our festivals is the need to push this work further.
In the introduction to Forward, Megan Giddings explains that publishing diverse writers is more than just posturing: “I want to feel like my work is important. Not just something that makes the editors look good, but it so urgent and beautiful and engaging that they had to respond. That I am speaking to humanity and living, not filling a quota. I am a person.”
But most of all, our panelists and participants celebrated flash fiction and flash nonfiction as genres for play. Writers of all backgrounds and interests find their way to flash to create in a joyful spirit.
Although fiction writers may draw more often from the well of imagination while nonfiction writers more often shape experience and research into new writing, firm genre distinctions are less important in flash. There is more crossover and interplay. I like how Joy Castro puts in in “Genre as a Vessel for Presence” when she says, “I see fiction and nonfiction slow-dancing, inseparable, holding each other close.”
At Literary Cleveland, we are excited to continue this dance, holding flash festivals for as long as the writing community is interested. Our third virtual Flash Fiction Festival is this February 19-25 and our workshop leaders and panelists are all contributors to the new Flash Fiction America anthology out from W. W. Norton on February 14. We will continue and deepen this conversation about flash and the future of writing. I hope you will join us.
Matt Weinkam is the executive director of Literary Cleveland. His work has been published in Denver Quarterly, Sonora Review, New South, DIAGRAM, and Electric Literature. He holds an MA in creative writing from Miami University, an MFA in fiction from Northern Michigan University, and he has taught creative writing at Sun Yat-sen University in Zhuhai, China.