Jason Sanford

Who Wears Short Shorts? Micro Stories and MFA Disgust

Here's a simple fact: no matter how excellent and mind-blowing a regular-size short story might be, it still takes an author several days to write it. In this same time an author can write any number of mediocre short shorts. Now take an educated and overly academic guess as to which of these genres writers are embracing.

That's rightbeing a writer in today's lovely world of fiction and creative nonfiction is like reliving 70's TV hell, where that Nair commercial jingle has been conveniently rewritten into "Who writes short shorts?" Poetic vision rarely shows up. After all, how can you express vision in 100 words? As for plot and character development, give those antiquated goods to Goodwill. All that matters with short shorts is a competent writing style and a desire for lots of publication credits.

For those unfamiliar with short shorts (which in the fictional realm are also called sudden fiction, micro fiction, and flash fiction), this genre of writing is reserved for fiction and nonfiction stories clocking in at under a 1000 words. The exact definition of a short short varies by writer and editor—some prefer more rigid word limits of 500 or 750 words. There are even writers who think that 500 words is too long an eternity; for them there is a subgenre which gives stories a mere 100 words to live and die. However, these different lengths are all variations on the same theme, so for this essay we'll just let them all wear the same short short outfit.

What a short short could be

There is no denying that the short short can be a powerful form of writing. I agree with the editors of Vestal Review, an online short short magazine, when they say:

"A good flash, replete with a cohesive plot, rich language and enticing imagery, is perhaps the hardest type of fiction to write. A good flash is so condensed that it borderlines poetry. A good flash engages your mind not only for the short duration of its read, but for a long time after."

A nonfiction short short which comes close to capturing this quote's sentiment is "LZ Gator, Vietnam, February 1994" by Tim O'Brien. His short short covers how, within the span of a generation, the world so easily erases all evidence of wars and lives past. Upon returning in 1994 to Landing Zone Gator, a firebase in Vietnam where he lived through months of war, O'Brien writes, "I'm home, but the house is gone. Not a sandbag, not a nail or scrap of wire." In my view, this short short could not work as a longer story, a poem, or even as a section of a memoir. Its power comes from the fact that the subject is so perfect for the length of words used that when the reader finishes they are instinctively pulled into reflecting on what they've just read.

On the fictional side of the short short, there is a nice piece called "Morning News" by Jerome Stern. The story comes in under 300 words and gives a good slice of thought, scene, and insight. The piece deals with the narrator learning that he is dying. However, instead of a final few weeks of soul searching or passionate travel, the soon-to-be dead man does the very American thing of driving to a giant warehouse club with his wife and buying a widescreen TV.

These two stories are examples of how the best writings are supposed to work, no matter if they're fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. If more short shorts like these were being produced, I would have no critique of the genre. However, these two stories are the exceptions. Instead of demonstrating depth and vision, 99% of the published short shorts are merely sight gags, inside jokes, scene descriptions, or scattered details from some writer's life. Yet this is exactly what currently passes for quality writing in the world of short shorts. The editors of Brevity, an online magazine for nonfiction short shorts (published on the site of the highly venerated Creative Nonfiction), say as much in their guidelines: "Brevity publishes concise literary nonfiction of 750 words or less focusing on detail and scene over thought and opinion."

Detail and scene over thought and opinion? For the record, detail and scene do not a story make, any more than slapped-together descriptions of your last Disney World vacation make a poem.

Short shorts as a reflection of modern life

The popular take on short shorts is that they are a reflection of our fast-paced modern lives. This is, to put it politely, bullshit. Yes, 21st century Americans may act like none of us have any time left in life, what with our cell phones ringing while we're using our beepers to download e-mails from the web. But America's quickie culture is merely a rationalization for the booming popularity of short shorts. For a county that supposedly lacks time, we're reading more full-length novels, short-story collections, and nonfiction books than ever before. Granted, most of these volumes don't measure up to even the lesser works of Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner or Toni Morrison, but they are still hundreds of pages in length. This means the American reading public continues to understand and love the longer forms of narrative.

Besides, there is no evidence that short shorts are being read by anyone outside the "literary" community. It's an well-known writers' joke that almost all poetry, literary fiction and literary creative nonfiction gets read only by fellow writers (along with a small clique of editors and literary groupies). Anyone care to bet that these are the same people reading short shorts? If you're still unsure, ask yourself this: How many anthologies of short shorts ever make it to a second printing (let alone a bestseller list)?

No, the general public isn't reading short shorts. Their popularity rests solely with writers. And writers are loving the genre because of that oft-mocked devil of the writing universe, the local Masters of Fine Arts department.

Why do all the stories sound the same?

In a New York Times op-ed piece entitled "When Every TV Show Is a Rerun," Neal Gabler argues that the sudden surge in reality based TV shows like Survivor is caused by a deep crisis in narrative. Basically, he says, we Americans are being flooded with stories—be it through movies, TV, novels, or other media outlets. Without repeating the entire article, one point that Gabler makes is that this saturation has numbed most people to stories. I would take this problem a step further. In prose writing, the mindnumbing saturation is caused by sound-alike, brand X stories, the result of the last few decades of MFA programs and their kin.

That MFA programs have created a standard, bland style of writing shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. After all, no matter how many new MFA programs open up in this country, they remain a rather incestuous, similar lot. The average MFA professor is white, upper-middle class, and unacquainted with anything other than their little academic life. It is through their particular worldview lens that all MFA students pass through and hone their skills. Students who don't match these professors' ideas of life and writing either don't get into the programs or get their writings gutted from the inside out. In genetics, this type of phenomenon is called the Bottleneck Effect. That's where a small group of animals is cut off from the rest of their viable population and only breeds among themselves. This inevitably results in animals having less genetic diversity than their relatives who didn't get isolated in the first place. (For more fun info on the MFA racket, read the excellent article The Poetry Workshop and its Discontents: A Report from the Dark Underbelly of Academic Creative Writing by Briggs Seekins.)

Most MFAers understand all of this. They know that the writings around them—writings by fellow students, professors, and alum—are for the most part mediocre. The voices are the same, the subjects are the same, even the writing styles are the same. But have MFAers tried to revolt or change the system from within? No. Instead, all they've done is invent a new genre of writing in the short short.

Need proof? Then behold "Housewife" by Amy Hempel:

She would always sleep with her husband and with another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting, "French film, French film."

Don't ask where the rest of the story is—that's the complete version. Close your eyes and reflect on that little tale. Did anything stick? Of course not. There's nothing worth remembering (aside from irritation at the weak joke of "French film" as an analogy for having an affair). This type of short short is word candy, writing that passes through the system with no effect but tooth decay. Twenty years ago it would have been printed as a joke on the bottom page of some English department newsletter. Yet in this day and age that story gets chosen as a perfect example of the short short form by the editor in chief of Pif Magazine, Camille Renshaw, in her essay "Essentials of Microfiction." And, more importantly from an MFA point of view, that story earns its author another publication.

Short shorts and quickie pubs

A main reason short shorts are all the rage is that they are a quick road to publication. After all, why write a 6,000-word short story when you can write ten 600-word pieces in the same time?

According to Sarah Gold in her article on MFAs for Salon, one of the chief worries of writers in MFA programs is whether or not they will get published. In fact, that's the central message of MFA programs: If you want to be a writer, you must publish. And as naive MFAers looks around their academic world, they see that publications literally have a cascade effect. As you get more publications, your writings are given more opportunities to shine. You receive more grants, more book deals, and you even get published in more magazines. If you don't believe that editors give a writer's work more of a chance when their cover letter mentions previous publications, you are ignorant of the modern literary world (Yet again, read The Poetry Workshop and its Discontents by Briggs Seekins).

Having worked as an editor at both a commercial publishing house and a literary journal, I am often asked if the hardest thing about reading submissions is having to wade through all of the bad stories. It isn't. The hardest thing is dealing with the middle-of-the-road stories, the decently well written stories. The bad stories are easy to reject, while the great stories grab you upside the head and refuse to let go. But when you read the average stories—those written by competent writers who have learned the technical aspects of writing in MFA programs but produce stories with no spark or passion—it is with these submissions that editors waste their time. You can find no obvious reason to reject these stories, but also no reason to accept them.

Editors are now flooded with tons of these look-alike MFA stories. Instead of the majority of the submissions being bad, the majority of the stories are now decent. The hardest thing about being an editor today is having to wade through all of this pablum. This is why so many editors want to see publication credits before they read your story. It is a way of hedging their bets. A way to increase the odds they they won't waste too much time reading stories they can't publish.

So how is an energetic MFAer to get around this catch 22, where you have to be published before you can be published? With the short short! While no editor can bear to read fifty long stories with the same voice and style to find one that is publishable, any editor can endure fifty sound-alike short shorts. Who cares if they have as little intellectual depth as President Dubya? For a minimal investment in time the editor can find that ideal mediocre story which fits in perfectly with their magazine. And the writer gets an easy publishing credit for future use.

Where's the voice in short shorts?

Great writing requires a unique voice, which can take decades to develop. By voice, I mean more than merely the style or tone of the story—I also mean voice as encompassing an author's vision, thought, and insight. When this total view of voice is combined with a writer's skill and craft, great writing results. Writers who have sought true voice and learned their craft will then find their inspiration in the world around them.

And true voice doesn't stop with the writer. When you read a book with a distinct voice (such as that of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian or William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying), it can sometimes take pages and pages to get into the author's rhythm. No one first reads As I Lay Dying without some momentary discomfort at the constant switching between different voices and points of views. But, in the case of Faulkner's book, this effect on the reader is deliberate—the effort we must make to understand the different voices used in the book is analogous to how hard it is to understand the different voices around us in everyday life. Even when everyone is telling the same story, their different voices and points of view totally change the story as it passes from person to person.

Great literature is an exploration, both for writer and reader. Great writing moves beyond the ordinary to things that can not be understand through simple naming or description. Say the word Holocaust. Now read a novel on the Holocaust. That is the difference between a mere word and a deeper understanding. That is also the same level of difference between a simple story and truly great piece of literature.

The problem with most short shorts is not the genre—it is that they are being written by writers who are not committed to the true exploration of voice that's at the heart of great literature. Too often short shorts are written by writers emerging fully deformed from MFA workshops and programs around the country, writers churning out page after page of bland academic writing that has as little style, voice, and vision as George Bush on ritalin.

What we've learned

So here're a few things to keep in mind the next time you read a trendy little short short:

  1. Short shorts can be a powerful form of writing, but they've been invaded by a hostile hoard of MFAers who see the genre as
  2. An easy route to publication heaven, especially when
  3. There are so many bland, sound-alike MFA writings swirling in the publication toilet because
  4. You can teach writing techniques and skills at a university but you can't teach how to find a writer's true voice. And the writers who seek true voice are also the writers who usually run the other way from little writing trends (especially those spelled with an 'M,' an 'F,' and an 'A').

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End Note: Since this essay was originally published (in a slightly different form) in Cosmoetica, I have received tons of feedback on it. While many people have embraced the essay, a number of others have taken it as an attack on anyone who has ever attended a college writing course. For the record, let me state that not all writers in MFA programs, nor indeed, all writing programs, are bad. A number of writers I both like and respect have either gone through MFA programs or teach in them. However, my basic contention is that these writers exhibited the talent, drive, and craft needed to be great writers before they went into the MFA programs. All the programs did was refine what was already there. I still suspect that, overall, MFA programs are not helping the cause of great writing.

If anyone can write a compelling essay countering this belief of mine, I will gladly publish it in storySouth.

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Jason Sanford is the editor of storySouth.