The Surprising Power of Stories That Are Shorter Than Short Stories

Author Stuart Dybek talks about how to layer meaning into works of "flash fiction."

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Last week, Stuart Dybek, one of America’s living masters of the short story, published two new, and very different collections. The nine pieces in Paper Lantern: Love Stories are fairly conventional—they’re stories with drawn characters, and clear conflicts, that reach a certain length. Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories is more focused on the evocative power of language itself—as the strange, musical pairing of words in its title suggests. In offerings that range in length from two lines to nearly 10 pages, from narrative to wholly impressionistic, Dybek uses fragments, koans, and brief lyric flights to capture whole worlds in miniature.

In our conversation for this series, Dybek discussed the troubled label “flash fiction” (which was also the topic, and title, of Nathanael Rich’s review in this month’s Atlantic magazine), a form without a solid definition. We discussed why the form tends to blend fiction and poetry, how a technique from Japanese poetry has been essential for him, and a story by Yasunari Kawabata that convinced him very short work can have outsized emotional wallop.

Stuart Dybek’s other books include I Sailed with Magellan and Childhood and Other Neighborhoods. A MacArthur Fellowship recipient, his numerous awards include the PEN/Malamud Award, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and four O. Henry awards. He is Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University, and spoke to me by phone from Chicago, where he lives.

Stuart Dybek: It goes way back. From high school on, I wrote these strange, varied, and very short prose pieces that didn’t seem to fit into any established genre. I didn’t have any literary pretensions about what I was doing—it was just one way I liked to work. I thought I was writing stories, but I learned quickly that I’d taken on a form without an easy category. At the time, you could only publish very short prose works, something editors uniformly regarded as “prose poems,” in poetry magazines. So I sent my stuff out that way—because there was no other outlet for it—even though, deep down, I felt I was fudging.  

We still don’t have a good name for this kind of work. Today, it’s “flash fiction,” though I remember when people were calling it the “short-short.” (Grace Paley, who I loved and whose work I loved, once said to me, “Short-short sounds more like a stammer than a literary form.”) It makes sense the short form it lacks a sturdy name: It’s varied, shifting, and hard to define, and its parameters are continually up for debate. Flash fictions have a narrative quality that makes them different from classical prose poems; at the same time, they tend to have a strong lyric element that aligns them with poetry. This formal uncertainty can be an attractive quality: It helps create the possibility for formal and emotional surprise. But you also don’t want to have too much carte blanche. You never want to enter the territory where you think, “Well, I can write anything and get away with it.” 

Because I write both poetry and fiction, and have never built a wall between the two, my desire has always been to blur the line between the more established forms. Writers who do this well tend to fascinate me. But they’re rare, I think, in part because of the way poetry gets overlooked in American culture. Poetry is basic to human beings, our love for it is deeply embedded in us, but there’s the sense at this moment that most people get it from other genres—popular song, hip-hop, rap. People argue about this—someone once told Paul Simon that he wrote poetic lyrics, and he said, “No, poetry is Wallace Stevens”—and yet songwriters like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and some hip-hop artists do clearly channel elements of poetry. In fiction, though, the poetic impulse is usually relegated to the end of the story, in the epiphanic moment we’ve come to expect since Joyce. At the end of a typical epiphany story, you do sense this sudden gearshift from the narrative to the lyrical; you start to feel that poetry is suddenly at work within the prose. But it’s usually because something big has happened that generates and justifies the gear change—poetry is warranted in these moments of extreme emotion, but otherwise its regulated to the sidelines of much of American fiction.

I’m interested in writers who are able to create a more blended kind of integration between the narrative and lyric drives—and I’ve noticed that in the short form, the lyric impulse becomes more pronounced. One of my earliest encounters with this kind of work was when I read Hemingway’s In Our Time, which caught my attention long ago. The stories in that book are interspersed with powerful, short “vignettes,” most no longer than a paragraph. The way he builds an emotional whole out of fragments is masterful in these pieces. But it always seemed to me that—as much as I liked them—they suffered somewhat outside the context of In Our Time. When I read them on their own, I don’t like them as much as when they appear as spacers, the way the book wisely uses them.

So I began to look for stories that flirted with the same notion of compression and fragmentation, but could stand on their own two feet a bit more. I wanted to find a master of the genre—someone who could write very short prose with the emotional impact we associate with longer work.

One source of inspiration was Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, though it’s tricky to separate that book’s short sections from one another (the work really functions as a novel). Isaac Babel, who is in many ways my favorite writer, demonstrates the extreme compression I look for in very short fiction—whenever a writer can compress that much into a short space, I always feel that what we call “poetry” is lurking close by. Primo Levi is another—his short piece “The Tranquil Star” is a great favorite. In college, I found a new model: I was among the hordes who were seduced by the beauty of the haiku. Fragmentary, complex, but ultimately satisfying works, the form contains many of the characteristics I was looking for in prose.

Now, in the United States, the haiku is so ubiquitous that it’s become almost a kind of joke. Here, haiku tend to function like snapshots: They’re a way kids learn to write images in fourth grade. That really isn’t what the haiku is about in Japan, where the form is taken very seriously—it’s part of their classical literature. One aspect of the haiku that has been mostly lost in its Western incarnation is a quality that translates, roughly, to “double vision.” It’s a way of talking about a certain form of juxtaposition. This concept was an enormous influence on Ezra Pound, who was of course more than a truly great translator: he wanted to bring effects from other literary cultures into English storytelling and poetic vocabulary. You can see double vision at work in Pound’s famous poem “In a Station of the Metro”: 

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough. 

The way the poem juxtaposes a present moment—a crowded train station—with the image of the flesh-colored petals creates a kind of poetic double-exposure. Two images, two ideas, are layered upon one other simultaneously—and both are enhanced by the comparison. This kind of double vision is highly characteristic of the haiku. 

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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