How to Critique Flash Fiction
by contributing writer Hannah Macafee
One of the best things about writing is creating a world, but the best thing about reading that work is getting to sling on your proverbial hiking backpack and explore the world that has been given to you. But what do you do when the world you’ve decided to take a jaunt through, though small, is flipped on its head and pulsating with unknown themes and colors? How do you critique the wild world known as Flash Fiction (FF)?
Giving criticism to a genre that should be, by definition, rule-less and experimental may seem counterproductive, but in practice it helps FF writers just as much as it helps its ever growing community. Keeping this fact in mind is vital as it gives you a goal to achieve and clarifies that your intent is not to be rude to the writer, but rather to help them and the genre grow. Now that you have the right mind set, it is important to come up with “trail-markers” of what flash fiction should be (and by elimination, what it is not). Keep in mind, that there will always be wonderful exceptions but for the first time critic of FF, these points should be your compass.
Flash fiction does not equal short story
One of the biggest mistakes a writer will often make is thinking that micro fiction and flash fiction are synonymous. While both are defined as incredibly short works of prose, they have some differences. FF is attributed more towards stylized writing while a micro fiction’s main intent is to tell a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. Flash fiction should be focused more on creating an atmosphere (more on this later) than telling a plot.
Abstraction should not pass theme
My own personal definition of FF is poetry without borders, but even that definition leaves room for conflict. When reading FF, it is important that the piece not get too abstract; it’s a sliding scale of art and story. It’s like you’re a bee looking for nectar: if the flower has too many flashy colors and weirdly shaped petals, how on earth are you going to be able to get to the center of the flower where the pollen waits to be picked up and spread? In a similar fashion, FF should not be impossible to decode.
Look at the structure
So you’ve defined what Flash fiction is (and isn’t), and you’ve observed word choice; what else is there to look at? Well, another area that a FF author can toy around with is structure. Unlike standard short stories, FF does not have have to adhere to the major structure; it can forge its own path both in style and in physical format. If a FF piece is falling just short of what it could be, try suggesting a change in the fiction’s direction. This could give the writer more to play around with and help them come up with new ideas on their own for how to improve their work, without doing a complete overhaul on their intended effect.
If there’s no impact, there’s no “fiction”
This final part is the most important part to remember, not just for Flash fiction, but for all prose. You should always be getting something back from what you’re reading. I stated earlier that FF is more atmospheric than plot-driven, and while that is true, it should still leave you with some impact. With that in mind, “impact” is in the eye of the beholder. I personally feel that if a piece has simply left you “feeling good”, then that’s ok. But if you can’t come up with a reason as to why it has left such an impression, then it is time for a reread and maybe a reconsideration, so that you can do the author, the piece, and yourself a full service.
There is more to take into account when critiquing FF than what I have stated, and I’m sure there are a few paradoxes in my own above suggestions that go against how others critique flash fiction. Do you think there are important points or additions that have been left off? Let us know in the comments below.
by contributing writer Brandon Sotomayor
If all politics boil down to sexual pathology, then the fetish of political journalism is objectivity. The bias of news sources deemed to be fake news by whatever political tendency called into question is glaringly obvious to those who hold the opposing viewpoint, while internally those who report and digest the news see that with which they agree as totally unfiltered and not ideological. We of the literary community should be skeptical of such a notion. I say that because we know intimately that the total events of a fictional character’s world are too broad to fit into a book. In order for the reading experience to be meaningful, the author must structure those events into a narrative, and the events of the real world are no different. A narrative is an enzyme for the digestion of information and events by storytelling animals.
According to an article from the Encyclopedia of Child and Adolescent Development by Kate McClean and Moin Syed titled “Narrative Identity,” “Telling stories is one of the most... universal of human experiences,” because they allow people to “transmit life lessons and history, to entertain..., and to explain the self.” McClean and Syed claim that these stories don’t just feed a need to consume stories, but also constitute the very foundations of who we are as individuals and collectively.
Studies of narrative identity go back to Henry Murray, who with his Thematic Apperception Test that he developed alongside Christina Morgan, exposed patients to ambiguous images in order to study the unique narratives people produced to make sense of them, thinking those narratives would shed light on the psychology of the individual administered the test. McClean and Syed wrote of Murray in their paper, saying he “...showed the initial power of stories to reveal parts of personality that may be relatively inaccessible in using face valid, straightforward measures.” This assumption goes relatively untested in Murray’s work however, but the question of whether or not stories actually inform who we are as people gets addressed in the work of Erik Erikson, who used Narrative Identity to explain adolescence.
In his book Young Man Luther, he writes, “I have called the major crisis of adolescence the identity crisis... when each youth must forge from himself some central perspective and direction, some working unity.” Erikson conceived the idea of personal narratives as a way to orient individuals in society at a crucial time in their lives, by as Mclean and Syed put it, “to think about themselves across different contexts.” There is no absence of a filter for this information. We are the filter given a name.
We watch the news because we are a set of stories we tell about ourselves and the world. Our political beliefs are part of the wider narrative of our lives. We want to know that history arcs towards the resolution we want. However, if the stories that others tell themselves are as foundational as our own, then how can such narratives have a prescriptive quality beyond masochistic entertainment? I’ll answer that question with another. When was the last time you finished a novel or a poem and had such a change in perspective that you trace a piece of yourself back to it?
One of the most resonant examples of that for me isn’t a book or poem, but a handful of anime films and shows produced by the studio Kyoto Animation. When I discovered their work, I was going through an identity crisis, trying to make sense of the world outside of what I carried with me from immature days, and it was stories from the animation studio, particularly the work of Naoko Yamada, that helped me to find a sense of clarity. A couple of months ago, there was an arson attack at the company’s Studio 1, the worst mass killing in Japan since World War II, and all of the support they’ve received from their fans and the anime community as a whole showed me that there are people all around the world who felt the effect of their stories just as I had.
Everything is a narrative, but not all stories are created equal. As we should know, just because all fiction is fake does not mean that it can’t tell the truth. We should embrace and be forward with ideology and narrative. Give people a story that will affect change in the world and help them live their lives. In a world that is spinning, the only lie is to claim to be still.
by contributing writer Ana Jimenez
Poetry is underestimated and misunderstood. It is underestimated because people are not aware of the power it has and it is misunderstood because people do not know what a poem is meant to do. These are the people who think poetry is elitist, high-culture, and not practical. They are wrong. Poetry does a great many things. In fact, poetry can change lives.
Healing comes from poetry for both the writer and the reader. Poetry heals the writer through the act of expression, through getting one's thoughts and experiences out of oneself and on to a piece of paper. This act provides some distance between the writer and the experience so that he or she can examine the experience from a new perspective and gain some insight and healing. Poetry heals the reader through empathy and catharsis. Oftentimes, the reader can identify with the feelings that are expressed throughout the poem and this, in turn, validates his or her own feelings. When a person's feelings are validated, this heals them and empowers them to act triumphantly in their situation or environment. Also, a poem can take the reader on a ride of emotion and in this way provide therapeutic catharsis for them.
Along the same lines as healing, poetry can change lives by providing a much needed escape. There is nothing quite like falling into a poem and being completely absorbed in the language and images. The right words can really transport you into a different feeling, place, or time. This type of poetry acts as a gift, giving an experience that is outside of reality or that presents a different kind of reality. Escapes are often healing in themselves, if not completely, they at least provide a balm. This balm may be hopeful, empathetic, or simply distracting, not in a negative way, but in a way that defers from the realities of one's own life.
Poetry can change lives because it can change minds. Readers are invited to think critically and use their brain muscles, not just in figuring out what the poet might mean by a certain phrase, but by applying the message of the poem to the larger world around them. Persuasion is another way that poetry changes minds. Many poems are secretly arguments trying to persuade you to feel or think a certain way. Many poets use this facet of poetry to express social and political concerns in hopes to change the world. One such poet who does this is Gwendolyn Brooks. In her poem, “We Real Cool,” she shows the reader the vicious cycle that young black men often find themselves in. In this way, she is not just a poet, she is an advocate for social change.
Ginger Jones's life began to change because of poetry from the time she was a child watching Sesame Street. Ginger, a published poet and a friend of mine, distinctly remembers that her favorite character on Sesame Street was a Muppet that often recited poetry and spoke in rhyme. That character was Roosevelt Franklin. There was also a segment on the show called “Rhyme Time” where the characters would pick a word and would try to think of as many words as they could that rhymed with it. This early exposure to poetry and rhyming stayed with Ginger throughout her life, inspired her to write poetry, and instilled “Rhyme Time” as a practice in her daily life, which she continues to this day. This practice not only made Ginger a better poet, but it encourages her daily to experiment with language. She is aware of the power it had over her and dares to use that power in her own writing.
Genuine humanity is a consequence of poetry. Poetry allows humans to cultivate deep experiences, ideas, and thoughts. It propels them to stretch towards a fuller potential. Readers of poetry are stimulated to empathize with difficult emotions. This experience draws them in as a collective body and unites them. Healing, escape, change, and unification can all be a result of poetry. Poetry provides us with a shared human experience and the more united we are, the more human we are.