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A Short History of Microfiction

HOLLY HOWITT-DRING’S STUDY OF MICRO WRITING, Making Micro Meanings – Reading and Writing Microfiction, is excerpted in this article in edited form.

Despite its increasing popularity in anthologies, microfiction is not as recent a form as some may imagine, as it has historical precedents in Japan, China, Latin America and Europe, where it has been used for many centuries. In Japan very short fictions have a rich history. Forms such as haibun (a mixture of prose and haiku poetry) have been slowly developing in Japan since the seventeenth century, linking with the use and proliferation of haiku. The haibun, as an older form, has led to the much more contemporary ketai fiction – stories long enough to fit in a text message – which also originated in Japan but at the end of the twentieth century. In the West this type of fiction has also been dubbed ‘mobile-phone fiction’ or even ‘thumb novels’. The ketai is also linked to the development of Twitter Lit, which are stories designed to fit Twitter’s 140 character feed.

Microfictions are also popular in China, in various self-descriptive terms: palm-sized story, minute-long story, smoke-long story. In France tiny stories are called nouvelles. They too have been increasing in popularity and visibility as the twentieth century has rolled into the twenty-first. These forms, or perhaps sub-forms, both ancient and modern, are all what I would categorise as microfictions. I am using this term as an umbrella to cover all the little stories underneath (such as flash fictions, short short stories, very short stories, postcard fiction, sudden fictions, nanofictions and all the other pseudonyms tiny fictions can use).

Microfiction feels ultra-modern because it looks so striking on the page: microfictions are brief blocks of text on the page. Despite their innovative look and ties to our contemporary culture, we have seen – through its possible historical sources – that microfiction was not created to satisfy the small attention spans sadly synonymous with the twenty-first century, or to benefit readers who would prefer to peruse online material rather than paperbacks. Its historical uses in world literature show a form perhaps even centuries older than this assumption supposes and, rather like the theory of evolution tells us about adaptation, it survived because of its uses and possibilities and is now developing further to fit on laptop and PC screens, on Twitter and on mobile phones.

Jerome Stern, a practitioner of microfiction, argues that microfiction is ‘deeply rooted in the human psyche and in the history of human communities’, as a result of its reflection of sub-forms such as the fable, parable or the anecdote. These tiny tales are also forms of fiction which have influenced microfiction, or perhaps could even be considered microfictions themselves: after all, they have a beginning, a middle and an end, they have plot and structure and purpose, and they are written relatively sparely. In fact, of all short forms used both in the present and in the past, the influences of early fables, Biblical parables and the oral tradition of anecdotes are important and illuminating.

While the moral or righteous nature of fables and parables is not necessarily suited to a modern microfiction, they are certainly a source of it. Fables and parables use common narrative techniques, including dialogue, and simple plot or characterisation devices and, in some senses, are predictable in their form and function. This [latter] is less likely in microfiction. A microfiction might instead use strong rhythms, or even rhyme itself, and veer more towards a held-off epiphany or epiphanic event than one grounded in reality. These techniques in some microfictions reflect poetry, becoming a blurred genre. Myth and legend can also be embedded in microfiction and, in fact, this is another similarity microfiction shares with fables, parables and anecdotes, which themselves often rely on folklore, or a retelling of an oft-told tale. Microfiction does something else with these sources: it might make them more fantastical, perhaps using magical realism, extended metaphor and/or unlikely events. It may give them an ironic edge, or the ending, viewpoint or message may be different.

Microfictions tend to be fewer than a few hundred words, and almost all tend to be less than 1000 words, less they trample on the short story in that murky grey area of word counts defining a form. They are structured enough, and they will have a beginning, a middle and an end. Their techniques can be problematic: using rhyme, rhythm, image or even epiphany is questionable as, in some cases, microfiction can lean more towards poetry than prose, even though it keeps the shaping of prose. This makes it a strange and troubling genre because it almost feels as if it is two forms of writing in one.

Microfiction started to take a more solid shape in the twentieth century, becoming recognisable as a block of text that has run-on lines, much like traditional prose, but is usually very short, rather like a poem, and in tandem with the rising popularity of the prose poem that came to full bloom as modernity came to power, emigrating from the pen of Ponge and into the notebooks of Eliot, Wilde and Stein on its way. There seems, however, to be a rather postmodern feel about microfiction: its knowing challenge, its desire to show things through a new lens, to reshape or even remake.

As the century developed, microfiction came alive in the hands of Kafka, Borges and other literary heavyweights. No wonder microfiction has grown since – not in size, but in popularity.

— Holly Howitt-Dring

 Holly Howitt-Dring is a writer of microfictions, novellas and novels. Writing as Holly Howitt, she published her first microfiction collection, Dinner Time and Other Stories with Cinammon Press in 2008, followed by a novella, The Schoolboy, also with Cinammon in 2009. She also co-edited the microfiction and prose poetry anthology, Exposure (Cinammon, 2010). She is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Portsmouth University, UK.

Holly’s website can be found at www.hollyhowitt.com and the full text from which the article above is excerpted can be found via www.intellectbooks.co.uk
 
 

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