Frankie mcmillan and I were chatting about flash fiction. here's what we came up with:
F: From your reading of flash in both NZ and overseas journals and as an editor in Flash Frontier have you noticed there is a NZ 'voice' as say, distinct from a US or UK voice or do you think flash writers (exposed to the internet etc.) are more 'international' with less defining characteristics? If the former is it to do with theme, word choice, sentence structure, mood or POV. etc.
N: That's a very good question. Although I would anecdotally say "yes, Kiwi writers definitely exhibit a characteristic tone in flash fiction", it is hard to pinpoint and define what the essence of that voice is, when you start analysing the work out there.
You'd need to consider the nuances of language, vernacular, as well as how the NZ literary zeitgeist influences choice of subject matter, story structure and key emotional drivers. To do the question justice, I'd need to compile lists of contributions from New Zealand and other international authors, for say, an international issue of Flash Frontier. (I did an analysis of Nov 2015 issue. I have focussed on sentence length amongst other things, partly because this is an area I've looked at before in writing from different countries and eras.)
Is there an identifiable voice? Looking further into this, I've found a marked fluidity in terms of how writers can be categorised. In the twenty-first century, our cultural identity is shaped by migration (serial moves for many). As well as the influence on writing choices and voice from our country of birth, our ancestry has an influence too. (In historical writing, our cultural identity may shift again, influenced by what we choose to research.)
As writers, our political views, class, and other influences such as religious beliefs, age, sexuality etc. shape us as much as where we come from. All these factors underplay what comes out on paper, whether we are aware of it or not. In other words, there's a lot more at play, than whether an author identifies as a New Zealander.
Editor's choices will shape what stories published in different Flash Fiction journals too. Kiwi editors may adopt a characteristic style.
You asked about the experience of editing (micros) for Flash Frontier. As we asked to read the submissions blind, and didn't necessarily see the biographies of all but the successful entrants, I can't draw on that experience to correlate writing style and country of origin.
I read on-line and print editions that feature flash fiction including micro. These include Landmarks - National Flash Fiction Day 2015 UK anthology, Smokelong Quarterly and The Citron review, and some more obscure ones I have found via Twitter. What I read is varied in style and content, so it is difficult to define a cultural voice for any country. It's like saying Indian people write spiritually charged pieces, or gay people write about gay characters, or Kiwis use shorter sentences on average. What you see doesn't always conform to the norms and expectations. There are always deviations.
The influence of social media is huge in flash fiction. It superimposes an on-line culture that may override national identity.
I mentioned Twitter earlier. This medium provides a rich breeding ground where NZ writers can showcase their work alongside stories from other English speaking countries. Habitually, as a contributor, you read work that typifies the sites you submit to, and when successful, read other pieces that have been accepted. How much does this shape what we write or choose to next submit?
Finally, in order to create an authentic landscape for our work, authors who set their work in a 'foreign' environment, will make a significant effort to study the dialect, customs, imagery and even the voice of that area. So I feel much contemporary writing has an international feel, because the same authors may set their stories in different parts of the world, adapting the voice to suit the setting.
F: Next question - It is said that NZ short story writers often have a morbid tone to their work ...do you see this in NZ flash?
Landscape and the sea are common settings in our short stories ... is this seen in flash or are there other settings frequently used?
N: Anecdotally again, I would say landscapes and sea settings feature prominently in New Zealand flash fiction. However a quick look at on-line NZ flash reveals stories set in illicit fertility clinics, an old man's home, cafeterias, the inside of people's minds draped in metaphorical landscapes, movie sets, an operating theatre, between supermarket shelves, art galleries. Even if we are drawn to use the outdoors as settings for our stories, it seems this doesn't prevent us using other backdrops as well.
I hadn't particularly associated Kiwi short story writers with morbid themes more than any other country. There is an on-line U.S. zine specialising in the macabre http://themolotovcocktail.com/about/ and a relatively new UK site that seems to attract particularly spooky stories https://zeroflash.wordpress.com/
So I guess the morbid is out there everywhere if you go looking for it.
F: Last question. Not much flash is published in mainstream literary journals and publishers here are wary of the term 'flash fiction' and often publish books of small narrative forms under the genre of poetry. Any comment?
N: There is a blurry line between poems, prose poetry and flash fiction. However, it is rare to see flash fiction in literary journals. Whilst many have upper word limits, they rarely stipulate a minimum, or require an exact word count. Unless all contributors are deliberately submitting pieces close to the maximum limit, it raises the possibility that editors aren't giving equal weight to very short fiction, or that they see it as having its own silo, tucked away from the short story or poetry stables.
Do we see flash fiction as something ephemeral, not perhaps of equal literary value to other forms?
People make the association between short short fiction and on-line reading - the stereotype is of someone consuming a micro-story on their phone in the supermarket queue. The reality is very short fiction has been around for a long time in book format, or word of mouth, in plays and sketches. Some of it endured for centuries.
Are mainstream publishers shying away from flash fiction in particular? There have been so many changes in the publishing field both in New Zealand and overseas recently, it is difficult to know whether flash fiction has fallen victim to these developments more than literature as a whole. Man Booker prize-winners sell far fewer units than commercial publications featuring celebrities. Whilst this has probably always been the case, it now leaves established writers struggling to market their own work via self-publishing routes. The best seller lists show us there will always be a place for glossy recipe books, biography, children's stories and the odd thriller. Add a few adult colouring books.
Flash fiction should be distributed and presented to the general public. There's a lot of good work out there. Work that can entertain and provide a lot of pleasure.