In Brief: The Appeal of Brevity

by Posted on February 17th, 2009 at 12:42 am

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Contemporary flash fiction has been slugged, whipped, and slapped: dragged through the literary mud, pegged as incidental. While some appreciate the concision of the form, others hate the practice, positing that flash fiction has excised indelible elements of fiction, including pacing, profluence, and emotional resonance. Many of these criticisms are warranted. Often works of flash fiction appear as appendages of longer narratives: well-crafted scenes, but not autonomous stories.

Brevity, the online journal of “extremely brief” creative nonfiction, was first published in 1997. The journal accepts and publishes works of less than 750 words; a heartbeat on the page. Brevity proves that the stunted narrative is better suited for literary fact, not fiction. While many criticisms of flash fiction originate in the form’s anaerobic nature, creative nonfiction is a vastly different medium. We know, from Lee Gutkind—who shares a spot on the editorial board of Creative Nonfiction, along with Brevity’s editor Dinty W. Moore—that creative nonfiction appropriates elements of literary fiction, including detail and dialogue. Yet works of creative nonfiction also arrive with a certain level of lived authority: the characters of factual works have hated and loved, and those past experiences bleed into the present narratives. This is not to say that the writer of fiction is unable to craft characters with authentic, yet invisible backstories: the narrator of James Salter’s novel A Sport and a Pastime is focused on the sexual relationship of a couple, and yet his complicated voyeurism speaks to a deep existence beyond the actual text. But often flash fiction, as much shorter narratives, have a paucity of resonance. Dynamics of syntax and imagery aside, they leave readers still hungry for significance.

The selections of Brevity, past and present, satiate a need for resonance that flash fiction is unable to achieve. They also reveal a point of contention about the creative nonfiction form: at what level of origination, revision, or, “compression” (Gutkind’s concept of compressing several similar events into one action) does creative nonfiction simply become fiction? The recently released Brevity 29 offers several examples of brief narratives of both blurred genre and earned resonance. Joe Bonomo’s “Cathy or Katy” begins with a first sentence suited to a longer work: “The rain fell through bus headlights, getting us ready for the big lie.” Imagery followed by idea, enough forward progression to keep the reader going: the narrator and a friend spend part of the night at a topless bar, but the narrator ends the night in bed with a woman. She is “Cathy or Katy,” and while her name is malleable, her physicality is not: “The thousands of freckles on her cheeks, the way her loose hair caught light from the desk lamp by the bed as if each strand were alight and moving.” But physicality is ephemeral for this narrator. What is permanent, though, is a memory of his friend Eric “mount[ing] an unconscious girl drunk on beer and gin in a motel room in Ocean City, Maryland.” And yet that certain memory is also uncertain, as the narrator wonders if he “imagine[d] the whole thing.”

The narrative concludes with a memory the narrator can be certain of: the birth of his young brother, complete with a “photo to prove the memory correct, just as it happened, as I promised.” Bonomo’s deftly written, brief essay is a welcome metaphor for the short creative nonfiction that Brevity publishes: in a genre bound by reconstruction of memories, a peppering of fiction is inevitable, even welcome. We do not doubt that Bonomo visited the bar with a friend, or that some version of the Ocean City tale is true, but the gradations of fact disappear beneath the lyricism of the prose. Yet creative nonfiction also needs “photo[s]” of fact, and Brevity shows that these photos can exist outside the scope of the narrative, since the work is of factual origin, and thus a snapshot of the writer’s life. Flash fiction, as a creation of the unreal, has no such backbone or genesis.

It is not surprising that Bonomo is a prose poet: his newest collection, Installations, was selected by Naomi Shihab Nye for the 2007 National Poetry Series. Prose poetry, although it has its detractors, has escaped the consistent criticism of flash fiction; perhaps the form, in its Baudelairian existence, appears more natural. We expect compression in verse. We should also expect it in creative nonfiction. Bryan Fry’s “Hill Street Blues,” from the same issue of Brevity, subsists on precision of selection. The first line—“My first memory fails me”—speaks to Bonomo’s similar lack of certainty. Fry, likewise, offers initial images: living room carpet, a color television, his mother, a cigarette. Like the “spiraling” smoke in the room, Fry leaves the scene before we understand it, mirroring the inadequacies of cognition expressed in the piece.

The next two brief scenes occur in a car, with more smoke, more fragmented images, and his disconnected parents. The essay then jumps to Great Falls, Montana, where an argument fractures the parents’ relationship, and the narrator is left with his father. They end up “alone” together, “kneel[ing] on the soft blue carpet at the edge of his bed, praying for a mother. Not my mother, who I seem to have forgotten, but someone who will take care of my father.” The narrative concludes with a focus on the narrator’s prayers, and the final threading of mother’s smoke, her dissipating influence which the narrator knows he will “forget” if “I don’t concentrate.”

The weight of Fry’s essay has an inverse relation to its length. Brevity is a worthwhile journal for practical reasons—several essays can be read and reread during a lunch break—but also for less tangible concerns of genre. Creative nonfiction earns the right to be short-spoken. A palpable, lived world exists beyond the page, and the realm of the short essay is merely a passed fence post along the way.