The Flash Mob

How twitter is shrinking short fiction.

In 1846, Edgar Allan Poe proposed that short fiction should be readable ‘in one sitting’ before ‘the affairs of the world are able to interfere’. Today’s ‘micro’ or ‘flash’ fiction can be read almost at a glimpse, before the next twitter feed or status updates usurps it’s position on the screen. For those who don’t feel they have the time to invest in a novel, or even a short story, is ‘twit-lit’ the quick-fix solution? For the digital generation is 140 characters about as digestible as we can manage? Will twitter produce works that outlast the day’s feed?

It’s not just twit-lit that is having its moment. ‘Flash fiction’, or fiction in 1,000 words or less is also having its day in the sun, with a number of ‘flash fiction’ blogs and events popping up across country. Indeed, Femi Martin who is 2012’s Dickens Young Writer in Residence has performed ‘flash’ in a number of high profile locations including the Royal Court and the SouthBank Centre. You can listen to examples of her work via her website. Unlike the vignette, haiku or the prose poem, flash fiction complies to almost all the conventions of the traditional short story or novel. However, due to the obvious limitations of form, most elements are implied rather than expressly stated and, with fewer words used, the impact of each one has to be carefully measured for the greatest impact.

However, it’s hardly avant-garde. Flash Fiction has been around for years, albeit under a different name. Just think of Hemingway’s Hills like Elephants, Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts and Conon Doyle’s De Profundis. Yet, none of these prodigious talents pushed the form to the (word) limit in the same way as their 00s counterparts.

Moreover, ‘twit-lit’ marks another innovation in the way in which writers, particularly young writers, are manipulating new possibilities in self-publishing on the net.  Unlike blogs, the twitter-author does not need eager readers to sift through the reams of fiction blogs (type ‘short story blog into google and you get 930,000,000 results), but merely set up some clever twitter-settings and their followers will automatically see their 140 character fictions appear on their feed. And from there, it’s not a great leap from screen to print with Miriam Elia’s ‘The Diary of Edward the Hamster’, the acerbic musings of an existential rodent, being published by Macmillan on August 30th this year.   

 ‘Micro fiction’ even has its own award, the Micro Award, which began in 2007 and is presented annually for the best ‘flash fiction’ work of the previous year. Previous winners include, ‘Divestiture’ by Bruce Holland Rogers, ‘Choosing a Photograph for Mother's Obituary’ by Kevin A. Couture and ‘The Children’s Factory’ by Michael Stewart.

With short fiction shrinking to ever diminutive lengths, what is the future of the form? Th nd?

Photo: Miriam Elia
Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.