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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As long as the Tories fail to solve the housing crisis, they will struggle to win

The fall in the number of homeowners leaves the Conservatives unable to sell capitalism to those with no capital. 

For the Conservatives, rising home ownership was once a reliable route to government. Former Labour voters still speak of their gratitude to Margaret Thatcher for the Right to Buy scheme. But as home ownership has plummeted, the Tories have struggled to sell capitalism to a generation without capital. 

In Britain, ownership has fallen to 63.5 per cent, the lowest rate since 1987 and the fourth-worst in the EU. The number of private renters now exceeds 11 million (a larger number than in the social sector). The same policies that initially promoted ownership acted to reverse it. A third of Right to Buy properties fell into the hands of private landlords. High rents left tenants unable to save for a deposit.

Rather than expanding supply, the Tories have focused on subsidising demand (since 2010, housebuilding has fallen to its lowest level since 1923). At a cabinet meeting in 2013, shortly after the launch of the government’s Help to Buy scheme, George Osborne declared: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. The then-chancellor’s remark epitomised his focus on homeowners. Conservative policy was consciously designed to enrich the propertied.

A new report from the Resolution Foundation, Home Affront: housing across the generations, shows the consequences of such short-termism. Based on recent trends, less than half of millennials will buy a home before the age of 45 compared to over 70 per cent of baby boomers. Four out of every ten 30-year-olds now live in private rented accommodation (often of substandard quality) in contrast to one in ten 50 years ago. And while the average family spent just 6 per cent of their income on housing costs in the early 1960s, this has trebled to 18 per cent. 

When Theresa May launched her Conservative leadership campaign, she vowed to break with David Cameron’s approach. "Unless we deal with the housing deficit, we will see house prices keep on rising," she warned. "The divide between those who inherit wealth and those who don’t will become more pronounced. And more and more of the country’s money will go into expensive housing instead of more productive investments that generate more economic growth."

The government has since banned letting agent fees and announced an additional £1.4bn for affordable housing – a sector entirely neglected by Cameron and Osborne (see graph below). Social housing, they believed, merely created more Labour voters. "They genuinely saw housing as a petri dish for voters," Nick Clegg later recalled. "It was unbelievable." 

But though housebuilding has risen to its highest levels since 2008, with 164,960 new homes started in the year to June 2017 and 153,000 completed, this remains far short of the 250,000 required merely to meet existing demand (let alone make up the deficit). In 2016/17, the government funded just 944 homes for social rent (down from 36,000 in 2010). 

In a little-noticed speech yesterday, Sajid Javid promised a "top-to-bottom" review of social housing following the Grenfell fire. But unless this includes a substantial increase in public funding, the housing crisis will endure. 

For the Conservatives, this would pose a great enough challenge in normal times. But the political energy absorbed by Brexit, and the £15bn a year it is forecast to cost the UK, makes it still greater.

At the 2017 general election, homeowners voted for the Tories over Labour by 55 per cent to 30 per cent (mortgage holders by 43-40). By contrast, private renters backed Labour by 54 per cent to 31 per cent. As long as the latter multiply in number, while the former fall, the Tories will struggle to build a majority-winning coalition. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.