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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.