Who Wears Short Shorts? Micro Stories and MFA Disgust
Copyright © by Jason Sanford, 4/18/01  

  Here's a simple fact: no matter how excellent and mind-blowing a regular-size short story might be, it still takes a half-hour of your life to read it. In this same time you can read over ten mediocre short shorts. So take an educated and overly academic guess as to which genre MFA graduates are flocking to.
  That's right—being a writer in today's lovely world of fiction and creative nonfiction is like reliving 70's TV hell, where that Nair commercial jingle has been conveniently rewritten into "Who writes short shorts?" Poetic vision rarely shows up…how can you express vision in 100 words? Plot and character development? Give those antiquated goods to Goodwill. All that matters with short shorts is a competent writing style and a desire for lots of publications—items which our bloated crop of MFA graduates have in excess.
  For those unfamiliar with short shorts (which in fictional realm are also called sudden fiction, micro fiction, and flash fiction), this genre of writing is reserved for fiction and nonfiction stories clocking in at under a 1000 words. The exact definition of a short short varies by writer and editor—some prefer more rigid word limits of 500 or 750 words. There are even writers who think that 500 words is too long an eternity; for them there is a subgenre which gives stories a mere 100 words to live and die. However, these different lengths are all variations on the same theme, so for this essay we'll just wear them short short outfits.

What a short short could be

  There is no denying that the short short can be a powerful form of writing. I agree with the editors of Vestal Review, an online short short magazine, when they say:
  "A good flash, replete with a cohesive plot, rich language and enticing imagery, is perhaps the hardest type of fiction to write. A good flash is so condensed that it borderlines poetry. A good flash engages your mind not only for the short duration of its read, but for a long time after."
  (Side note: While I agree with the quote by Vestal Review's editors, don't take this as support for the MFA crap they publish on their site.)
  A nonfiction short short which comes close to capturing this quote's sentiment is  "LZ Gator, Vietnam, February 1994” by Tim O'Brien. His short short covers how, within the span of a generation, the world so easily erases all evidence of wars and lives past. Upon returning in 1994 to Landing Zone Gator, a firebase in Vietnam where he lived through months of war, O'Brien writes, "I'm home, but the house is gone. Not a sandbag, not a nail or scrap of wire."  In my view, this short short could not work as a longer story, a poem, or even as a section of memoir. Its power comes from the fact that the subject is so perfect for the length of words used that when the reader finishes they are instinctively pulled into reflecting on what they've just read.
  On the fictional side of the short short, there is a nice piece called "Morning News" by Jerome Stern. The story comes in under 300 words and gives a good slice of thought, scene, and insight. The piece deals with the narrator learning that he is dying. However, instead of a final few weeks of soul searching or passionate travel, the soon-to-be dead man does the very American thing of driving to a giant warehouse club with his wife and buying a widescreen TV.
  These two examples follow how the best writings are supposed to work—no matter if they're fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. And if more short shorts like these were being produced, I would have no critique of the genre. However, these two stories are the exceptions. Instead of demonstrating depth and vision, 99% of the published short shorts are merely sight gags, inside jokes, scene descriptions, or scattered details from some writer's life. Yet this is exactly what currently passes for quality writing in the world of short shorts. The editors of Brevity, an online magazine for nonfiction short shorts (published on the site of the highly venerated Creative Nonfiction), say as much in their guidelines: "Brevity publishes concise literary nonfiction of 750 words or less focusing on detail and scene over thought and opinion."
  Detail and scene over thought and opinion? For the record, detail and scene do not a story make, any more than slapped-together descriptions of your last Disney World vacation make a poem.

Short shorts as a reflection of modern life

  The popular take on short shorts is that they are a reflection of our fast-paced modern lives. Bullshit. Yes, 21st century America may act like it ain't got no time left in life, what with all our cell phones ringing while we're using our beepers to download e-mails from the web. But America's quickie culture is merely a rationalization for the booming popularity of short shorts. For a country that supposedly lacks time, we're reading more full-length novels, short-story collections, and nonfiction books than ever before. Granted, most of these volumes don't measure up to even the lesser works of Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner or Toni Morrison, but they are still hundreds of pages in length. This means the American reading public continues to understands and love the longer forms of narrative.
  Besides, there is no evidence that short shorts are being read by anyone outside the "literary" community. It's an well-known writers' joke that almost all poetry, literary fiction and literary creative nonfiction gets read only by fellow writers (along with a small clique of editors and literary groupies). Anyone care to bet that these are the same people reading short shorts? If you're still unsure, ask yourself this: How many anthologies of short shorts ever make it to a second printing (let alone a bestseller list)?
  No, the general public isn't reading short shorts. Their popularity rests solely with writers. And writers are loving the genre because of that dreaded devil of the writing universe, the local Masters of Fine Arts department.

Why do all the stories sound the same?

  In a recent New York Times op-ed piece entitled "When Every TV Show Is a Rerun," Neal Gabler argues that the sudden surge in reality based TV shows like Survivor is caused by a deep crisis in narrative. Basically, he says, we Americans are being flooded with stories—be it through movies, TV, novels, or other media outlets. Without repeating the entire article, one point that Gabler makes is that this saturation has numbed most people to stories. I would take this problem a step further—in prose writing, the mindnumbing saturation is caused by sound-alike, brand X stories, the result of the last few decades of MFA programs and their kin.
  That MFA programs have created a standard, bland style of writing shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. After all, no matter how many new MFA programs open up in this country, they remain a rather incestuous, similar lot. The average MFA professor is white, upper-middle class, and unacquainted with anything other than their little academic life. It is through their particular lens that all MFA students pass through and hone their skills. Students who don't match these professors' ideas of life and writing either don't get into the programs or get their writings gutted from the inside out. In genetics, this type of phenomenon is called the Bottleneck Effect. That's where a small group of animals is cut off from the rest of their viable population and only breeds among themselves. This inevitably results in animals having less genetic diversity than their relatives who didn't get isolated in the first place. (For more fun info on the MFA racket, read the excellent article The Poetry Workshop and its Discontents: A Report from the Dark Underbelly of Academic Creative Writing by Briggs Seekins.)
  Most MFAers understand all of this. They know that the writings around them—writings by fellow students, professors, and alum—are mediocre. The voices are the same, the subjects are the same, even the writing styles are the same. But do MFAers try to revolt, change the system from within? No way. They simply decided to try a new genre of writing: the short short.
  Need proof? Then behold "Housewife" by Amy Hempel:
  She would always sleep with her husband and with another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting, "French film, French film."
  Don't ask where the rest of the story is—that's the complete version. Close your eyes and reflect on that little tale. Did anything stick? Of course not…there's nothing worth remembering (aside from irritation at the weak joke of "French film" as an analogy for having an affair). This type of short short is word candy, writing that passes through the system with no effect but tooth decay. Twenty years ago it would have been printed as a joke on the bottom page of some English department newsletter. Yet in this day and age that story gets chosen as a perfect example of the short short form by the editor in chief of Pif Magazine, Camille Renshaw, in her essay "Essentials of Microfiction." And, more importantly from an MFA point of view, that story earns its author another publication.

Short shorts and quickie pubs

  A main reason short shorts are all the rage is that they are a quick road to publication. After all, why write a 6,000-word short story when you can write ten 600-word pieces in the same time?
  According to Sarah Gold in her article on MFAs for Salon, one of the chief worries of writers in MFA programs is whether or not they will get published. Of course, that's the central message of MFA programs: If you wanna be a writer, you must publish. And as naive MFAers looks around their academic world, they see that publications literally have a cascade effect: As you get more publications, your writings are given more opportunities to shine. You get more grants, more book deals, you even get published in more magazines. If you don't believe that editors give a writer's work more of a chance when their cover letter mentions previous publications, you are ignorant (Yet again, read The Poetry Workshop and its Discontents by Briggs Seekins).
  As I mentioned at the start of this essay, it can take thirty minutes or more to read a decent size short story. Add to that the time spent evaluating the piece and trying to decide if it's worth printing in a magazine, and you see why editors don't spend a lot of time giving out encouraging rejections.
  In pre-MFA days, the job of editing was easier. Editors weeded out the bad stories from the good just by reading a few paragraphs. Now, thanks to the MFA, all of the formerly bad writers have learned to write like decent writers. Editors are flooded with tons of look-alike MFA pablum. This is why so many editors secretly rely on coverletters stating previous publications to help them choose which stories to focus on. It is just not possible to read everything that crosses their desk.
  So how is an energetic MFAer to get around this trap? With the short short! While no editor can bear to read fifty long stories with the same voice and style to find one that is publishable, any editor can endure fifty sound-alike short shorts. Who cares if they have as little depth as President Dubya…for a minimal investment in time the editor can find that ideal mediocre story which fits in perfectly with their magazine.

Where's the voice in short shorts?

  Great writing requires a unique voice, which can take decades to develop. By voice, I mean more than merely the style or tone of the story—I also mean voice as encompassing an author's vision, thought, and insight. When this total view of voice is combined with a writer's skill and craft, great writing results. Writers who have sought true voice and learned their craft will then find their inspiration in the world around them.
  And true voice doesn't stop with the writer. When you read a book with a distinct voice (such as that of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian or William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying), it can sometimes take pages and pages to get into the author's rhythm. No one first reads As I Lay Dying without some momentary discomfort at the constant switching between different voices and points of views. But, in the case of Faulkner's book, this effect on the reader is deliberate—the effort we must make to understand the different voices used in the book is analogous to how hard it is to understand the different voices around us in everyday life. Even when everyone is telling the same story, their different voices and points of view totally change the story as it passes from person to person.
  Great literature is an exploration, both for writer and reader. Great writing moves beyond the ordinary to things that can not be understand through simple naming or description. Say the word Holocaust. Now read a novel on the Holocaust. That is the difference between a mere word and a deeper understanding. That is also the same level of difference between a simple story and truly great piece of literature.
  The problem with most short shorts is not the genre—it is that they are being written by writers who are not committed to the true exploration of voice that's at the heart of great literature. Instead short shorts are written by writers emerging fully deformed from MFA workshops and programs around the country, writers churning out page after page of bland academic writing that has as little style, voice, and vision as Al Gore on ritalin.

What we've learned

  So here're a few things to keep in mind the next time you read a trendy little short short:
  A) Short shorts can be a powerful form of writing, but they've been invaded by a hostile hoard of MFAers who see the genre as
  B) An easy route to publication heaven, especially when
  C) There are so many bland, sound-alike MFA writings swirling in the publication toilet because
  D) You can teach writing techniques and skills at a university but you can't teach how to find a writer's true voice. And the writers who seek true voice are also the writers who usually run the other way from little writing trends (and always bolt from anything spelled with an 'M,' an 'F,' and an 'A').  

{Read more from & about Jason Sanford: http://www.jasonsanford.com/}

DAN RESPONDS: Not much I can argue with here, Jason. But it does lead naturally to the query- If your scorn for MFA Writing programs is genuine, what the hell are/were you ever doing associated with S.A.S.E.: The Write Place? I mean, they & The Loft are the next dread logical devolution of all you rail about- basically taking that homogenized bad formula down to the next level: i.e.- kids & disenfranchised folk. Not to mention that org's place as the local Wal-Mart of the open mic scene. In the last 5 years or so SASE has literally bullied alot of independent venues into oblivion. Not that they were any better or worse literarily; however they did provide alternatives to the established powers- of which SASE now is! I will give you an opportunity to clarify your position on this for the benefit of Cosmoetica readers. BTW- for the non-Twin Citians SASE & The Loft are the 2 major local Writer's orgs here- they control most of the literary grant $ & have many local writers kowtowwing to their demands. DAN

Jason Sanford's Reply: For those who don't know SASE: The Write Place, the organization strives to create social change through writing. A major chunk of SASE's time (around 75%) is spent on running writing programs for at-risk youth, people at difficult places in their lives, and diverse populations. What does this mean? Well, in the year and a half I was at SASE, I mainly worked on SASE's youth programming. I helped start a writing program for kids in the Ramsey County Juvenile Detention Center, organized spoken word and poetry classes in various Boys and Girls Clubs, and managed writing residencies for at-risk youth in schools such as Patrick Henry High. By bringing writing into places like these--places outside of the boringly traditional English classroom that has driven generations of students away from writing--SASE is showing kids the power that writing can have in their lives. Where they take it from there is up to them. Are these the people Dan accuses SASE of bringing bad writing to? In addition to youth programming, SASE also does what we call "writing for healing," (a program which I did not work on). This program brings writers together with people at difficult places in their lives--meaning those who are homeless, battling diseases like cancer, or are survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. The writer helps these people learn how journaling and other forms of writing can be a
wonderful tool for dealing with life's difficulties, learning about oneself, and helping to heal oneself. Perhaps these are the people Dan accuses SASE of bringing bad writing to? Here's a truth: None of these writing programs teach the MFA style of writing I wail on in my essay. Most
of the writers who teach these programs don't even have an MFA. You want the difference in an MFA program and SASE? MFA programs teach formula. These SASE programs merely expose people to the power of writing. As I said before, what they do with it from there is
up to them. After these programs, the other 25% of SASE's work
involves a reading series (which I will touch on next), a small grant program, and mentorships. The grant program sure doesn't support MFAers like most grants do--three quarters of SASE/Jerome grant
recipients don't even have an MFA. As for the mentorships, what these one-on-one writing programs teach is up to the mentoring writer and student. However, their goal is to give new writers individual feedback on their work, not teach MFA indoctrination. The final thing SASE does is a reading series around the Twin Cities (which I managed and which, due to publicity efforts, most people think is all that SASE does). These readings are held at approximately 12 community-based venues each month. Each venue is run by a local writer, who chooses the readers for their venue. While I won't say that MFA writing doesn't exist in SASE's reading series, I will say that I have heard a full range of writers during my time with these readings. That means hearing the best writers, the worst, and everyone in between. Yes, MFA writing exists in SASE's reading series, but so does poetry and fiction by people who hate MFAers, spoken word poets, hip hop artists, writers mixing genres, science fiction writers, and so on. Shit, Dan, you were even a headline reader at one of SASE's readings in April 1999. As for SASE being the local Wal-Mart of the open mic scene and bullying a lot of independent venues into oblivion, I can only say. . . do what? First, SASEhosts two open mics each month--one at Caffe Tempo in Minneapolis and one at Jazzville in St. Paul. Considering that there are between a dozen and twenty open mics each month in the Twin Cities, that hardly makes SASE the bulk retailer of open mics. And as for bullying an independent venue into oblivion, please give an example. Dan, I get tons of e-mails from you each month on various readings at venues throughout the Twin Cities--independent venues which SASE is not involved in. This tells me that SASE's support or lack of support for other readings doesn't make the difference in whether or not an independent venue survives. As a kid growing up in rural Alabama, I believed that writing could change the world. Perhaps this was a naive view caused by not actually knowing any true writers. Once I left home, I realized that (for the most part) the writers who swirled around academia were an untalented lot, uninvolved in the world and constantly making pretentious and cynical remarks
about those who were. I learned to avoid these writers and still do. My goals in life are simple: 1) To be the best writer imaginable. 2) To create positive change in the world. The first goal is my own personal deal; no one else can help me become the writer I want to be. However, through my work at SASE, I have made some headway on my second goal of positive change in the world. Perhaps one of those kids in the juvenile detention center will give writing a serious try now that he's seen how powerful it can be. Perhaps some writer who got a little exposure in SASE's reading series will take that encouragement to new levels of writing achievement. I don't know if any of this will happen; the odds may be against it. But it is the possibility of that positive change that led me to SASE and, now that I am no longer with them, it is that possibility
of change that leads me to call my time with SASE a success. Dan, the simple answer to your query is that the ability to make a difference in people's lives--in an area or expertise I know a little about--was why I
worked at SASE. Ninety percent of people don't do shit during their 9 to 5 work day; they just earn some money, scratch their ass, then come home at night and moan about how the world's so fucked up. Me, I made a little difference in my working job. I can live with that. 

DAN REPLIES: Jason, all your points are well taken. To me it just is a matter of truth in advertising. I just wish SASE wd drop the veil of literary intent, come out, announce it is a social org & I'd have no prob w it. Healing is fine- state that as your purpose then- Dr. Schweitzer never claimed to be teaching the basics of a novel. Over the years (while never going to college myself) I've sat in on MFA freebies at U's such as Queens College, St. John's University (NYC), SUNY Brockport, U of M, Augsburg, Hamline, MacAlester, etc. as well as classes at the 92nd St. Y (NYC), Loft, & SASE & their adjunct programs. The generic approach to a poem is uniform & consistent, w minor variations between instructors. Add to the fact that most are bad poets: MD Browne, Roseann Lloyd, etc.what can one say? As for reading for SASE or any other org that asks- of course I will- I want my work known, I want to give examples of good poetry for others to notice, & I've never accepted a dime from SASE or any other org- I donate any stipend rt back. I never sd they or any other org were the Manson family. I'll give you 2 examples of independent series forced out; of the many I cd if I had the time, memory, & info at my fingertips. Gingko's in St. Paul had a reading series that in '95 or '96 was ended to make room for Brenda Bell Brown's series w SASE. The fellow who hosted it- or cohosted on a rotating basis- was a guy named Richard Carlson. SASE took over & the crowd changed, Carlson had no car so any other places to host were limited. Similarly- about the same time a series at the Mpls Coffee Gallery (Franklin & Lyndale) also bit the dust. It had been hosted by several people over the years & SASE turned the site into a slam which drove away alot of folk. And a 3rd occurs- though I cannot name the venue- it was in Nordeast Mpls- a cafe on the railroad tracks. In '97 SASE opened a series (which may still be there) which for a while showcased 'Native' writers only- thus snubbing alot of other poets & forcing a poetry series for young queer writers out. These examples are very Wal-Mart like & why SASE & other orgs get sneers from most. As for diversity- go to any of those dozen readings & you'll find alot last 1 or 2 shows if that. Pre-SASE alot more diversity existed- I was here, Jason. I know! Just a quick scan of SASE's open mic featured readers list over the years will show the same small circle of hacks & wannabes featured over & again, rotating thru their series' venues. I realize it's not all SASE's fault, the mood toward poetry is not what it was during the MTV mid-90s heyday, even w the ridiculous Poetry Month. Again, Carolyn Holbrook is a nice lady & I applaud her social endeavors- just leave the job of helping young writers to those who 1) know what they're doing. 2) hold art as their primary goal, not an ancillary one. 3) will be honest when they approach writing or writers with no talent. For the main problem is the lack of primacy that all arts orgs have for promoting good/great art. Honest & sometimes harsh criticism is the only way to achieve that end. Without it, then the short shorts that you rail against will seem like a golden age of writing vs. the coming dreck of 2030. But I am an optimist & foresee an end to all these creative writing programs within a few decades. Let's hope!  DAN

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