Fictional Misconceptions


I’ve been teaching fiction for a very long time, and I confess that even as a graduate of two MFAs, without an MA in literature I was once both confused by and uninterested in the proliferation of terms applied by the literati to the many forms of fiction that I like to write.

Nonetheless, teaching is the best teacher, as everyone knows.  So, I have slowly been taught that these terms are important when teaching: if only to let your students know unequivocally what it is that your assignment is asking them to do.

I teach undergraduates in fiction, and for the first fiction course they take after creative writing, I find it necessary to acquaint my students with the most basic literary form for short fiction: realism.  After that we move to minimalism, flash, absurdism, surrealism, magical realism, metafiction, and many of the other crazy terms applied to most of the postmodernist forms.  (We don’t write them all: students get a choice of one from the postmodernist forms, and one from the “abbreviated” forms).

It’s the need to clarify the difference between these forms that has led me to explore more thoroughly how these terms are applied — at least from the perspective of craft.  Students urging to experiment with the form before they’re familiar with its basic format push their Carver imitation, their David Foster Wallace sound-alike, their Joyce-inspired stream of consciousness, all with my having to stop the perplexed, puzzled, bemused and often cruel criticism arising from the other students who, not understanding the form (and often never having seen such expressions of it before), and finding that they cannot focus on critiquing the craft, revert back to rudimentary knee-jerk emotional criticism, all too often negative.

So, my quest to clarify has brought me up against a startling realization: I’m not the only one amongst the writers who is confused!  As I search through articles, books and blogs (and yes! even trusty Wikipedia!)  I find more and more contradictions: writers who are well-established often resist the terms thrown at them from the literary camp, and writers who come up behind them, trying to make a name for themselves, don’t always understand how the terms and the styles actually differentiate (in part because the writers themselves don’t acknowledge that they are part of these movements that the literature camp says they are a part of, and in part because they are like me, interested only in creating something original, inspired by what they read, rather than being concern with which label they can apply to their writing). Therefore, confusion perpetuates.

To speak of the practical, here is a bullet list of the most frequent confusion among writers over the most popular forms used today:

  • Equating realist fiction with minimalism
  • Mistaking flash as a form of minimalism
  • General disagreement and confusion over all the postmodernist forms from magical realism to metafiction
  • Calling mixed genre what in essence is a postmodernist form
  • and (I am tremulous on this one) generally being unable to distinguish between a prose poem and flash

I did not create this post with the intention of snubbing and defying, but rather to help teachers like myself.  I could care less what something is called in the literary circles when I’m writing, but teaching presses me to make these distinctions.

Therefore, I present you with charts that I’ve created for my students as I shift them from analyzing and writing realist fiction to minimalism, and then to flash.

But first, here are the elements of craft that I focus on for literary realist fiction:

(As I am a teacher and teaching is my income, I would appreciate if you would respect Internet copyrights law when sharing or duplicating. Thanks!)

Here is what the macro structure of a short story should entail:

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I should also state that I replace the usual adage of show don’t tell with Robert Olen Butler’s suggestions in his wonderful book, From Where You Dream (Grove Press) by highlighting the five ways of experiencing emotions.  This makes it easier for students to understand what is being replaced, and what remains when we go from realist fiction to minimalism:

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And here is the difference, in a nutshell, between realism and (sometimes, so-called, often misunderstood/misnamed/named-otherwise) minimalist fiction.

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I also like to emphasize that minimalist didn’t just take away big fancy words and write like ten-year olds.  We go over what was taken out (the highly sensory flash forwards and flashes of memory), and how what remains carries on the weight of that absence through a focus on objects and actions.

Then, because once students realize how difficult minimalist fiction really is they’re more afraid to write it, I usually also introduce them to flash fiction, which they find easier, and more accessible.

At this point, I think I need to say that I am very skeptical of those who think that flash is a minimalist form except in the most literal interpretation of the term.  I hope that with this chart I can demonstrate that the two forms are quite different:

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I hope to clarify rather than confuse the issues, but if I make a mistake, please come forth and speaketh! The last thing I want is to end up in literature jail, accused of loitering in literary abstractions and defacing and vandalizing literary terms.  I welcome any informed suggestions and will consider any justified revision or deletion.  Let’s share!

PS: I should give a shout-out to Dr. Phil Greaney whose introduction to his thesis on Minimalism helped me to give authority and voice to a lot of the elements of the form that I couldn’t quite defend so well as when he blessed the Internet with a free copy of his work.

As a late edit to this post, I’d like to propose here the difference between flash fiction and prose poetry:

Like prose poetry, flash relies on image, metaphor, and language.  Unlike prose poetry, flash resists the temptation to allow the readers a conclusive interpretation on the meaning.  Flash resists meaning.

And I have this to add:

Flash fiction resists rational interpretation, but it does so with crystal clear narrative: clarity in the prose; ambivalence in the meaning.

Writing and About

4 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Greetings from India. It’s not every morning one wakes to find someone has found my work of use, let alone that I’ve ‘blessed the internet’ with it. What a happy thought! Reading accounts like yours makes sharing worthwhile – many thanks.

    I needn’t tell you that what you’ve tried to do in your post is extremely difficult – you’ll be only too aware of the counter-examples that threaten the legitimacy of defining characteristics, as I was when I wrote my thesis and tried to define literary minimalism. Yet, it’s a process worth doing, especially when teaching demands some firm answers (or at least starting points) when thinking about the differences between genres. I sense that your work here will be invaluable to your students and to those who read it and teach, too.

    Best to you

    Phil Greaney
    New Delhi, India

    • Hey! What a great honor to have your reply. Yes, I absolutely expect that there will be dissent, and I have to tell you it takes some courage to be public about such assertions especially as a teacher. I teach undergraduates and helping them develop even a basic discernment involved in the different forms will, I think, be a good starting point for their future explorations. I don’t know whether your full thesis is published yet or not, but I know I’ll want to read a copy soon.

      • If you can get me your email – I’d rather not publish mine here – I will send you an electronic copy of my thesis. Unless you have a better idea, I’m @philgreaney on Twitter; a DM will keep the spambots away.

      • Hi Phil. Sorry: for some reason I was sure I had replied to this but apparently did not. I’d love to get an electronic copy of your thesis. You can send it to my email at lvaleri@ georgiasouthern.edu. Thank you again.

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