Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Nine-Inch Pianist

This begins with the disclaimer that you do not set forth to read flash fiction as having the reading thrust upon you, primarily as a judge but to some degree as a teacher. Judging is a tricky business, a statement made in light of you having been selected more than once to judge the outcomes of cooking and baking competitions.

In most cases, you'd have not been asked to judge anything if you had not held the position of editor with a number of ventures, most of which, as the saying goes, looked good on paper, the saying implying the publishing ventures often showed a profit to the point where you often got a performance bonus of some sort.

Being an editor, you were confronted with poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, in all their various forms, including cookbooks, which account for you being chosen to judge the outcomes of cooking and baking competitions.

While you're on the subject of disclosures, here's one about flash fiction, which, if the genre could be wrangled into a metaphor, say the emperor, has, in your opinion, no clothes. This opinion is ventured in awareness of the enormous popularity of the genre, the apparent creative challenges it presents to writers, and your growing sense that readers in general and persons in specific are not so able to focus their attention on any one behavior for as long as persons were once able to do.

Numbers are nice points of reference to use in arguments such as this, which you admit to being the literary equivalent of an argument ad hominem. You estimate the number of flash fiction pieces you've read to approximate twenty-five hundred, which is arguably enough to get you in the game. You first decided not to like flash fiction when you were asked to serve on a panel of judges reviewing short fiction that had to be fifty-five words, not fifty-four, certainly not fifty-six. 

You were asked to grade submissions on a scale of one-to-ten, one being the low point, ten being close, in your opinion, to publishable quality. Even though you graded a number of submissions as low as minus four, you were invited back to judge for two successive years, and lived to see at least two books of fifty-five-word stories published. In the introduction to each, the publisher admitted his choice of the fifty-five word dictum was based on pure whim.

Your main objection to flash fiction is the limitation brevity places on characterization and, thus, subtlety of motivation. This objection leads you to the next, which is that much flash fiction has the same format as a joke, which means a set-up, a complication, and a punch-line-payoff. 

All well and good for individuals who like jokes or situations where the payoff is some splendid irony as the flash fiction involving a hard-of-hearing genie who grants someone a wish, thus the payoff, which is a much dwarfed piano player, and the punch line, "You said you wanted a nine-inch pianist."

True enough, humor is dramatic. Of equal truth, many jokes and a great many pieces of flash fiction follow the three-act play format, some flash fiction even allowing for delightful and often provocative surprises. But the result is always the same as a joke. You've heard it said that a good joke cannot be spoiled by a bad telling. You can accept that standard on an intellectual level, but you grew up in a world where a man born as Nathan Birnbaum told not only good jokes but told them well. 

Under his stage name of George Burns, he caused you to see the importance of timing, of deadpan delivery, of a Mark Twain-like patience with the material, knowing there was an end response to be had, willing to go for the long, expressionless gaze, punctuated by a tap on his cigar to get the desired result.

Once, when you learned that you favored the same delicatessen restaurant Burns did, you heard him say something that irrevocably changed your attitude to storytelling.  "You think I go there [Linny's Delicatessen] for the food? I go there for the way the food is served, always with questions. 'You think that soup was good, Mr. Burns, you'd have been amazed by the split pea.' 'Then why didn't you serve me the split pea?' 'Because, Mr. Burns, even the bus boy could see from the expression on your face, you were in no mood for the split pea.'"

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