What Is Microfiction?
A debate between microfictionists Joseph Young and Randall Brown

Joseph Young: People have set all sorts of arbitrary word limits for microfiction, just how short they need to be to qualify for the genre. For this issue of FRiGG, Ellen Parker has specified less than 200 words. I think this is too long. I told her I thought it was too long and she was fine with that. She said, Tell people it’s too long!

To be its own genre, microfiction needs to do something that other forms won’t. It needs to use language, description, dialogue, character to tell a story that can’t be told any other way. It’s not just compression, and it’s not just leaving things out, background info on characters or such. Microfiction needs to carve out whole worlds in a space small enough to fit the eye. You look, just once, and there the whole story is, on the page.

Microfiction is an experience of time closest to zero. Narrative necessarily moves through time; this is its nature, to express an event unfolding in time. But the world, the experience, of microfiction is so pared down that it occurs in the span of a single second, perhaps less, ideally much less.

If fiction (e.g., narrative) is time, then microfiction is microtime. But let me caveat. A microfiction can describe the entire life of a character. It can illustrate birth, marriage, death, 80 years of experience. But the amount from that 80 years that actually occurs in microfiction, in microtime, is nearly nothing, a tenth of a second.

Short stories are about texture. They fill the eye with scene and place and characterization. Microfiction is about emptiness. It’s about the spaces between words, between what one character says and how the other responds. It’s the emptiness between emotion and response—“Falls the shadow”—that creates the tension in microfiction. It remains a mystery, echoing emptily, and hugely.

So much space can only be held in so small a place. Two hundred words is too big. There’s too much texture, too many words, and emptiness is squeezed out. Time takes over and narrative expands. You lose precious time into existence, and microtime becomes ordinary. Microfiction becomes fiction.

Randall Brown: I so tire of the structure of story—the drawn-out acts & fails, acts & fails, acts & fails, acts & gets the hard-earned revelatory ending (as if the only way to get meaning is narratively)—that I can see why people want it to disappear. How few words before narrative has not the space to draw itself out? Fifty? One hundred? Two hundred? Five hundred? Some say 100—no more! At some point, I can’t make sense of their abstract theory of how to use the space that isn’t there. I imagine that’s what happens when you begin to connect microfiction to art; you create theories that become ideas that turn into boundaries.

It’s fine for microfiction to be 200 words. It’s fine because not all microfiction is about anti-matter. Not all microfiction sets itself against the narrative tradition of storytelling. Not all microfiction cares about the tension between the words that are and the words that aren’t. I imagine every writer of microfiction sets himself or herself against something, and maybe that something is the poem that demands a line break, the revelation that demands action, the teacher who wrote “not enough,” the musician who calls out, “Too many notes!”

So yes, all that is solid is really mostly empty space, a world of anti-matter. It’s a cool thing to turn it into matter—and those fascinated with the quantum physics of microfiction can have at it. There’s something unscientific about the 100-word boundary, as if that limit bars the corrupting influence of narrative. I like the idea of keeping narrative out but am unconvinced 100 words will do it, or that narrative necessarily needs to be banned from the micro.

So how long is too long? I tell my wife to hold her breath for two minutes—and she’ll see that it’s really close to forever. Two hundred words might feel that way to some microfiction writers, but come on, I’m sure they can make room for 100 more words or so. What else are they going to do with all that negative space? Maybe, they’ll argue for a –100 word limit, the goal being to make the page more blank than blank. It will hang in a gallery somewhere where people will pretend to understand it.

Joseph Young: I am not calling for a ban on 200-word stories. I read 200-word stories that I enjoy every day. I was asked, “What is microfiction?” Microfiction is not flash fiction. Flash fiction is not short stories. Short stories are not novels. I could not care less what people call what they write, and I don’t advocate for unnecessary categorizations. But if you are going to write microfiction, or novels, shouldn’t you push that form to new places, see what revelatory and beautiful things you can do with it? Are you satisfied writing the same microfiction, or novel, that everyone else is?

Set yourself a task. The task I’ve set myself is to write microfiction that is actually micro.

I think about microfiction; I write about microfiction; I write microfiction. Don’t write the microfiction I write. Don’t even think about microfiction the way I do. I give you my thoughts on the form—disagree, please. But if you are going to write about the form, or think about it, then think deeply. Do a Google search for micro or flash fiction and you’ll get 25 articles that say the same three things. Or they give you a bit of pretty language about the “Dionysian realm,” but then fail to take a stand, something you can agree or disagree with. Maybe you don’t care. I don’t care if you don’t care. I care.

Randall Brown: Joe, you ignorant slut. You diss Dionysus and you’ll soon find all the things he can do with a cornucopia. That final declaration of “I care” could lead one to smoke clove cigarettes and wear a beret. There’s caring and then there’s caring, the kind that says, “I think way more deeply about these things because I am an artist.” You’ll end up like Barton Fink, screaming, “I’m a writer, you monsters! I create! I create for a living! I’m a creator! I am a creator!”—pointing to your head—“This is my uniform!”

Microphotography captures what the eye misses in microseconds, like bullets through balloons, a rain drop into a puddle, a hummingbird wing. The way that picture pushes against the borders of the frame feels not to be about emptiness at all, but rather bigness and grandeur on a tiny scale. I get that Joe Young envisions the world as one in which spaces exist between words, between emotion and response, and he uses the very small as a way to create the echoing mystery of huge emptiness. It’s very Zen-like, emptiness as a somethingness which is in fact only resounding emptiness. This isn’t microfiction, per se; rather, it’s 100-word-limit explorations of emptiness.

To say the 200-word piece looks like the 1,000-word-or-so flash fiction piece exaggerates their similarities. If anything, a 200-word piece is more likely to be confused with the prose poem. And yes, we all end up talking about the necessity of compression, poetic language, metaphor, tightness. We will say it’s a world where every word counts. The truth perhaps is that the only defining characteristic that matters is the word count. Jerome Stern’s Micro Fiction anthology gave writers 250 words; pif’s Camille Renshaw in “The Essentials of Micro-Fiction” wants 400 or less; Craig Snyder’s Microfiction Mini Site, 500. So 200 words doesn’t seem too unreasonable. If I weren’t so ticked off at you, I’d propose a new name, Word Limit Fiction—with the appropriate word count as the defining factor; e.g., 50-Word Fiction, 100-Word Fiction, and so on.

But I want to write microfiction and I want my 200 words to do it. Not because I don’t care, but because I care about different things than Joe Young, things that have nothing to do with his or the world’s empty spaces. I want to squeeze my fat ass into too-tiny jeans, and size 100 just isn’t empty enough for me to fit.

Joseph Young: Randall Brown rails against art like a congressman from Missouri. I understand, Randy, that you are a man of the people, salt of the earth, that you want to make your 200-word stories sing to the common folk. Sure, they’ll be reading your flash fiction during their morning bus rides, while waiting for their grilled cheeses to brown.

It’s typical of an artist frustrated with the lack of care the world gives to artists to demand accessibility, democracy, in art. It’s a plea for love, a gay teenager putting on a football helmet and running around in front of his Heisman Trophy–winning dad.

I ask again, Why shouldn’t I write about emptiness if that’s what I want to do? It bothers you that I am as interested in art as I am in writing? I’m supposed to ghettoize my interests because art embarrasses you? Because you’ve adopted a prevalent popular attitude, a prejudice, about artists, you’ve decided to stereotype me too? Clove cigarettes and berets? You can’t do better than that?

Your flash fiction is quite lovely, Randall. I enjoy it immensely. It’s high art, Randy. You’re a great artist.

Randall Brown: An artist! You better take that back, Joe Young. How low are you willing to go to win this debate?

I’m OK with artists, I guess, but artists who refer to themselves as artists? Hmm … I agree I’ve probably adopted the distancing ironic stance of this “postmodern” generation, and artists going around screaming “I’m an artist” surely set off the “mock me” alarm as perhaps no other group does, so maybe this microfiction gig can help me develop the requisite restraint to come to terms with the “artistry” of it all.

I grasp what you are saying about wishy-washiness; it has to do with not going out on a limb of commitment, so that the answer is always “let’s agree to disagree.” If Joe Young wants to write about emptiness—and clearly from Joe’s argument he’s an expert on it—well, then, Joe should write about emptiness, and he should set, for himself, the requisite limits/boundaries to make that emptiness as artful as he desires. I have always been—and will no doubt continue to be—a Joe Young fan. However, too often writers set up “rules” based entirely on their own aesthetic philosophies and successes. Write like me, they seem to be saying, and you too can be a master or artist or whatever term floats your boat.

It might be worth studying the microfiction in this issue of FRiGG—to look at what a number of microfiction writers are doing—and then come up with debate #2. I promise not to use the word “beret,” Joe, if you promise not to use “emptiness.”

Ellen Parker: Boys! Boys. Must we?

Randall Brown: Bottom line: Microfiction can be 200 words.

Joseph Young: Microfiction cannot exceed 100 words.

Randall Brown: Two hundred.

Joseph Young: One hundred.

Randall Brown (shouting): Two hundred!

Joseph Young (whispering): One hundred.

Ellen Parker: Enough.

Randall Brown (whispering): Two hundred.

Joseph Young (mouthing): One hundred.

Ellen Parker (scowling): …

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