Around the corner from a place I used to live was a nickel arcade. When my friends and I couldn’t think of anything better to do, we’d gather up our five-cent pieces and station ourselves at the skee-ball, pouring wooden spheres down the ramp and racking up little tickets we could later trade for cheap, disposable prizes. Our prize of choice was the small, immobile, green plastic army man. Not so we could model elaborate battle scenes on our kitchen table (we were in our late teens by this point, maybe our early twenties: the patience for such tedious imagination had passed). But because at some point, through traditional teenage means, we discovered that a green army man will burn. And when he does, tiny globs of flaming plastic will drop to the ground with a preternatural, bubbling “zzzzzzzap!” sound that, even after burning through an hour’s worth of skee-ball tickets, doesn’t cease to fascinate.
This phenomenon came to mind last night at Magers & Quinn Booksellers as a few young, up-and-coming writers read pieces in their genre of choice: flash fiction. Amber Sparks came home to Minnesota from Washington DC to celebrate the release of her new collection May We Shed These Human Bodies, a beautifully designed paperback from Chicago’s Curbside Splendor. Local hero John Jodzio read a couple from the Paper Darts-produced Get In if You Want to Live, and opening the evening, BJ Hollars read a brief, new-journalistic essay about his parents’ unhappy parrot. Each writer displayed extreme wit and a solid handle on narrative craft, replete with sudden and bristling turns of phrase, plot lines popping and fizzing with energy. If flash fiction makes a sound, I think “zzzzzzzzap!” isn’t far off.
The reading took place on a Tuesday (September 25, 2012, to be exact), in the quiet, tucked-away poetry corner of the book store, and only a handful of people were in attendance (twenty, tops). I couldn’t help noticing the difference between this evening’s reading, with all its sparkling, short-lived ebullience, and the slow, textured, symphonic compositions that an auditorium-packing Michael Chabon created last friday. (I’m not saying the sparse crowd was a direct result of the genre–let’s see how things look when John Jodzio wins a Pulitzer.) But I do feel that genre informs the equation: “zzzzzzzap!” is perfect for an otherwise slow Tuesday evening, but as more and more magazines focus on, publish, and proliferate flash fiction, as it becomes more and more writers’ genre-of-choice, I can’t help but feel a little bit like the literary world is filling itself with smoke and melted plastic for the sake of a three-second sound.
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