The Surprising Power of Stories That Are Shorter Than Short Stories

Joe Fassler in The Atlantic:

Lead_large_tmpLast week, Stuart Dybek, one of America’s living masters of the short story, published two new, and very different collections. The nine pieces in Paper Lantern: Love Stories are fairly conventional—they’re stories with drawn characters, and clear conflicts, that reach a certain length. Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories is more focused on the evocative power of language itself—as the strange, musical pairing of words in its title suggests. In offerings that range in length from two lines to nearly 10 pages, from narrative to wholly impressionistic, Dybek uses fragments, koans, and brief lyric flights to capture whole worlds in miniature. In our conversation for this series, Dybek discussed the troubled label “flash fiction” (which was also the topic, and title, of Nathanael Rich’s review in this month’s Atlantic magazine), a form without a solid definition.

Stuart Dybek: It goes way back. From high school on, I wrote these strange, varied, and very short prose pieces that didn’t seem to fit into any established genre. I didn’t have any literary pretensions about what I was doing—it was just one way I liked to work. I thought I was writing stories, but I learned quickly that I’d taken on a form without an easy category. At the time, you could only publish very short prose works, something editors uniformly regarded as “prose poems,” in poetry magazines. So I sent my stuff out that way—because there was no other outlet for it—even though, deep down, I felt I was fudging.

More here.