Monday, August 17, 2009

A Necessary Ending to the Queer Question "What Is The Difference Between The Prose Poem, The Short Short Story, and The Short Story?"

One of the most dispiriting and boring conversations in the literary community evolves from the understandable need to identify the difference between the prose poem, short short story (flash fiction), and a short story. It’s almost as empty as our need to talk about creative non-fiction as transgressing boundaries.

Or perhaps even the most worthless statement: sometimes you need to lie in order to arrive at the truth! Wow.

And let’s face it, anyone who tells you to lie these days is a Republican. Or they come from bad parents who never taught you any morals.

The genres’ definitions have nothing ultimately to do with word count, or the poetic quality of the sentences, or the emphasis on character over lyricism.

Word count is also offensive. Anyone who wants to make literature into something mathematical IS EVIL AND CORRUPT.

The definitions of these three genres has to do with The Look of the poem. It wholly has to do with the visual. Plain and simple. You don't even need to read the prose poem, the short short story, or a short story to determine how it should be labeled.

A PROSE POEM=a block of text that does not have ANY indentions. Even if there is dialogue. No indentions. No indentions to signify that someone is talking or that someone now new is talking.

A SHORT SHORT STORY (FLASH FICTION)=It must contain two characteristics:

A.) An immediate indention. The rest of the story doesn't need to contain any other identions.

B.) It must be no longer than one page. For a piece of writing to “flash,” the spectacle (the visual) of that flash may only happen once. If you turn the page, that causes two flashes. And therefore, should be called Fiction Containing More than One Flash; therefore, cancelling the name flash fiction. It automatically becomes a short story.

A SHORT STORY=It must contain two characteristics:

A.) The first line is indented.

B.) It must move onto the next page.

I offer these definitions as guidance to the fun if naive discussion occurring at HTML GIANT (which is my most recent discovery on the Internet, also my new favorite):

thinking about "flash fiction"


What We Talk About When We Try to Talk about What to Call The Stuff We Write

I’ll leave the rest of the work to other people. I did my work. If I’m stealing someone else’s definitions (or missed an identical comment to my post), go ahead and sue me.


  1. I'm not sure I can buy indentation as the only distinction between prose poetry and flash fiction, I think attention to language is part of it. Or should be.

  2. Hi Steve. Thanks for posting a link to this on my blog, but it doesn't really help after all. My question was more about the VALUE of flash fiction and what can be achieved with it. I'd be more interested in reading your thoughts on that -- because I agree with you; trying to define the genres is boring.

  3. the novel arbitrariness of indents is kind of exciting, as good an arbitrariness as any other. obviously, though, it is NOT a useless and boring practice since you, and many other 'non-definers,' have taken their hand at definitions. in any case, the attempt matters inasmuch as what it means to the writer to try one thing as opposed to another. trying to write flash fiction as opposed to a short story is as interesting a distinction as trying to make a film as to paint a picture.

  4. I once had a college writing professor who had arrived at the absolute distillation of the distinction between poetry and prose. "A poem," he pronounced, "is that which has an unjustified right-hand margin."

    Naturally, we all began writing poems with unjustified left-hand margins.

    His reaction: "Well, that's writing. But it isn't poetry."

  5. Lynn and Pam--

    It concerns me that you don't care. As you might know from my blog, I am aggressive and just because I know the both of you I'm not going to let you off the hook.

    Esp. when you're committing a dangerous act. Proposition 8 taught us that definitions matter in this time matters. People are defined and then marginalized.

    This infests every area of our lives, and I do think how piece of a literature is labeled also can reveal a certain marginalization as in the case of the prose poems and fiction. Which one is considered to have more gravitas? More respect in the literary community? Winner of more financial awards?

    You're embrace of anything goes is dangerous and contributing to an inevitable marginalization of certain types of literature.

    Shame on you!

  6. P.S.

    Haas' piece that you two mentioned is obviously a prose poem. Notice the lack of indention.

  7. But it has plot. I'm just saying.
    And I'm not sure why you "care" if what you care about is the use of tabs/indentation/justification.
    Is that what "poetry" is about?
    For me it's not, which is maybe why I no longer consider myself a poet, but rather a fiction writer who cares about language.
    Honestly I think most contemporary poetry is solipsistic and intended for only the poet and his/her friends or other academics.
    Maybe I'm a lazy/dangerous reader, but I don't think I "read" the indentations of prose blocks any more closely than I read paragraph breaks in fiction.
    Also, I think comparing the importance of defining prose poems and flash fiction to Proposition 8 is ridiculous. The definition of a prose poem doesn't make any real material difference on people's lives. I'm sure you could find some obscure examples, but, last time I checked, no one won any big award/$$ for a book of flash fiction or prose poems.
    Poetry however has its rewards, as does fiction.
    I don't think you should let us off the hook because you know us. But I don't think the definition situation is as dire as you claim.

  8. Lynn,

    Too bad I consider you a poet. I love your poems from Tin House. Which I remember after all these years. I have put you in a box and will never let you out no matter how much you scream.

    I also think prose is for fat people. In shape people don't want to spend their time indoors laboring. And the readers of prose don't enjoy the sunshine.

    Poets are well-balanced. They know the importance of not spending too much time indoors.

    You're in too good of shape to be one of those prose writers.

  9. Ha! You are too generous.
    Okay then.
    You know you are one of my favorite poets.
    Thanks for blogging!

  10. Maybe this is why I write nothing anymore. I cannot be bothered to sit inside.

    I used to think that poets were cats--very careful, maybe too careful, where they put their feet (intended). Prose writers are big, energetic, sloppy dogs. Enthusiastic, but not meticulous.

  11. Fellner, you really should just stick to subjects you know something about. Or at least read Russell Edson's essay on the prose poem in Hall's Claims for Poetry before you start defining forms with reductive lists and making literature into something mathematical. Creamy?