* The aesthetics of the petite *
A blog about flash & short stories
From Planodion literary magazine
The blog Bonsai Stories is simultaneously an online review about flash & short stories and a continuously enriched online anthology of the same literary genres. It specializes in Greek short stories, while presenting quality translations of short stories from various languages into Greek, aiming at the most possible representability, given the means available. At the same time, by introducing the columns Greek Writers In English and Escritores Griegos en Español, it addresses the large community of the users of English or Spanish as a native or a second tongue, having as its primary goal the better acquaintance of the international art-loving readers with the Greek short story writing.
The blog is published and managed by the poet and publisher of Planodion literary magazine, Yiannis Patilis. It is maintained by the writer, Iro Nikopoulou, while its material is provided and selected by researcher Giorgos Zevelakis and the following group of writers, academics and professional translators: Giorgos Havoutsas, Evgenia Kritschevskaya, Evi Ksiromeriti, Vassilis Manoussakis, Constantinos Paleologos, Stamatis Polenakis, Maria Spyridopoulou, Elena Stagouraki and Maro Triantafyllou.
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In the long discussion concerning the definition of «flash fiction» in terms of length, the present blog agrees to accept the limit of 2,000 words maximum. At present, for the original (unpublished) contributions in Greek it sets the limit of 750 words, while for the reprints from Greek literature the limit of words is increased to 1,500· the same number of words (for the original texts) is set for translations as well.
The blog, without excluding any of the modalities of the genre, encourages and promotes stories with plot and at least one character or characters· moreover, taking into full account the definition difficulties that might rise from marginal cases, it considers fiction —the artistic fabrication and construction of a story— as the main ingredient of the definition of short story as a literary genre.
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The blog, aspiring to the central qualities of a flash fiction story: the brevity of the narrative functions, the inextricable connection of the parts with the whole and the necessary self-restriction by the author, introduces the international horticultural term «bonsai», along with its historical and cultural context, as an extremely appropriate term to symbolize this particular literary form.
Some thoughts about the contemporary short story and its roots
Bonsai stories constitute pieces of short fiction, whose short or very short size is an essential purpose of the artistic will which produced them. In other words, they are not only “short” short stories, but also stories for which the conscious pursuit of their brevity is the first sine qua non factor of their kind. Simultaneously, and in direct analogy to the implied species of bonsai plants, in their small size of which the herbal totality of the tree is depicted, the authorial conception as well as the reader’s reception of these short stories is served – and should be served – from the idea of a present or an implicit narrative whole within them.
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The impressive prevalence of the newspapers, and especially of the literary magazines, during the 19th century may have influenced the formulation of the modern short story decisively, enforcing, to a large extent, its limited size (for instance, we do not know if Papadiamantis would have become a prose writer, had the newspapers and the literary magazines of his time never existed), but the theoretical stamp on the genre, as far as the criteria of brevity and its function for the readers are concerned, has been put forward – using a quantitative citerion as qualitative – by one of its most significant forefathers: Edgar Allan Poe.
It is not, of course, the first time in the history of philology that a quantitative criterion plays an important role in the formation of a literary genre. The Aristotelian definition of tragedy comes to mind, for which one of the basic requirements is to have a “certain size”. In the case of Poe, though, the small size of the poetic as well as the prose writing, constitutes the primary core of the artistic composition. This criterion is fervently and favourably argued by the Bostonian prose writer in both his well known texts, and relevant to our subject matter: in his critique (A+B) about the short story collection, titled Twice Told Tales, by Hawthorne (1842) and in his essay The Philosophy of Composition (1846), in which he explains the method he used in the composition of his poem “The Crow” (1845). A second criterion to brevity, Poe claims to be the strong effect created in the soul of the reader, which he still believes to be inextricably interwoven with the principle of brevity and as he notes in the Philosophy of Composition: “it is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such, only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating, the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief.” However, brevity for Poe, is not an end in itself. Neither does it constitute a fundamental artistic value only, because it is strongly connected to the physiology of psychal stimulation. In poetry as well as in prose, brevity serves a specific purpose: to secure the sense of wholeness and unity of the artistic work – qualities which are destroyed, as he maintains, in the common novels and in the large narrative poems alike.
Moreover, Poe has been one of the first authors, if not the first, who attempted to define the size of brevity. He also invented, by using an impressive metaphor, its measurement unit: the proper literary work, he tells us, should be able to be read “in one sitting”, that is “in only one reading”, “at once”, “from cover to cover” or, literally, “at one go”, to use some of the words his modern translators used. Poe is adamant in this particular thing: if for the reading of a literary work, “two sittings” are required, things of the everyday life are involved in its understanding and the sense of wholeness is immediately destroyed. In the same sense and at some other point (writing about Hawthorne) he tries to be more specific, estimating that the short prose piece “requires half an hour up to one or two hours of reading”, a limit which is of course very tentative and can be easily broken and made a lot shorter, if one thinks that the “Oval portrait” (1842), one of Poe’s shortest short stories consisting only of 1.300 words, would require a maximum of five minutes to be read.
It becomes obvious that Poe’s measurement unit, despite the criterion of internal cohesion it incorporates, remains quantitavely vague, not only because of the subjective character of the famous “sitting”, but primarily due to the external parameter which “violently” plays a role in the definition of a literary genre and which is no other than the hideous everyday things, the “affairs of the world” and the “worldly interests”, as he describes them, which come to threaten the wholeness of the work of art, dramatically introducing thus the situation of the modern man within the world of classical traditional artistic values. The huge permutations the everyday affairs of people have undergone, from Boston of the 1840s to the dawn of the 21th century, without drastically altering the essence of the contemporary short story, have, in truth, compressed its conventional limits: one and a half century later, the “sitting” of man obviously lasts less time. Simultaneously, these changes have made the short story a symbol of the struggling for psychic and spiritual quality of the modern man, since with the shrinking of its size, as it was understood by its American inspirer, an attempt is made each time for the values of art, such as its wholeness and integrity, to be preserved from the chaotic world of modernity which surrounds them. Nevertheless, it should possibly be added that the same struggle for psycho-spiritual quality is always served by the well-written novel, even though in this case, some other values, like the endurance and the return to a constant, which is exactly this element of quality, are preserved through other ways of writing.
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Coming back to the present time, we will realize that the last two decades, the brief and very brief short story tend to become the canon of the contemporary literary expression in prose. Two factors play a significant role in it. First of all, the rapid globalization and dissemination of a variety of cultural experiences. If the prevalence of the Press in the 19th century (a first form of globalization) made the impact of the short story so widely felt, one can easily imagine (and sees it in action) what the impact of the contemporary globalized Press is, the Internet that is, in the dissemination of the short form! It is the first and crucial factor which opens the possibilities to a second one: the surfacing in a worldwide scale of minor literature, that is the literature which always followed higher and more dominant writing cultures. It is a literature, which fits perfectly to the cultural variety of our time and which presupposes for the writer (but for the reader who expresses himself through it as well) the sense that he does not belong – representing them – to a dominant group, language, culture, literary canon, market, but to a minority which creates in the margins of all these, lost in the vast ocean of communication. It is not out of pure luck at all that such a community found in the short story, the outcast of the important philological genres of classical tradition, the ideal tool for the expression of its most genuine emotions.
But here exactly lies the deeper political character of this rather thematically apolitical art. In the gigantic and holistic continuum of global communication, a product to a large extent of an uncontrollable and homogenizing economic system, the aforementioned means of expression, apposing at its best the unity of its own psycho-spiritual world, constitutes a persistent endemic discontinuity. It undermines the modernistic fetishism of modern technology with the revocation of the very old pending matters of the soul. And it creates the space for that redemptive sitting, be it short, which allows the spirit to visit our life over and over again!
[First publication: Planodion literary magazine, no. 51, December 2011.]
The history of a «term»
Announcing in December 2009, in issue 47 of Planodion literary magazine, the publication of two issues dedicated to the flash story, we were commenting in the accompannying press release:
The short short story, a short prose form whose particular characteristics are the plot and the small number of words, was introduced in 1992 with the anthology by James Thomas, Dennis Thomas and Tom Hazuka, titled Flash Fiction. Since then, this prose sub genre has come a spectacularly long way in many countries and languages, reminding us of the similar dissemination of haiku outside Japan. Its impressive dissemination is proven by the many blogs particularly dedicated to it and the many anthologies published in several languages, while this new genre has started to claim its predecessors (with past roots that reach back all the way to Aesopus): Checkov, Kafka, Borges, Lovecraft, Bradbury, Vonnegut, and many others. Its shortest form, a story of six words is attributed to Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”.
An attempt to incorporate this form in every language betrays the effort to find a term which would translate the particularity of the genre in each and every one of them. Thus, besides “Flash Fiction”, which tends to become the most representative term in English, we can find the following terms, among others: Micro Fiction, Sudden Fiction, Nano Fiction, Short Short Story, Micro Story, Fast Fiction, Postcard Fiction, Snap Fiction (in English), Microfiction, Nanofiction, Fiction éclair (in French), Μicroficcion, Cuento muy corto (=Very short story), Relato de taza de café (=The story of a coffee cup), Relato de tarjeta postal (=The story of a postcard), Relato telefonico (=Telephone story), Μicrorelato, Μinificcion, Relato minimo (in Spanish), Kortprosa, Brat Fiktion, Pludselig Fiktion, Glimtfiktion, Lynfiktion (in Danish), Малая проза, Моментальная проза (in Russian), Flash Novella (in Italian), Lynfiksjon (in Norwegian), Kortprosa (in Swedish).
In addition to all the above, Planodion suggests and introduces the term “Bonsai”, a widely known international horticultural term, which in Greek literary tradition, naturally leads to Dionysios Solomos’s metaphor: “Apply to the spiritual form the story of the plant.” According to Wikipedia dictionary “Bonsai” is an art. It is the art of the aesthetic minimization of trees or the growing of ligneous plants into a tree shape, always in portable pots. In “Bonsai stories”, Planodion introduces, the artistic analogy remains drastically interactive with the organic one.
The term received positive remarks by the friends and readers of the magazine. There were some reservations as well, though: the term alludes to a “perverted” horticultural practice, whose aim is to prevent the unimpeded growth of the plant, through its artificial minimization and, even more so, it is not a “Greek” term.
As far as the first reservation is concerned, without being experts in the filed, we easily verified that it is an ancient practice of the countries of middle and far east, which is often connected to noble spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism and the Zen; also, with the exercise of patience and the restriction/shrinking of the human flaws of avarice and egotism. For us, though, it was sufficient that there was an analogy with the short literary form of the short story: the elliptical narrative functions, the organic connection of the separate parts to the whole and the enforced authorial self-restriction.
As far as the “Greek origin” of the term is concerned now, the “bonsai” (pronounced with a “z” or an “s” by others), is also as “Greek” as “margherita”, “gardenia” , “violet” and so many other names from the world of plants; as well as “haiku”, the “sonnet”, the “ballad”, the “terzinas” or the “pantoum” from the world of literature, more specifically.
In truth, it has been an international term for many years now, with a wide use in modern Greek as well, as the hundreds of thousands Greek language internet hits prove.
[First publication: Bonsai Stories blog, April 5, 2010.]