The term flash fiction dates back at least to the early 1990s, with the publication by W.W. Norton & Co. (publisher of The Norton Anthology of World Literature) of Flash Fiction: Seventy-Two Very Short Stories (1992). The genre seems to have burgeoned in the new millennium, featured at websites such as Flash Fiction Chronicles, the focus of literary competitions, and the subject of a further anthology forthcoming from Norton.
Previously the form went by such names as short short fiction. How short is short? Depending on the anthology editor or the competition sponsor, 1000 words or less, 750 words or less, or, in the case of a more recent designation, micro-fiction, 300 words or less. Most agree, though, that the most salient characteristic of the pieces is concentration of effect, whether in language, imagery, narrative style, or a combination thereof. By these guidelines, some of Aesop’s fables would qualify, as well as several of the stories in Boccaccio’s Decameron, several of the Grimm Brothers’ tales, and certain works by such writers as Chekhov, Mérimee, Saroyan, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Cheever, and Zamiatin.
In East Asia perhaps the best-known practitioner is Kawabata Yasunari, with almost 150 “palm-of-the-hand” stories to his credit. Murakami Haruki has also produced very short pieces, as has the Hong Kong writer Liu Yichang. [End Page 251]
In South Korea today the genre is referred to by such terms as tchalbŭn sosŏl, “brief fiction.” As one might expect, these pieces are to be seen in the works of the modernists of the colonial period. Pak T’ae-wŏn’s Ch’ŏnbyŏn p’unggyŏng (1938, Streamside sketches), when reprinted in 1989 after the lifting of the publication ban on wŏlbuk (“gone-north”) writers, was marketed as a novel, but several of the pieces would qualify as flash fiction, as would at least two of Ch’ae Man-shik’s earlier works. Hwang Sun-wŏn, whose stories constitute the standard by which all modern Korean short fiction must be judged, published half a dozen very short pieces over a period of thirty years, the first, “Nun” (1944, Snow—though nun could also be understood as “eyes”), written at the very end of the colonial period. It’s a masterful allegory with a deceptively sophisticated narrative style.
In the postwar period perhaps the most accomplished body of very short fiction is Sŏ Chŏng-in’s three-volume T’algung (1987, 1988, 1990; the title is a locality deep in the Chiri Mountain massif). Scholars consider it a yŏnjak (linked-story) novel, but the experimental nature of the contents, most of which are three or four pages long, and the fact that many of them were published separately in literary journals, suggest that the author saw them first as discrete creations. More recent practitioners include the late Kim So-jin, a writer of unusual warmth who published two volumes of very short work, Talp’aengi sarang (1998, Snail love) and Param punŭn tchog ŭro kara (1996, Into the headwind). The recent success of Shin Kyŏng-suk’s Ŏmma rŭl put’akhae (2008, trans. 2011 Please Look After Mom) in translation should not blind us to her contributions to the short-short fiction genre, J iyagi (2002, All about J) and Tal ege tŭllyŏjugo ship’ŭn iyagi (2013, Stories I’d like the moon to hear).
The five stories that follow are the work of some of contemporary Korea’s most distinctive stylists. Ch’oe Yun’s “10:55” (Yŏrhanshi obun chŏn) focuses on a fragmented set of siblings. Ch’oe Su-ch’ŏl’s “Mouth to Mouth” (Mausŭ t’u mausŭ) [End Page 252] is rife with sensuous images and features an antic narrator. Kim T’ae-yong, an avowedly experimental writer, offers an allegory of birth in “To the End of the Hall” (Pokto kkŭt ŭro). Han Yujoo is at her metatextual best in “Snow Falling on Leakage” (Nusŏl)—can we count on further flash installments of the story that begins here? In “SF” (Esŭ ep’ŭ), the shortest of the five pieces...