Writers and readers of the seemingly ubiquitous sub-genre of literature often called Flash Fiction may be pleased to find McGurl’s study features a brief yet admirable attempt to help explain the phenomenon of its steady rise to acceptance these days as a valid literary form in academe. The trotted-out consensus of Flash Fiction appealing to today’s abbreviated attention spans I personally find tired and unsatisfactory for a host of reasons—mostly because writers who read and write Flash (like myself) tend to still read and write longer works of fiction, to say nothing of why poetry hasn’t enjoyed a popular resurgence if this is indeed the case. Not surprisingly, McGurl offers up the institutional perspective of Flash’s formal appearance in American letters, which I find a much more original and plausible take on this indeterminate narrative form's greater visibility.
McGurl traces the origins of American Flash Fiction in the academy back to Raymond Carver and the beginning of what he refers to in The Program Era as the “lower-middle-class modernism,” what is more derisively known as “K-mart Realism” but is usually designated by critics as “Dirty Realism.” But McGurl’s terminology situating this movement in distinct socio-economic terms is crucial for reflecting the new stratification within Higher Education in post-war America. The enrollment spike of soldiers returning home coupled with the founding of new colleges and universities to meet the demand from the Baby Boomers diversifies the collegiate ranks and lets the creative writing programs tap into a “dialectic of shame and pride.” This dialectic paves the way for not only Carver to turn working-class drudgery into creative writing success (thanks to attending classes at Chico State by John Gardner) but allow writers like Sandra Cisneros to enter the Iowa Workshop as marginalized ethnic voices and emerge with their own creative style of what McGurl calls “institutionalized individuality.” The effect of institutional programs on Carver and Cisneros, McGurl claims as primary examples, are evident in the minimalist modes of the collections Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and The House on Mango Street, respectively, though it is the latter that he sees as coming into a distinct form, “miniaturism,” that will eventually work its way into long “maximalist” forms such as her novel, Caramelo.
The Program Era suggests, then, Flash is a transitional narrative (or a narrative transition?)—something which I’ve often considered myself—whose purpose in the strictly academic vein of creative writing is to either demarcate that which is not provided for the reader or to lead toward the creation of other long(er) works normally embraced by the academy and, perhaps, by writers and readers of a more affluent socio-economic background. This may also account in some way for why modern and contemporary segmented novellas, for instance, remain kept aside on the far periphery of literature courses and creative workshop considerations or are deemed to be “experimental” in value.