There were, at last count, almost four and half billion indexed web pages on the Web. Even my smartphone’s Kindle app holds more texts than a Renaissance princeling could have accumulated over a lifetime. We all sense it, don’t we: words marching across every surface and every screen in serried rows, enclosing our attentional commons. All of which makes microfiction – with its resolute brevity, its pinprick epiphanies – nothing less than antidote to the present. The wonder of good microfiction lies nestled in this paradox: that a few, well-chosen words can weigh more than a phone book. Paul Celan called poetry ‘a kind of homecoming’, and in the best microfiction there is a sense of return, too: to first principles, to a sense that there is a craft, valuable in itself, to arranging the right words in the right order – that such passages can be densely packed with allusion and implication, can carry meaning or feeling or insight far beyond the range of the fragment that holds them, not in spite of such concision but because of it. In Weimar Germany hyperinflation became so rampant that people were obliged to carry their Deutschmarks around in wheelbarrows. The price of a cup of coffee would climb even as the patrons of a café drank them down. The only recourse for an economy trapped in such a spiral is to restore confidence in the currency, stripping the banknotes down, starting again from zero. In an age of textual hyperinflation, microfiction attempts a similar trick – generating literature from the miniscule, from the cursor’s virgin blink.
Geordie Williamson is the Editor-at-Large of Island magazine, an author, Picador Publisher and former Chief Literary Critic for The Australian.
Entries for Smoke, international microfiction competition close on May 16.