Flash Fiction International:  Very Short Stories from Around the World is a generously edited collection of 86 stories accompanied by not only an expected introduction and contributor’s notes, but also a selection of comments on flash theory by a number of well-known authors.  James Thomas and Robert Shapard, writers and editors, are pioneers in presenting flash fiction and sudden fiction, both American and international.  One of their early collaborations, Sudden Fiction: American Short Short Fiction, 1983, has become a classic along with Flash Fiction  (l992). This is their seventh book project together. Joining them in this venture is Christopher Merrill, author, editor, translator, who directs the International Writing Program at Iowa. 

Even if he’s never consciously sought out flash fiction, the reader will find some familiar names here; among the stories, for example, work by Franz Kafka, W. Somerset Maugham, Czesław Miłosz, and Petronius. While these writers serve to remind one that flash fiction has been around for a long time, it’s probably the amazing array of recent work in this volume that will most intrigue and reward the reader new to the form, while it brings pleasure to someone familiar with flash. 

Although the editors selected for excellence rather than geographical distribution, the international character is clear: e.g., Sherman Alexie United States, Elena Bossi Argentina, Linh Dinh Vietnam/United States, Stuart Dybek United States, Avital Gad-Cykman Israel/Brazil, Eric Rugana Kenya, Kim Young-Ha South Korea, Kuzhali Manickavel India, Petina Gappah Zimbabwe. To provide a full representation of all the countries would require a long list.

The diversity offered is more than that of country of origin.  The opening story, by Etgar Keret (Israel, translated by Nathan Englander) is metafiction. Appropriate to an anthology, appropriate irony:  “This story is the best story in the book.”  This doesn’t mean the reader will be kept at arm’s length throughout the collection:  quite the opposite.  They evoke powerful emotional response, such as Cate McGowan’s “Arm Clean Off,” from the point of view of the injured boy. Or Tony Eprile’s “The Interpreter for the Tribunal,” in which the mind of the torturer and tortured alternate as narrator, sentence by sentence. 

The forty-page section on flash theory—on fiction in general—adds a layer to this anthology that makes it suitable not only for leisure reading, but as a textbook for fiction courses or for creative writing classes.  Ron Carlson’s “Grief,” is among the treasures; “Grief” gives fictional life to E.M. Forster’s dictum, “The king died and then the queen died is a story.  The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot.” 

As for the reason these very short fictions are so popular, Charles Baxter posits, “Why these things now? ... These are tunes for the end of time, for those in an information age who are sick of data.”  And tunes, too, for those who have no time to waste reading empty words. The flash aficionado will recognize in Flash Fiction International the stories with the qualities that drew her to the form. And for those who’ve read a few very short stories, this is a fine place to discover more.