Update 07/10/16: For an extended, revised, and more explorative version of this essay, please follow this link to the Thresholds Short Story Forum: Short-Short Stories with Big-Big Impact: the Flash of Margaret Atwood – THRESHOLDS Short Story Forum – (November 2016) – read it here.
Update: 27/10/16: An extended, revised version of this essay will be featured on the Thresholds Short Story Forum website soon. A link will be posted here when it has been published. Meanwhile, the original version has been retained below.
When you hear the name of prizewinning author Margaret Atwood many images are sure to spring to mind; The Handmaid’s Tale and the Maddaddam series for instance, or perhaps her most recent short story collection Stone Mattress, which was published little under a year ago. Novels and short stories are great, Atwood’s especially so, but Atwood’s flash fiction likewise resonates with her readers long after reading.
The idea of a story “staying” with a reader, regardless of its length, is the notion that the reader has been changed in some way by what they have read; the story leaves them feeling or thinking something. The latter is more prominent in Atwood’s flash fiction. They don’t always contain a traditional narrative but this doesn’t prevent Atwood from telling us a story, from making us think and feel. An excellent example of this is the story ‘Bread’ from her collection Murder in the Dark.
‘Bread’ is told from a second person perspective, which is considered a massive “no-no” by writers and readers alike because it can make a reader feel uncomfortable and uneasy; this is what Atwood aims to achieve in this flash fiction. Atwood takes a loaf of bread, an everyday object that we take for granted, and shows us the power this simple item has by making the reader imagine scenarios differing from the opening scene, where bread is plentiful and slathered in butter, peanut butter, and honey. The story opens with the following two sentences, demonstrating how the very beginning of a flash can set up the premise of the entire flash:
‘Imagine a piece of bread. You don’t have to imagine it, it’s right here in the kitchen, on the bread board, in its plastic bag lying beside the bread knife.’
What these opening sentences achieve is an introduction to the imagination as a device used by Atwood to make her readers think about the world we live in and all that is wrong with it. If we are lucky, which Atwood assumes her readers are, we don’t need to imagine a loaf of bread in our kitchen because we have one, or indeed many, but the scenarios Atwood then asks us to put ourselves in expose our natural tendency to overlook the things we are fortunate enough to have. I believe the strongest scene is where we are asked to imagine a famine and Atwood immediately transports us to a ‘thin mattress’ in a third world country and you and your dying sister are both hungry for the morsel of bread remaining. Atwood asks:
‘Should you share the bread or give the whole piece to your sister? Should you eat the last piece of bread for yourself? After all, you have a better chance of living, you’re stronger. How long does it take to decide?’
How could you make a choice in a situation where your own life and that of another so important to you depends on one decision? It is in this way that Atwood’s flash fiction remains in the mind of her readers; you may not cry or laugh, but you will think and for a long time afterwards too.
Not all of Atwood’s flash fiction forces you to deliberate over important issues; some stories highlight major themes and ideas in a playful way, and Atwood is a fan of reinventing myths or stories we’re well aware of as a method of achieving this. ‘Gertrude Talks Back’ from her collection Good Bones stands out as a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the point of view of his mother, who addresses Hamlet directly throughout this story. The reader is enlightened by Gertrude’s point of view, for example she reveals her thoughts on the name ‘Hamlet’ and how she wished to call him ‘George’, how her marriage with her late husband was an unhappy one, amongst other revelations that I’ll refrain from giving away.
Atwood doesn’t only transform narrative perspectives but reinvents forms too. ‘Making a Man’, featured in the same collection, is written as a women’s magazine article offering various methods of constructing a man. This isn’t quite a reversal of the view that women could be moulded by a man as they see fit, though the idea is present, but the tone of the article grows more menacing towards its trailed off ending. Using an ellipsis to end any prose fiction in this way, no matter its length, doesn’t always work, but Atwood leaves a harrowing impression on her readers by using one; acknowledging the sinister route the article is taking is unavoidable, leaving the reader to use their own imaginations to take the story to the darkest recesses of their mind.
There’s a tendency for some flash fiction collections to promise abstract wonderment and do so at the sacrifice of any real meaning or purpose to the writing beyond trying to appear original, quirky, or, heavens forbid, “random”. Such collections fall flat. Though ambiguity lingers throughout both of these collections of short writings from Margaret Atwood, she uses surreal situations to ground her readers encouraging them to think about what they have read, what it means to them, and, perhaps most importantly, what it means in terms of the ‘big picture’. Of the two collections Good Bones packs the mightier blow on initial reading, though to claim that both of these collections are rewarding reads is an understatement. The Tent, pictured but not discussed, is just as noteworthy, complete in this edition with illustrations by the author herself.
Three things can we learn as writers from Margaret Atwood’s short-short writing:
- Write weird and wonderful abstract pieces if you want but don’t do it for its own sake.
- Experiment with form – there are many ways to tell the same story.
- Trust the imagination of your readers. Let them work things out for themselves by leaving things left unsaid.
Dive in to these collections and prepare to resurface enlightened, full of thought, entertained, and changed.
Have you read these collections by Margaret Atwood? What did you think of them? Have they helped you develop as a writer as they’ve helped me? Or do you prefer her novels? Let me know in the comments section below!