One week, on the now-defunct flash fiction site, Rammenas, there was a competition in which contributors were asked to write a story about a particular photograph which featured two people in a street. The entries were very varied and show how different people respond in different ways to a writing stimulus. I was struck, though, when I noticed that one submission got significantly more responses from visitors than the others. It was good, but not better than them. (In fact, for me, there were several others that were much better in terms of their use of narrative and ‘literary’ techniques and their impact on the reader.) It made me wonder about the value of any comments – not just those directed at him, but all the others. I mean, if the commenters were genuinely appreciative of the genre, why didn’t they read and say something about some of the other stories?
The answer, apparently, was that it’s a function of a Twitter group called #fridayflash. You post your story, tell your followers about it, they retweet, etc., etc. At this point I have to admit that I don’t ‘get’ Twitter. I’m on it, I do tweet very, very, very occasionally, but I can’t imagine logging on and reading through pages of snippets, most of them about things which don’t interest me. On the other hand, another online friend, who knows what she’s talking about, insists that it’s the best way of raising one’s profile.
But my worry is that, in the end, it isn’t about writing at all. If someone reads a flash fiction story and offers a critical analysis (however short), I’d have thought that their interest in the form would extend to sampling others in the genre, especially if they were treating exactly the same subject. And, if it doesn’t, how valuable or legitimate are their reactions or opinions? It seems that they’re simply saying ‘OK, this shows I’ve read it and been nice about it, now go and read mine’.
I suppose what I’m saying is that this devalues writing. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from writing – quite the reverse. I comment on people’s stories and articles, unless I think they’re bad, in which case I’d rather say nothing than be negative. But the impulse to comment on the work of others in order to encourage them to read yours often produces false notions of the quality of the writing. Because if I read a flash fiction story which is total rubbish, I’m not going to say so because then that writer wouldn’t be well-disposed towards me and wouldn’t read me. Or, if he did, he’d be inclined to look for flaws, even if only to prove that I was a lousy writer and therefore didn’t appreciate him. I was recently asked to review a newly published first novella and, frankly, I didn’t understand why it had been published at all.
It’s all down to the very necessary commercial pressures we face as we try to sell our books in a crowded market place. Those pressures are already distorting the values that should apply to our writing; we shouldn’t do anything to encourage them.