Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 30, June 2013—Buch Märchen Issue)

For me, flatness is the most magical aspect of fairy tales, a transformative spell played out within the level of the sentence. Like snow, flatness blankets the surface of language—it covers the sinister and the good with an equalizing coat of paint, and the game then comes in the act of reading when we have to scratch away and reveal, through context, the emotion beneath the sentence’s calm surface.

Like fish with identical fins, the sentences glide across the pond of the story; as we read, we get to pick them up and see what understated feeling is written across their bellies. Is it sadness? (And then her mother was dead). Relief? (She was lucky.) Joy? (It was good to be free.) In my own work, I most often use this flatness for humorous tension—I express the emotion involved in such a diluted manner that the irony between how the feeling is presented and how it was experienced is funny. If a man opens his front door to find his dead father standing there, the narration might conclude: “He was not expecting this.”

As a writer, I find such flatness has many advantages. It diminishes the risks of sentimentality or overwriting that often prevent authors from attempting to write about difficult subjects. It brings a newness to situations of trauma or pain where readers don’t expect to find humor. And it involves the reader directly—rather than being told exactly what the character is feeling, readers must instead extract that feeling on their own from the understated vapors or flat language. Flatness, in my opinion, leads wholly to fullness.

Alissa Nutting