The Nature of the Short Story

Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critic's Circle, recently posted an article about the short story in America, the thesis of which goes something like this: the short story as we know it arose in America to fulfil people's desire for "mere short entertainment akin to a sit-com or hour-long drama on the television." (This use of the word "mere" and sentences like "What we now know as a literary form, however, was originally no more high Art than is pop music today" indicate the kind of snobbishness that defines the piece.) Film then rose up to replace the short story's niche, and the short story responded by becoming "unfilmable."

When its narrative function was usurped by film, short story writers focused increasingly on the other aspects of the art of fiction. Robert Coover attempts to obliterate narrative certitude, Donald Barthelme operates like a collagist and pop-culture analyst, John Barth fuses criticism and narrative, the minimalists favor style over substance, and it’s almost a universal law that whatever conflict is introduced is not going to be resolved (in rebellion to film, which almost always resolves conflicts neatly and with divine finality).

This sounds nice, but unfortunately is utter hogwash. The Coovers, Barthelmes and Barths of the world had a heyday in the 70's or so and have begotten precious few heirs (among them David Foster Wallace). The minimalism of writers like Raymond Carver has, on the other hand, been extremely influential on the contemporary short story, paving the way for thousands of writers published in the New Yorker, but I would argue that minimalism is merely the latest outgrowth of the realist, slice-of-life short story that first emerged with writers like Joyce and Hemingway, which was in turn the natural progression of a movement towards naturalism that had been going on in continental Europe throughout the nineteenth century.

The pivotal work in the development of the short-story as it exists today is, I would argue, but James Joyce's Dubliners. Dubliners was written as a response not to film, but to the kind of cheap twists and shallow relationships found in popular short story writers of the time, such as O. Henry and Kipling (which shallowness and cheap twists, I do agree, were often worthy of the worst sit-coms). Joyce remarked around the time of writing Dubliners that fiction in the anglophone world was far behind that of Continental Europe, and one can only assume he's referring to the naturalism introduced by Flaubert (whom Joyce admired greatly), Zola and their company, a naturalism to which Dubliners owes a great debt.* Joyce himself didn't even think of what he wrote as stories; he used a word to describe them that he borrowed from the vocabulary of Catholicism and single-handedly turned into a household word: epiphanies. Joyce was a radical, interested in creating new things, and perhaps it isn't so surprising that after Dubliners he moved progressively into the outer reaches experimentalism, culminating in the famously difficult Finnegans Wake.

Looking through literary magazines these days, one finds not strange experimental work alá Barth and Coover, but instead one after another Joycean slice-of-life story. The path that Joyce trail-blazed has now been stomped flat and featureless. The notion that the conflict is never resolved in these stories is pretty demonstrably false; Raymond Carver's stories, for instance, almost always built to a final realization, an "epiphany", in the style of Joyce. Likewise, the idea that these stories are unfilmable is clearly not true, considering how many contemporary short stories have been filmed, for example Carver's own stories in Short Cuts or Brokeback Mountain or The Shawshank Redemption, just to name some off the top of my head. Thinking about it, I'm unsure where the author of the essay gets the idea that contemporary short stories never resolve and are unfilmable, and I would like to have gotten some examples other than three post-modern writers from the 70's. Other than those three names, the essay offers only vague descriptions based on a questionable premise that serves to further the misguided notion that for something to be "art" (whatever that is) it must not resolve, not entertain, perhaps not even be interesting at all.

I've been thinking about the short story a lot over the last year or so, in no small part because I've been trying to write them. In these stories of mine, I often come up against the problem of trying to cram too much plot into a few thousand words. "But," I think, "I need all this plot for the story to have a proper arc, for it to have a beginning, a middle and an end." This was all in keeping with the notions I set forth in my essay "Toward a New Aesthetic" where I opined that art should be entertaining and entertainment should be art, and the notion of a separation between the two causes nothing but problems. I even spent some time writing an essay called "We Are the Dead" (never finished) in which I detailed the evolution of the slice-of-life story that I talk about briefly above, and say that it is this reliance on the slice-of-life, more than anything other thing, that has brought about the precipitous fall in popularity of the short story.

This position may still have some veracity, though I've been having second thoughts about dismissing slice-of-life completely. Recently, I've been loving the short stories of Ursula K. Le Guin, for instance, which, for all their weird explorations of gender and social mores, are at bottom tales of everyday lives, of people growing up and falling in love and getting old and dying and everything in between. There's something to be said for this kind of story when done well, which gives us small tastes of the world of someone else. More generally, there's something to be said for the simple story. Raymond Carver once wrote that a short story is more like a poem than a novel, which sentiment I used to deride as counter-productive, but now I'm starting to see where he's coming from. The short story can handle small plots, if done well, but it lends itself easily to plotlessness, which is fine as long as you keep the plotlessness interesting. And the more I thought about this, and the more I read, the more I realized that this was in fact the way short stories had always been.

To properly understand the short story one must go back to its origins, which, as the essayist correctly points out, begin in American borrowings of German ideas. Works on the history of the short story usually begin with two men, Hawthorne and Poe. Hawthorne wrote a story collection called Twice-Told Tales and Poe wrote a review of it that became the defining work of criticism on the form.

A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to be outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed, and this is an end unattainable by the novel. Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem; but undue length is yet more to be avoided.

So wrote Poe in 1842. This notion of the "certain unique or single effect to be wrought out" certainly informs Poe's own stories, which generally follow a straightforward path to a definite climax and then are finished. Stories like the "Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado" are simple and to the point, involving very few scenes and very few actors, and without any unnecessary twists or turns or plot complications. In "Amontillado", for instance, we know from the beginning that Montresor is out to kill Fortunato, and so he does without much trouble; the chill and effect is entirely in how he goes about doing it. (The notion that Poe was trying "elevate the short story to the condition of Art" that the essayist makes is interesting, considering how Poe wrote what are considered some of the first examples of Horror and Detective fiction. Which is not to say that Poe didn't consider himself an artist; instead it's to say that Horror and Detective fiction are also Art.) Later authors followed suit—consider Mark Twain's "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" or Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", neither of which have much in the way of plot or story arc.

From this vantage point, Joyce and his descendants are not breaking away from the form of the old stories; in fact, I would argue that they are very much in the vein of them. "The Dead" and "Hills Like White Elephants" both move toward a single effect, just as the older stories do. Rather, what they are breaking away from is artificiality of subject matter, the contrivances that mark the stories of Poe and Bierce and Kipling and O. Henry. Joyce wanted his stories to be natural, to be like real life. His execution of the "single effect" in his stories is a little more complex than in Poe's, but it still traces its way around one emotional or literal idea in much the same manner.

And so it is with most successful short fiction, including the post-modern works of Barth and co, the pamphlets of One Story, and the latest issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Come to think of it, I find it ironic that the essay's author dismisses early short stories with a comparison to pop songs, when I think pop (and rock) songs offer a pretty good analogy for what a short story should be like. A great song is generally about one thing—one situation, one feeling—which it introduces, then gradually builds to a climax over (usually in a final chorus or bridge), and then fades out. It doesn't need to be complicated and it doesn't need to be clever; some of the greatest songs use no more than three chords and are simple and sincere. It doesn't need to have conflict—many a great song are just elaborate love letters. (Though conflict doesn't hurt any.) However, it cannot be boring, and that is the true problem with a lot of contemporary short fiction. Nothing's worse than a pop song that puts you to sleep.

* As a side note: I once read an introduction to Dubliners written by Edna O'Brian in which she wondered if Joyce was thinking of Chekov when he wrote his stories. Casually perusing an old biography of Joyce (the one by Ellmann, published in 1959), I looked up Chekov in the index and found a passage that explained that Joyce had not read Chekov at all while he was writing Dubliners. I was then surprised to find that O'Brian herself had written her own biography of Joyce, and checking the dates I found that sure enough she had written this biography before writing the introduction I had initially read. This biography, in fact, had probably landed her the gig of writing the introduction. Which just goes to show that just because someone is an "authority" on something doesn't mean they actually know what they're talking about. Back

Comments

Tiny suggestion

I think you would like a little book that I read recently--H. E. Bates, "The Modern Short Story." You might not agree with him at all times, but I suspect that you would find it interesting. I also like some of his stories very much.