Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Although an experimental work classified as an antistory, “The Coal Shoveller” has important elements in common with conventional stories. In order to interest the reader, any story must be dramatic. Drama is provided by conflicting motives, which have been categorized as “humankind against humankind,” “humankind against nature,” and “humankind against itself.” “The Coal Shoveller” falls into the last category. Its narrator is strongly motivated to write a story but finds, after a number of false starts, that he cannot do so. His strong motivation to persevere is what keeps the reader wanting to learn whether he ever succeeds.

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (c. 1600-1601) is a classic example of “man against himself.” Fort’s protagonist resembles Prince Hamlet in being intelligent: He has too much education, he has read too many books, he has too much imagination, and he thinks too much. He is his own worst enemy. If dramatic conflict usually involves a protagonist pitted against an antagonist, then the narrator of “The Coal Shoveller” can be seen as both protagonist and antagonist.

“The Coal Shoveller” is a combination story, essay, and journal entry. The reader forms the impression that the narrator is in the habit of writing in this manner. He writes about his thoughts, observations, and problems, including problems in trying to find something worth writing about. Occasionally he comes across the germ of an idea that he can develop into a full-fledged story.

On the occasion that is chronicled in “The Coal Shoveller,” the narrator is not necessarily defeated in his attempt to write a short story. What he is going through is his own personal method of working, his way of jump-starting his creativity. He may not be able to expect a successful outcome every time that he uses this technique, but he is better off writing about writing—or writing about writing about writing—than he would be simply staring at a blank sheet of paper. It would be a mistake to regard him as a failure because he has not succeeded in writing a story about a man shoveling coal. He has produced germs of several stories that might one day blossom into finished works.