When reading short fiction, what makes a story "good" and how can a story be "analyzed"?

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The questions you have asked here (what makes a short story “good” and how can a short story be analyzed?) are very difficult to answer. To a great degree, any answers to these questions (especially the first one) will be very subjective. Having said that, I will suggest some ideas for you to think about, including the following:

  • One way to define “literature” is as “any use of language that calls attention to itself as language.”  That is to say, literature can be defined as a use of words in which we pay at least as much attention to the words themselves as to their “meanings.”
  • If this definition is acceptable, then a “good” work of literature (including a “good” short story) might be called a work in which words call attention to themselves in such a way that we admire how they are used and combined.  In this sense, a “good” work of literature is one we can read and appreciate (repeatedly) long after we have discerned its superficial “meaning.”
  • Therefore, if a story makes a strong initial impact because it uses words in memorable ways, and if it seems to invite and reward repeated readings, it might be called a “good” story. Of course, opinions will differ on what kinds of uses of words create a strong initial impact and invite and reward repeated readings. One reader may find a story powerful and highly memorable; another may find the same story weak and fairly forgettable.
  • One value of literary analysis is that it gives us a way to understand and share our positive (or negative) reactions to stories.  Using the techniques of literary analysis, we can try to comprehend why we found a story powerful (or weak), and we can also better understand why another reader may have reacted differently to the same work.
  • There are many different ways to analyze a literary work, but the kind I would obviously recommend might be called “close reading” – that is, paying careful attention to the effectiveness of each word and/or combination of words.  A good basic question to ask yourself when doing “close reading” is this: “What is the impact of this particular word? How would the effect be different if another word had been chosen?”
  • Here is a specific example: In her short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor describes the approach of a mysterious car:

The car continued to come on slowly, disappeared around a bend and appeared again, moving even slower, on top of the hill they had gone over. It was a big black battered hearselike automobile.

She could have communicated the same basic meaning by writing,

A car meandered slowly toward the rise in the ground where they'd wrecked. It was large and black and in poor condition and looked like a hearse.

The rewritten sentences, I would argue, are not as “good” as O’Connor’s originals. The first sentence, for instance, lacks the powerful sense of postponement, delay, and suspense that O’Connor creates. The second sentence lacks her effective use of alliteration (“big black battered”) as well as her wonderfully inventive adjective “hearselike.” There is nothing at all memorable about the rewritten second sentence. It lacks the compelling, emphatic rhythm of O’Connor’s original sentence (“big, black, battered”) and it also lacks again the sense of postponement and suspense, especially the leisurely pace of the final word “aut-o-mo-bile.”



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