Theory of Short Fiction Summary


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The common critical assumption is that the short story was first recognized as a literary genre with unique characteristics in the 1840’s with Edgar Allan Poe’s discussions of a “unified effect” of “the tale proper.” However, Poe did not develop these ideas out of thin air; short prose fiction was a topic of critical discussion in Germany in the decades preceding Poe’s influential assertions.

Friedrich Schlegel was the first to theorize generically about short fiction, which, in keeping with the precedent established by Giovanni Boccaccio and Miguel de Cervantes, he called novelle. Schlegel says the form usually focuses on the oral telling of a new, unknown story, which should arouse interest in and of itself alone, without connection to “the nations, the times, the progress of humanity, or even the relation to culture itself.” Schlegel also suggested that although the anecdotal basis of short fiction may be trivial or its subject matter slight, its manner or way of telling must be appealing. One corollary of this focus on “manner” rather than “matter,” Schlegel noted, was that the narrator takes on a more significant role in short fiction—a shift related to the general trend in Romantic poetry toward a lyric point of view. The first effect of this trend, in such writers as Washington Irving, was an increased emphasis on the style of telling; later with Poe, it shifted emphasis to the direct involvement of the narrator in the tale that he or she tells.

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Theory of Short Fiction The Short Story as a Romantic Genre

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The basic romantic nature of the short story, both in its focus on unusual events and on the subjectivity of the author, was strongly voiced during the later part of the nineteenth century when Ambrose Bierce entered into the argument then raging over the romance versus the novel form. In his attack on the William Dean Howells school of fiction in his essay “The Short Story,” Bierce said, “to them nothing is probable outside the narrow domain of the commonplace man’s commonplace experience.”

Other short-story writers have noted this same romantic characteristic of the form. Henry James said he rejoiced in the anecdote, which he defined as something that “oddly happened” to someone. More recently Flannery O’Connor has claimed the form makes “alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe everyday, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.” Short stories, says O’Connor, “lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected.” Of her own work she says, it takes its character from “a reasonable use of the unreasonable,” a quality that both Poe and Hawthorne would have echoed about their stories. “The peculiar problem of the short-story writer,” O’Connor says, is “how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible his problem is really how to make the concrete work double time for him.”

The only extended discussion of this romantic element in the short story is Mary Rohrberger’s 1961 study on Hawthorne and the modern short story (Hawthorne and the Modern Literary Short Story: A Study Genre). Rohrberger notes that Hawthorne and many modern short- story writers share the romantic notion of a reality that lies beyond the extensional, everyday world with which the novel had been traditionally concerned. Consequently, the short story shares characteristics with the romance in being symbolic and romantic. “The short story derives from the romantic tradition the metaphysical view that there is more to the world than that which can be apprehended through the senses.”

Theory of Short Fiction The Short Story and Social Reality

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Many critics have noted the fact that the short story does not deal with generalized social reality or abstract social values. In fact, the form seems to thrive best in societies where there is a diversity or fragmentation of values and people. This geographic and social fragmentation of peoples and values has often been cited as one reason why the short story quickly became popular in nineteenth century America. In 1924, Katherine Fullerton Gerould said that American short-story writers have dealt with peculiar atmospheres and special moods, for America has no centralized civilization. “The short story does not need a complex and traditional background so badly as the novel does.” Ruth Suckow in 1927 also suggested that the chaos and unevenness of American life made the short story a natural expression. Life in America was so multitudinous that “its meaning could be caught only in fragments, perceived only by will-of-the-wisp gleams, preserved only in tiny pieces of perfection.”

More recent comments on the English short story by Wendell V. Harris and Lionel Stevenson suggest somewhat the same reason for the difference between the English short story and the American form. Stevenson points out that as soon as a culture becomes more complex, brief narratives expand or “agglomerate” and thus cause the short story to lose its identity. Throughout the nineteenth century in England, the novel predominated. Only writers, like Thomas Hardy, who depicted a relatively simple social milieu, could present a short- story sense of “reality” in his ironic verse narratives. The fragmentation of sensibility did not set in England until about 1880, at which time the short story was seen as the best medium for presenting this fragmentation.

Harris also observes that the 1890’s in England was known as the golden age of the short story, noting that with the fragmentation of sensibility perspective, or “angle of vision,” became most important in fiction, especially the short story, in which instead of a world to enter, as the novel provides, the form presents a vignette to contemplate. Harris has also noted that from Henry Fielding to Thomas Hardy, fiction was defined in England as a “presentation of life in latitudinal or longitudinal completeness.” The “essence of the short story,” on the other hand, says Harris,is to isolate, to portray the individual person, or moment, or scene in isolation—detached from the great continuum—at once social and historical the short story is a natural form for the presentation of a moment whose intensity makes it seem outside the ordinary stream of time, or the scene significance is outside the...

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Theory of Short Fiction The Short Story vs. the Novel

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The short story is a narrative form that makes the reader aware of reality as perspective. Nadine Gordimer, the South African short-story writer, notes a general dissatisfaction that writers have with the novel as a means of “netting ultimate reality.” The short story, she says, may be better equipped than the novel to capture ultimate reality in the modern world, where truth is perspective. Short- story writers have always known what novelists seem to have recently discovered: The strongest convention of the novel, “prolonged coherence of tone,” is false to human reality in which “contact is more like the flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, now there, in darkness.” The short-story writer’s art, says Gordimer, “is the art of the only thing one can be sure of—the present moment.” The short story aims at a discrete moment of truth, not the moment of truth, “because the short story doesn’t deal in cumulatives.”

It has often been recognized that the situations that the short story presents are quite different from separable incidents in a novel. As early as 1909, William James Dawson, a critic at the North American Review, suggested that incidents that are suited for novels or incidents that could be expanded into novels are not really incidents for short stories at all: “Life consists both of prolonged sequences and of flashing episodes. The first affords the material of the novelist, the second of the...

(The entire section is 534 words.)

Theory of Short Fiction The Pattern of the Short Story

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In 1916, Barry Pain suggested that the length of the form creates in the short story something very rarely found in the novel “in the same degree of intensity—a very curious, haunting, and suggestive quality.” This haunting quality, this intensity that manifests itself in the short story, however, does not come from the incident chosen alone; it comes from a tight dramatic patterning of the incident in such a way that its dramatic tension is exposed and felt. Danforth Ross in his study of the American short story says that the major contribution that Poe makes to the short fiction form is that he brings tension, long a characteristic of poetry, to the story form. Whereas Irving’s stories meander, Poe attempted to present a story as a dramatist does in a play. In an article in 1943, Gorham Bert Munson says that the O. Henry story at the turn of the century marked a degeneration of the Poe short story. “Poe aimed not at a transcription of actuality, but at a patterned dramatization of life.” For this, says Munson, he needed a “storyable incident,” an anecdote in the Jamesian sense of something that “oddly happened,” an anecdote with a hard nugget of latent value.

The nugget, however, must be laid bare of its latent value. By metaphor and condensation the latent must be made manifest in whatever seeming artificial manner. Even W. Somerset Maugham, whose story preference was for one that could be told in a drawing room or smoker, insisted...

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Theory of Short Fiction The Limitations of the Short Story

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The highly formalistic nature of the short story has also been criticized by those critics and novelists who have affirmed the value of naturalistic presentation and social involvement and awareness. It was criticized by the naturalist writers in the nineteenth century and has been scorned by the Marxist writers and critics since the 1930’s. James T. Farrell criticized the form in two essays in the 1930’s for its sterile formality and its failure to be a vehicle for revolutionary ideology. Maxwell Geismar in 1964 lashed out at The New Yorker school of short-story writer, which included J. D. Salinger, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, and J. F. Powers, for the narrow range of their vision and subject matter and their...

(The entire section is 346 words.)

Theory of Short Fiction The Subjective Impulse in the Short Story

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In addition to the kind of event or situation it deals with and the tight dramatic patterning of that event, another element of the short story that creates unity and compression is the subjective and lyrical impulse of the writer. Elizabeth Bowen has said that thefirst necessity for the short story, at the set out, is necessariness. The story, that is to say, must spring from an impression or perception pressing enough, acute enough, to have made the writer write. The story should have the valid central emotion and inner spontaneity of the lyric; it should magnetize the imagination and give pleasure—of however disturbing, painful or complex a kind. The story should be as composed, in the plastic sense, and as visual as a...

(The entire section is 845 words.)

Theory of Short Fiction Leaving Things Out in the Short Story

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Another aspect of the lyric nature of the story is its tendency to “leave things out.” Hemingway once said, “I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.” Rudyard Kipling suggested, “A tale from which pieces have been raked out is like a fire that has been poked. One does not know the operation has been performed, but everyone feels the effect.” Anton Chekhov once wrote to I. L. Shcheglov, “In short stories it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because,—because—I don’t know why.” In another letter Chekhov says that it is compactness that makes small things alive. “Alive” here must be understood to be life at the...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

Theory of Short Fiction The Short Story and the New Critics

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Professors did not really begin to consider the short story seriously in college classrooms until Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s 1943 short- story textbook Understanding Fiction made analysis of individual examples of the form respectable. Arno Lehman Bader’s essay made the formalist approach to the form quite explicit in 1945. Confronting the common complaint that the modern literary short story has no structure, he tries to show that although a narrative structure is still present in the form, its presentation and resolution are so indirect that the reader must work harder to find the perceived relationships of the parts of the story. John Walter Sullivan developed this rather simple and general assessment...

(The entire section is 384 words.)

Theory of Short Fiction New Theories of the Short Story

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Since the late 1970’s there has been a revival of interest in the short story by literary critics, partially sparked by the publication in 1976 of Short Story Theories, in which Charles E. May argued that what was needed was a theory of the form derived from the “underlying vision of the short story, its characteristic mode of understanding and confronting reality.” In that same year, in an essay in the journal Studies in Short Fiction, May suggested an initial definition of the short story’s underlying vision and argued that Poe’s description of the form’s “unique effect” was consistent with philosopher Ernst Cassirer’s concept of “mythic perception.” In several essays written during the...

(The entire section is 2118 words.)

Theory of Short Fiction Modern Genre Theory and the Short Story

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Much of the critical resistance to short-story genre theory in the past has resulted from two basic misapprehensions. First, short-story critics have often failed to distinguish between two different meanings of the term “genre.” Either they have treated historical genres as if they were theoretical concepts and then gleefully pronounced genre theory a failure because historical genres change or they have assumed that one generic approach should fit all narrative genres and then triumphantly surrendered when a theory based on the novel does not clarify the characteristics of the short story. The short story deserves a generic theory based on the characteristics of the form recognized both by authors and readers throughout its...

(The entire section is 1204 words.)