Theory of Short Fiction Analysis

Brander Matthews and the Handbooks

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In 1901, in the first full-length study of the short story (The Philosophy of the Short-Story), Brander Matthews noted the “strange neglect” of the form in histories of prose fiction and set out to justify Poe’s suggestive comments about the form made sixty years earlier and to establish what he called the “art of the short-story.” However, instead of Matthews’s opinion—that the short story is a unique art form differing from the novel in substantive ways—most critics of the time felt that the short story was a smaller, simpler, easier, and less important form of the novel. Not only did Matthews’s book fail to encourage new and creative artistic work in the short story, but also it had the opposite effect of further popularizing the form in the pejorative sense. As a result, the short story in the early twentieth century came to be considered a question of cold-blooded rules of composition.

The appeal of Matthews’s account, along with the popularity of the formulaic stories of O. Henry, gave rise to a number of books in the first two decades of the twentieth century that proposed anyone could write short stories if they only knew the rules. Joseph Berg Esenwein’s Writing the Short Story: A Practical Handbook on the Rise, Structure, Writing, and Sale of the Modern Short Story (1909), Carl Henry Grabo’s The Art of the Short Story (1913), and Blanche Colton Williams’s A Handbook on Story Writing (1917) are only three of numerous such books. By the 1930’s, serious readers and critics called for an end to it, filling the quality periodicals with articles on the “decline,” the “decay,” and the “senility” of the short story. Even Edward Joseph Harrington O’Brien, probably the greatest champion of the form America has ever had, wrote his book The Dance of the Machines in 1929, censuring the mechanized structure of American society and the machinelike short story that reflected it.

The Early Histories

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Soon after Matthews’s study of the short story, the first histories of the form and some new scholarly studies began to appear. Henry Seidel Canby’s The Short Story in English (1909) is an especially helpful study of the form that traces the development of short prose narrative from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron: O, Prencipe Galetta (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620) and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) up through O. Henry. Barry Pain’s small 1916 pamphlet The Short Story contains still-useful comments on its essentially romantic nature. Early histories attempted to delineate what constituted the “newness” of the short story beginning with Poe. In The Short Story in English, Canby argued that all writers have used the short narrative to “turn a moral, as in fable, or to bring home, in a fabliau, an amusing reflection upon life, or to depict a situation.” The difference between the nineteenth century short story and previous short narratives, claimed Canby, is not a difference in kind but one of degree; the nineteenth century form shows a higher measure of unity. The conscious purpose of the short story, says Canby, a purpose that throws so much emphasis on the climax of a story, is “a vivid realization for the reader of that which moved the author to write, be it incident, be it emotion, be it situation ; thus the art of the short story becomes as much an art of tone as of incident.”

Both Fred Lewis Pattee (The Development of the American Short Story) and O’Brien (The Advance of the American Short Story) in their 1923 histories of the American short story place the birth of the form with...

(The entire section is 700 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Allen, Walter. The Short Story in English. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1981. Historical study of the development of the form in England and the United States. Primarily a series of biographical discussions of authors and summary discussions of stories.

Allende, Isabel. “The Short Story.” Journal of Modern Literature 20 (Summer, 1996): 21-28. This personal account of storytelling makes suggestions about differences between the novel and the short story, the story’s demand for believability, the story’s focus on change, the story’s relationship to dream, and the story as events transformed by poetic truth.

Averill, Deborah. The Irish Short Story from George Moore to Frank O’Connor. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982. Introductory study of the Irish short story intended primarily for teachers and students.

Aycock, Wendell M., ed. The Teller and the Tale: Aspects of the Short Story. Lubbock: Texas Tech Press, 1982. Collection of papers presented at a scholarly conference focusing on various aspects of short fiction, including its oral roots, the use of silences in the text, and realism versus antirealism.

Barth, John. “It’s a Short Story” In Further Fridays: Essays, Lectures, and Other Nonfiction, 1984-1994. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1995. Personal account by a “congenital novelist” of his brief love affair with the short story during the writing of Chimera (1972) and the stories in Lost in the Funhouse (1968).

Bayley, John. The Short Story: Henry James to Elizabeth Bowen. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Discussion of some of what Bayley calls the “special effects” of the short-story form, particularly its relationship to poetic techniques and devices. Much of the book consists of analyses of significant stories by Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, Anton Chekhov, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Elizabeth Bowen.

Beachcroft, T. O. The Modest Art: A Survey of the Short Story in English. London: Oxford University Press, 1968. Historical survey of the major figures of the English short story from Geoffrey Chaucer to Doris Lessing.

Blythe, Will, ed. Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998. Essays by various writers about writing fiction including essays short-story writing by Joy Williams, Thom Jones, and Mary Gaitskill.

Bone, Robert, Down Home: A History of Afro-American Short Fiction from Its Beginnings to the End of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Capricorn Books, 1975. Provides a background for the African American folktale, the Brer Rabbit Tales, and the local-color writers; devotes a chapter each to Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and Arna Bontemps.

Bonheim, Helmut. The Narrative Modes: Techniques of the Short Story. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1982. Systematic and statistical study of the short-story form, focusing on basic short-story techniques, especially short-story beginnings and endings.

Burgess, Anthony. “Anthony Burgess on the Short Story.” Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 2 (1984): 31-47. Burgess admits that he disdains the short story because he cannot write it. He says that the novel presents an epoch, while the short story presents a revelation. Discusses different types of stories, distinguishing between the literary short story, which is patterned, and the commercial form, which is anecdotal.

Cortázar, Julio. “Some Aspects of the Short Story.” Arizona Quarterly, Spring, 1982, 5-17. A discussion of the invariable elements that give a good short story its particular atmosphere.

Curnutt, Kirk. Wise Economies: Brevity and Storytelling in American Short Stories. Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1997. Historical analysis of the short story’s development as the structuring of the tension between brevity and storytelling. Shows how stylistic brevity as an evolving aesthetic practice redefined the interpretative demands placed on readers.

Current-Garcia, Eugene. The American Short Story, Before 1850. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Focuses on the types of magazine fiction before 1820. Devotes individual chapters to Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe. Also includes a chapter on William Gilmore Simms and the frontier humorists, such as George Washington Harris.

Ferguson, Suzanne C. “Defining the Short Story: Impressionism and Form.” Modern Fiction Studies 28 (Spring, 1982): 13-24. Argues that there is no single characteristic or cluster of characteristics that distinguishes the short story from the novel; suggests that what is called the modern short story is a manifestation of impressionism rather than a discrete genre.

Firchow, Peter E. “The Americaness of the American Short Story.” Journal of the Short Story in English 10 (Spring, 1988): 45-66. Examines the common claim that the short story is a particularly American art form. Surveys and critiques a number of critics who have debated the issue; analyzes generic criteria for determining what is a short story, such as self-consciousness and length. Concludes that a short story is simply a story that is short and that the American short story is not unique to America but is merely a story that deals with American cultural contexts.

Flora, Joseph M., ed. The English Short Story, 1880-1945. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Collection of essays on a number of British short-story writers during the period, including Rudyard Kipling, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Saki, A. E. Coppard, P. G. Wodehouse, and V. S. Pritchett.

Fusco, Richard. Maupassant and the American Short Story: The Influence of Form at the Turn of the Century. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994. Argues that Maupassant’s influence on the twentieth century short story rivals that of Anton Chekhov.

Gerlach, John. Toward the End: Closure and Structure in the American Short Story. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985. Detailed theoretical study of the American short story, focusing particularly on the importance of closure, or the ending of the form; examines a number of stories in some detail in terms of the concept of closure.

Gioia, Dana and R. S. Gwynn, eds. The Art of the Short Story. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005. An anthology of 63 stories written by over 50 authors, this volume is supplemented...

(The entire section is 2835 words.)