Theory of Short Fiction Additional Summary

The Short Story and Social Reality

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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The Short Story vs. the Novel

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...

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The Pattern of the Short Story

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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The Limitations of the Short Story

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 stress on the intricate craftsmanship of the well-made story.

Another reason why the short story has not been popular or has not maintained its place in modern literature is that readers prefer the novel precisely because it does not demand anything more than perseverance in a continuous flow of reading, becoming one with the sustained rhythm and tone of the work. William Dean Howells noted in 1901 that although the short story may be attractive when one runs across one singly in a magazine, the short story in a collection seems most repellant to the reader. The reason stems from the very intensity and compression and suggestiveness of the form itself. Reading one story, says Howells, one can receive a pleasant “spur to his own constructive faculty. But if this is repeated in ten or twenty stories, he becomes fluttered and exhausted by the draft upon his energies; whereas a continuous fiction of the same quantity acts as an agreeable sedative.” V. S. Pritchett has said much the same. The length, inclusiveness, and shapelessness of the novel creates a “bemusing effect,” says Pritchett.The short story, on the other hand, wakes the reader up. Not only that; it answers the primitive craving for art, the wit, paradox and beauty of shape, the longing to see a dramatic pattern and significance in our experience, the desire for the electric shock.

The Subjective Impulse in the Short Story

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...

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Leaving Things Out in the Short Story

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...

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The Short Story and the New Critics

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...

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New Theories of the Short Story

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...

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Modern Genre Theory and the Short Story

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...

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