Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Cheerleader for the Short Story

November 16, 2008

This is my first blog entry. I retired two years ago after 40 years as a university professor of literature at California State University, Long Beach. My special interest is the short story as a literary genre. I have published five books on the short story and over 400 articles and reviews on the form. A colleague recently suggested to me that since I knew so much about the short story I might consider starting a blog. So here goes.

I have always been bothered by the fact that people would rather read novels than short stories. It seems counter-intuitive. After all, since everyone is so busy nowadays, you would think folks would prefer the short term time investment in a short story rather than the novel over the long haul. Not so. Why is that?

I think it is because that short stories are more apt to be like poems than novels. That is, short story writers choose their words carefully and construct their stories economically. The result is that readers have to work harder to read short stories than they do novels. Reading a novel just takes time. Reading a short story takes concentration and close attention to language.


Alan said...

I have just started to read your blog and I totally agree with you. The best short stories are so concise and tightly written that they require enormous concentration to read. This is why I believe Mavis Gallant advised readers from not reading more than one story at a time.

Charles May said...

Gallant was surely right. In fact I have written about this often. Several years ago, I was a Senior Fulbright Fellow in Ireland, and a publisher asked me to write a review of Ms. Gallant's Collected Stories. A huge book was delivered to my Dublin address filled with her stories, and I read and read and read and read--one story at a time--with time in between. I finally wrote the review, but I would much rather focus on a single story than a whole collection; the former requires specificity, while the latter encourages generality. Thanks for reading, Alan.

Lucas Lopez said...

Mr May, I came across your writings a couple of months ago. I have two books by you with me, right now. I am not going to be academic: you blew my mind. I wonder if you have read Ricardo Piglia's thesis on the short story, (It's a brief writing, not an academic thesis, but the ideas of a writer writen in brief statemnts). If you havent, I could pass it you. I would love to know your impresions about it. Cheers from the land of Borges and Cortázar.

Lucasllopez said...

This is Lucas López again, I’ ll elaborate on my previous comment.
Piglia finishes his theses thus:
“The short story is constructed so as to make appear artificially something that had been hidden. It reproduces the constantly renewed search for a unique experience that would allow us to see, beneath the opaque surface of life, a secret truth. ‘The instantaneous vision which makes us discover the unknown, not in a faraway terra incognita, but rather in the very heart of the immediate’, said Rimbaud. This profane illumination has become the form of the short story.”
And I can’t help but feel a connection with your claims about the ontology and epistemology of the short story. And I quote from “The Nature of Knowledge in Short Fiction”: “Storytelling does not spring from one’s confrontation with the everyday world, but rather from one’s encounter with the sacred (in which true reality is revealed in all its plenitude) or with the absurd (in which true reality is revealed in all its vacuity)”.
And it is for this reason, for this connection I see in your thinking and your studies and in Piglia’s that I would love to know your thoughts on his claims. I hope I am not entirely impertinent by asking you this.
PS: And in case you don’t know him, Piglia was an Argentinean writer and critic. He recently passed away. This is the link to Piglia’s “Theses on the short story” as translated and published by the New Left Review.

I apologize for the spelling mistakes in my previous comment. My excuse is that I was writing from my cell phone.


Charles May said...

Thank you very much for this reference to Piglia's Theses on the short story. I was not familiar with them and find them very interesting. I printed the Theses out and am studying them. Do you know if there is an English translation of the second essay "New Theses on the Short Story?" My Spanish is not sufficient. I plan to write and post a possible illustration of Piglia's theses by applying them to a recent short story. Thank you.

Lucasllopez said...

I am excited about your studying Piglia’s theses and I am looking forward to read your post about it. A couple of things: I am not aware of a translation of his new theses but if you wish I may translate them. Not a translator but I can manage to render an understandable version of the new thesis.
About these theses: the first who came up with the claim “a short story tells two stories” was Borges. You know, just like Poe, he never wrote a narrative poetics but left comments about the short story in prologues and reviews. This is the paragraph where Piglia’s got his ideas (I post it in Spanish and translate it myself):
“Edgar Allan Poe sostenía que todo cuento debe escribirse para el último párrafo o acaso la útlima línea; esta exigencia puede ser una exageración, pero es la exageración o simplificación de un hecho indudable. Quiere decir que un prefijado desenlace debe ordenar las vicisitudes de la fábula. Ya que el lector de nuestro tiempo es también un crítico, un hombre que conoce, y prevé, los artificios literarios, el cuento deberá constar de dos argumentos; uno, falso, que vagamente se indica, y otro, el auténtico, que se mantendrá secreto hasta el fin.”
“Edgar Allan Poe argued that every short story should be written for the last paragraph or even the last line; this requirement may be an exaggeration, but it is the exaggeration or simplification of an undoubted fact. It means that a pre-established denouement must order the fable´s vicissitudes. Since the reader of our time is also a critic, a man that knows and foresees the literary artifices, the short story should have two plots: a fake one vaguely indicated, and the authentic one, kept secret until the end.” (Borges wrote this in his prologue to Maria Esther Vazquez “Los Nombres de la Muerte”, published in 1964).
I hope you find this useful. In case you agree to my translation of Piglia’s new theses I post my email address