Louise Erdrich's new collection of short stories, The Red Convertible, raises another issue about the short story I would like to comment on in this, my final entry for 2008. I hope to create one new entry per week in the coming year.
Blogs are funny things. I have no knowledge if anyone is reading this, but although I did start it in hopes of creating conversations with other students of the short story, I also started it to force myself to continue to think about the form by raising issues that I consider important for reading and understanding the form.
I don't think it is accidental that the short story, since its beginning, has more often focused on fantasy than reality--not fantasy as escape, but rather fantasy as meaningfully mythic. I don't think the short story thrives as socially relevant or even strictly realistic, but rather as a means to explore universal human experiences.
In 1986, Leslie Marmon Silko, the Native American novelist from the Southwest, reviewed Erdrich's The Beet Queen and took her to task for writing about Native Americans in North Dakota without expressing any bitterness over racism in America. She scolds Erdrich that in her pristine world, "all misery, suffering, and loss are self-generated, just as conservative Republicans have been telling us for years."
This diatribe is similar to the famous attack that African writer Chinua Achebe launched against Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness several years earlier for writing a book set in Africa without expressing bitterness against racism. Calling Conrad a racist, Achebe asks whether a novel which depersonalizes a portion of the human race can be called a great work of art, to which he emphatically replies, "No, it cannot."
What Silko and Achebe are criticizing Erdrich and Conrad for is not writing a book that they would have written. This is a common critical ploy when authors review other authors. But it also raises the question about basic generic differences between the short story and the novel. Erdrich's novel had much of its origin in the short story form, and Conrad's story is a novella (which is more like a short story than a novel).
Not only do Erdrich and Conrad have a perfect right to write stories about universal, mythic human experience rather than local social experience, but the traditions within which they work--short story and novella--are more generically able to explore such experiences than the novel is.