Sunday, March 1, 2009

Brief Bibliography of Short Story Criticism and Theory

Lee has asked if I would post some suggestions for reading more theory and criticism of the short story. Here are some annotated entries, followed by a brief discussion of more recent books and essays. I am not listing my own books and essays, except for Short Story Theories and The New Short Story Theories, which include many essays by other short-story writers and critics.

Bowen, Elizabeth. "The Faber Book of Modern Short Stories." The Faber Book of Modern Short Stories. London: Faber and Faber, 1936. Bowen suggests that the short story, because it is exempt from the novel's often forced conclusiveness, more often approaches aesthetic and moral truth. She also suggests that the short story, more than the novel, is able to place man alone on that "stage which, inwardly, every man is conscious of occupying alone."

Brown, Suzanne Hunter. "Discourse Analysis and the Short Story," In Short Story Theory at a Crossroads, eds. Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989, pp. 217-248. A helpful analytical survey of the research currently being carried on by psychologists into the nature of discourse, storyness, and cognitive response to narrative

Cortázar, Julio, "Some Aspects of the Short Story," The Arizona Quarterly, Spring, 1982, pp. 5-17. A discussion of the invariable elements that give a good short story its particular atmosphere. Says the novel and the short story can be compared to the film and the photograph. Says the short story's most significant element is its subject, the act of choosing a real or imaginary happening that has the mysterious property of illuminating something beyond itself.

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 distinguish the short story from the novel; suggests that what we call the modern short story is a manifestation of impressionism rather than a discrete genre.

Gordimer, Nadine. "South Africa." Kenyon Review, 30 (1968), 457-61. The strongest convention of the novel, its prolonged coherence of tone, is false to the nature of what can be grasped as reality in the modern world. Short-story writers deal with the only thing one can be sure of--the present moment.

Hanson, Clare, "Things out of Words: Towards a Poetics of Short Fiction," In Re-reading the Short Story, ed. Clare Hanson. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989, pp. 22--33. Argues that the short story is a more literary form than the novel; also claims that short stories are framed, an aesthetic device which gives the sense of completeness that allows gaps and absences to remain in the story; thus we accept a degree of mystery or elision in the short story which we would not accept in the novel.

Jarrell, Randall. "Stories." The Anchor Book of Stories. New York: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1958. Jarrell's introduction to this collection focuses on stories as being closer to dream reality than the waking world of everyday. There are two kinds of stories: stories-in-which-everything-is-a-happening (in which each event is so charged that the narrative threatens to disintegrate into energy) and stories-in-which-nothing-happens (in which even the climax may lose its charge and become one more portion of a lyric continuum).

Kenyon Review International Symposium on the short Story. Contributions from short story writers from all over the world on the nature of the form, its current economic status, its history, and its significance. Part I, 30 Issue 4, pp. 443-90. Part II, 31, Issue I, pp. 58-94. Part III, 31, Issue 4, 1969, pp. 450-502. Part IV, 32, Issue I, pp. 78-108.

Lewis, C.S. "On Stories." Essays Presented to Charles Williams, ed. C. S. Lewis. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1966, pp. 90-105. Although stories are series of events, this series, or what we call plot, is only a necessary means to capture something that has no sequence, something more like a state or quality. Thus, the means of "story" is always at war with its "end." However, this very tension constitutes story's chief resemblance to life. "We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied."

Luscher, Robert M. "The Short story Sequence: An Open Book," In Short Story Theory at a Crossroads, eds. Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989, pp. 148-67. Discusses the need for readers of story cycles such as Winesburg, Ohio to extend their drive to find pattern to cover a number of individual sequences. Compares story cycles with mere aggregates of stories as well as with novelistic sequences.

Marler, Robert F. "From Tale to Short Story: The Emergence of a New Genre in the 1850's." American Literature, 46 (1974), 153-69. Using Northrop Frye's distinction between the tale (embodies "stylized figures which expand into psychological archetypes") and the short story (deals with characters who wear their "personae or social masks"), Marler surveys the critical condemnation of the tale form and the increasing emphasis on realism in the 1850's. The broad shift is from Poe's overt romance to Melville's mimetic portrayals, especially in "Bartleby, the Scrivener."

Moravia, Alberto. "The Short Story and the Novel." Man as End: A Defense of Humanism. Trans. Bernard Wall. New York; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., 1969. The basic difference between the novel and the short story is that the novel has a bone structure of ideological themes whereas the short story is made up of intuitions of feelings.

O'Connor, Flannery. "Writing Short Stories." Mystery and Manners, eds. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969, pp. 87-106. In this lecture at a Southern Writers Conference, O'Connor discusses the two qualities necessary for the short story: "sense of manners," which one gets from the texture of his immediate surroundings; and "sense of mystery," which is always the mystery of personality--"showing how some specific folks will do, in spite of everything."

O'Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. Cleveland: The World Publishing Co., 1963. The introductory chapter is extremely valuable "intuitive" criticism by an accomplished master of the short story. The basic difference between the novel and the short story is that in the latter we always find an intense awareness of human loneliness. O'Connor feels that the protagonist of the short story is less an individual with whom the reader can identify than a "submerged population group"; that is, someone outside the social mainstream. The remaining chapters of the book treat this theme in Turgenev, Chekhov, Maupassant, Kipling, Joyce, Mansfield, Lawrence, Coppard, Babel, and Mary Lavin.

Pratt, Mary Louise. "The Short Story: The Long and the Short of It," Poetics, 10 (1981), 175-94. A theoretical discussion of the form; presents eight ways that the short story is better understood if its dependence on the novel is understood.

Prichett, V.S. "Short Stories." Harper's Bazaar, 87 (July 1953), 31, 113. The short story is a hybrid, owing much to the quickness and objectivity of the cinema, much to the poet and the newspaper reporter, and everything to the "restlessness, the alert nerve, the scientific eye and the short breath of contemporary life." Makes an interesting point about the collapse of standards, conventions and values that has so bewildered the impersonal novelist but has been the making of the story-writer.

Trask, Georgianne, and Charles Burkhart, ed. Storytellers and Their Art. New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1963. A valuable collection of comments on the short story form by practitioners from Chekhov to Capote. See especially Part I: "Definitions of the Short Story" and "Short Story vs. Novel," pp. 3-30.

Welty, Eudora. "The Reading and Writing of Short Stories." The Atlantic Monthly, February 1949, pp. 54-58; March 1949, pp. 46-49. An impressionistic, but suggestive, essay in two installments that focuses on the mystery of story, on the fact that we cannot always see the solid outlines of story because of the atmosphere it generates.

Austen Wright. "Recalcitrance in the Short Story," In Short Story Theory at a Crossroads, eds. Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989, pp. 115-129. A discussion of stories with endings that resist the reader's efforts to assimilate them and to make sense of them as a whole. Such final recalcitrance, Wright claims, is the extreme kind of resistance that the short story has developed to thwart final closure and reduce the complexity of the story to a conceptual understanding.

Some Additional Comments and More Recent Entries:

The most important book on the short story published in the 1980s is Susan Lohafer's Coming to Terms with the Short Story, a sophisticated and engaging discussion of how the narrative rhythm of the short story uniquely engaged the reader's attention. In this book, Lohafer introduced her concept of "preclosure," which she has further explored and developed in her most recent book, Reading for Storyness, published in 2003.

Collections of essays on the short story published during the 1980s include The Teller and the Tale, edited by Wendell Aycock, and Re-Reading the Short Story, edited by Clare Hanson, both of which include original essays on a number of aspects of the form. The most important collections of theoretical essays on the form in the 1980s are the special issue of Modern Fiction Studies published in 1982 and Short Story Theory at a Crossroads, edited by Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellen Clarey in 1989. The Modern Fiction Studies special issue is especially notable for two suggestive essays: Suzanne Hunter Brown's discussion of two readings of a section from Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Ubervilles, which argues that we read identical texts differently depending on what genre frame of expectations we bring to them, and Suzanne Ferguson's argument that the modern short story is not a discrete genre, different from the sketch and tale that went before it, but rather a manifestation of the techniques and assumptions of literary impressionism.

Both Brown and Ferguson also have essays in Lohafer and Clarey's Short Story Theory At a Crossroads--Ferguson showing how social factors influenced the rise and fall of the prestige of the short story, and Brown providing a helpful analytical survey of research being done by psychologists of discourse on the nature of storyness and cognitive responses to literature. Also included in this volume are essays by: Norman Friedman, who reviews and critiques a number of contemporary theorists; Mary Rohrberger, who disagrees with Friedman's strictly scientific approach to a definition of the form; and Austin Wright who argues for a formalist view of genre as a cluster of conventions.

In 1993, a special issue of the journal Style was devoted to the modern short story, featuring essays on oral narratives, the epiphany, and the nature of reality in the modern short story. In 1997 and 1998, two collections of essays by various critics were devoted to the short story: Creative and Critical Approaches to the Short Story, edited by Noel Harold Kaylor, Jr., and Tales We Tell: Perspectives on the Short Story, edited by Barbara Lounsberry, Susan Lohafer, Mary Rohrberger, Stephen Pett, and R. C. Feddersen. In these books, the best-known short-story critics and theorists, such as Lohafer, Suzanne Ferguson, Austin Wright, and Mary Rohrberger were joined by new critics of the short story such as John Gerlach, Ian Reid, Susan Rochette-Crawley, Hilary Siebert, and Suzanne Hunter Brown. The journal Studies in Short Fiction published a special issue on the theory of the short story in 1996, with essays on the theory of the short story, as well as essays on temporality and short story and the nature of minimalism.

The form has also enjoyed considerable attention in Canada and Europe in the last few years. The Wascana Review, at the University of Regina, published a special issue devoted to the contemporary short story in 2003, while the British Yearbook of English Studies issued a special issue in 2001 on North American Short Stories and Short Fictions. In 2004, a collection of essays on short fiction theory and analysis entitled The Art of Brevity featured papers presented at an international conference on the form in Oslo. More recently, a volume entitled Contemporary Debates on the Short Story, containing essays collected by Spanish editors on the short story appeared in 2007, while Canadian scholars released a collection of essays on Postcolonial short fiction in 2007 entitled Tropes and Territories.

A number of significant book-length studies of the short story appeared in the 1990s. Domenic Head's book The Modernist Short Story (1992) discusses the modern short story from a Bakhtinian approach, arguing that the form's stress on literary artifice makes it most amenable to modernist experimentation. However, Head complains that short story theory has largely been determined by an oversimplified perception of modernist practice and urges critics to go beyond what he calls the "visual artifact aesthetic" or the "unity aesthetic" that has dominated criticism of the form since Poe. Although Head makes valuable contributions to short story theory, his insistence on some nebulous connection between literary form and social context and his consequent effort to apply currently fashionable sociological theories to the short story prevent him from developing an approach consistent with the short story's unique generic characteristics. It is not helpful to dismiss all previous commentary on the short story by authors and critics as wrong simply because the commentary is not currently fashionable

Andrew Levy in The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story (1993) explains how the short story reflected American values throughout its historical development. Kirk Curnutt's Wise Economies: Brevity and Storytelling in American Short Stories (1997) is an extended study of the issue of brevity in the short story, with chapters on a number of important American writers, discussing how stylistic economy is an important evolving aesthetic tactic in the short story that continually redefined how readers had to form interpretations of the short story.

My own collection, Short Story Theories, was reissued in a new, extensively revised, edition in 1994, entitled The New Short Story Theories. The collection included important essays on the theory of short fiction by Mary Louise Pratt, Wendell V. Harris, Robert F. Marler, Susan Lohafer, and Suzanne Ferguson, as well as discussions of the form by such writers as Julio Cortázar, Nadine Gordimer, Elizabeth Bowen, and Raymond Carver.

As an indication of the continuing interest in the short story both by practicing writers and by classroom teachers, two books of interviews and practical essays appeared in the late 1990s. Speaking of the Short Story, edited by Farhat Iftekharuddin, Mary Rohrberger, and Maurice Lee (1997), featured interviews with Isabel Allende, Bharati Murkerjee, Leslie Marmon Silko, Richard Ford, and Rudolfo A. Anaya. Short Stories in the Classroom, edited by Carole L. Hamilton and Peter Kratzke (1999), includes brief essays by a number of teachers and critics, providing practical suggestions about teaching the short story from a wide variety of critical and pedagogical perspectives.

I may have forfotten some important pieces, but will add them in subsequent posts as I recollect them.


Lee said...

Thanks indeed for this - I think! I certainly have my work cut out, heh.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your notes on short story, they are very useful.

Ann Graham said...

I love your blog! Thanks for all the work you've put into it. It is dense with substantial material.

Ross said...

Nice Short Story! tHANK YOU