Friday, February 26, 2010

Artifice and Artificiality in the Short Story: A Defense

In this week’s post, I ask your patience while I try to provide something of a theoretical context for my argument against “realism,” and for “artifice” in the previous post about drama and the short story.

In my opinion, there is nothing negative about the short story's artificiality. Why, when discussing an aesthetic object, should we take "artificiality" to be a bad word, especially the artificiality of unity and endings—two of the most important conventions of the short story form? Henry James, in his preface to Roderick Hudson, reminds us that stopping places in fiction are always artificial. As James puts it, since universally relations stop nowhere, "the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so." Similarly, critic J. Hillis Miller has noted that it is always impossible to tell whether a narrative is complete. If the ending is considered a tying up into a knot, the knot could always be united again; if the ending is considered an unraveling, a multitude of loose threads remain, all capable of being knotted again. This is why, Miller says, the best one can have is the "sense of an ending."

The coiner of that nicely-turned phrase, Frank Kermode, also reminds us, "We always underestimate the power of rhetorical and narrative gestures." Endings, says Kermode, "are always faked, as are all other parts of a narrative structure that impose metaphor on the metonymic sequence.” In other words, any time we arrange a narrative sequence to achieve a meaningful end we inevitably "fake" the ending. For this faking of an ending is the very act that makes meaning out of the "one-damned-thing-after-another" that meaningless events (as opposed to end-directed and meaningful discourse) always are; such faking thus constitutes the essence of narrative art.

Many critics have suggested that the faking of endings was primarily a negative characteristic of nineteenth-century short fiction; they are fond of citing such writers as Ambrose Bierce, Frank Stockton, and O. Henry as the chief culprits. Not until the work of Chekhov, Sherwood Anderson and Joyce, many critics like to claim, did the short story develop a "natural" structure that was "open-ended," reflecting a realistic "slice-of-life."

These critics ignore that at the very height of the so-called "artificial-ending" phase of the short story in America, writers were so aware of the formalized nature of short-story endings that they parodied this convention by making it the very subject of their stories. Moreover, in spite of all the praise for the realism of the modern short story, from the "slice-of-life" anecdotes of Anton Chekhov to the intense "hyperrealism" of Raymond Carver, the twentieth-century short story has remained highly formalized, artificial and metaphoric like its nineteenth-century antecedents. What has changed is that a new convention of the form developed to increase the illusion of everyday reality. From Chekhov to Sherwood Anderson to Bernard Malamud and finally to Raymond Carver, the short story has been bound to a highly artificial, rhetorically-determined unified structure, and therefore formalized ending, which depends upon the artificial devices of aesthetic reality.

One of the primary characteristics of the modern short story ala Chekhov is the expression of a complex inner state by the presentation of selected concrete details rather than by the creation of a projective parabolic form or by the depiction of the contents of the mind of the character. Significant reality for short-story writers beginning with Chekhov is inner rather than outer, but the problem they have tried to solve is how to create an illusion of inner reality by focusing on external details only. The result is not simple realism, but rather a story that even as it seems a purely surface account of everyday reality takes on the artificial aura of a dream.

I suggest that a basic difference between the novel and the short story has to do with their use of detail. The novel gains assent to the reality of the work by the creation of enough detail to give the reader the illusion that he "knows" the experience, although of course he cannot know it in the same way that he knows actual experience. In the short story, however, detail is transformed into metaphoric significance.

For example, the hard details in Robinson Crusoe exist as a resistance to be overcome in Crusoe's encounter with the external world. However, in a short story, such as Hemingway's "Big, Two-Hearted River," which is also filled with details, the physical realities exist only to embody Nick's psychic problem. As opposed to Crusoe, Nick is not concerned with surviving an external conflict but rather an internal one. In the short story the hard material outlines of the external world are inevitably transformed into the objectifications of psychic distress. Thus at the end of Hemingway's story, Nick's refusal to go into the swamp is purely a metaphoric refusal, having nothing to do with the "real" qualities of the swamp. Only aesthetic resolution of the story is possible.

When critics scorn the short story for the artificiality of its highly unified structure, when they take it to task for the falsity of its placing so much emphasis on its ending, they obviously forget in their demand that all narrative follow the conventions of realism that the essence of art is artificiality. Consequently, they forget that the short story is the most artificial and thus the most artistic of all narrative forms.


Ann Graham said...

I agree; I do not understand what is wrong with artificiality. According to, I think, Picasso, art is a lie that tells the truth. I believe in fiction artifice is metonymic for realism. And, the more artificial, the more realistic. In fiction, the artificial is created to plant illusions which are truthful.

Randy said...

Great essay. I have long contended that short stories are the most artistic form of fiction.