Abstract for my presentation at the 11th International Short Story Conference in Toronto, June 2010:
“The Short Story’s Way of Meaning: Alice Munro’s ‘Passion”
In response to that perennial question, “Why do you write short stories,” which means, course, “Why don’t you write novels?” Munro once said that originally she planned to write a few stories to get some practice and then to write novels, but “I got used to writing stories, so I saw my material that way.” What I wish to explore are the generic implications of Munro’s conviction that there is “a short-story way” of seeing reality. The basis for my approach is primarily formalist, argued by, among others, Bakhtin and Medvedev, who claim that every genre has its unique “methods and means of seeing and conceptualizing reality, which are accessible to it alone.... Every significant genre is a complex system of means and methods for the conscious control and finalization of reality.” Every author who practices a certain genre “learns to experience the world in the genre's way.” Munro has said, “When I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure…. What happens, as event doesn’t really much matter.
Some theoretical concepts that have helped me formulate ideas about "Passion."
I will post some significant summaries and quotes from “Passion” early ext week.
From: Jacques Derrida, "The Law of Genre," Critical Inquiry, 7 (Autumn 1980): 55-81.
65-He submits the following hypothesis: "a text cannot belong to no genre, it cannot be without or less a genre. Every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text; there is always a genre and genres, yet such participation never amounts to belonging."
From: M. M. Bakhtin/P.N. Medvedev. The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship. trans. Albert J.Wehrle. Johns Hopkins U.P., 1978. "Poetics should really begin with genre, not end with it. For genre is the typical form of the whole work, the whole utterance. A work is only real in the form of a definite genre. Each element's constructive meaning can only be understood in connection with genre."
Every genre has its own orientation in life, with reference to its evens, problems, etc."
"Each genre is only able to control certain definite aspects of reality. Each genre possesses definite principles of selection, definite forms for seeing and conceptualizing reality, and a definite scope and depth of penetration."
"If we approach genre from the point of view of its intrinsic thematic relationship to reality and the generation of reality, we may say that every genre has its methods and means of seeing and conceptualizing reality, which are accessible to it alone. Just as a graph is able to deal with aspects of spatial form inaccessible to artistic painting, and vice versa, the lyric, to choose one example, has access to aspects of reality and life which are either inaccessible or accessible in a lesser degree to the novella or drama.... Every significant genre is a complex system of means and methods for the conscious control and finalization of reality."
"The artist must learn to see reality with the eyes of the genre. A particular aspect of reality can only be understood in connection with the particular means of representing it."
From: Paul Ricoer, "Narrative Time," Critical Inquiry, 7 (Autumn 1980): 169-190: Every narrative combines two dimensions in various proportions, one chronological and the other nonchronological. The first may be called the episodic dimension, which characterizes the story as made out of events. The second is the configurational dimension, according to which the plot construes significant wholes out of scattered events."
From: Erich Auerbach. Mimesis. Distinction between Homeric and Hebraic narrative styles: “On the one hand, externalized, uniformly illuminated phenomena, at a definite time and place, connected together without lacunae in a perpetual foreground…On the other hand, the externalization of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary fro the narrative, all else left in obscurity…time and place are undefined and call for interpretation; thoughts and feeling remain unexpressed, are only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches; the whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal (and to that extent far more of a unity), remains mysterious and ‘fraught with background.’” The first contains no secret meaning, can be analyzed, but not interpreted; the second makes concrete in the sensible mater of life their sole concern with moral, religious, and psychological phenomena.
From Eudora Welty, "The Reading and Writing of Short Stories": "The first thing we see about a story is its mystery. And in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again. Every good story has mystery--not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement. As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful."
From Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners. “If the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do.”
“The peculiar problem of the short-story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible. He has only a short space to do it in and he can’t do it by statement. He has to do it by showing, not by saying, and by showing the concrete—so that his problem is really how to make the concrete work double time for him.”
From: Frank Kermode, "Secrets and Narrative Sequence," Critical Inquiry, 7 (Autumn 1980): 83-101. "Secrets are at odds with sequence which is considered as (88) an aspect of propriety; and a passion for sequence may result in the suppression of the secret. But it is there, and one way we can find the secret is to look out for evidence of suppression, which will sometimes tell us where the suppressed secret is located.
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
From: Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answers the fundamental question of philosophy.” Camus says everything else are but games.
From: Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World, 1940. “Happy love has no history. Romance only comes into existence where love is fatal, frowned upon and doomed by life itself. What stirs lyrical poets to their finest flights is neither the delight of the senses nor the fruitful contentment of the settled couple; not the satisfaction of love, but its passion. And passion means suffering. There we have the fundamental fact.”
“Events happen thus because otherwise there would be no story… A reader pays no heed to distortions or to twistings of the ‘logic’ of current observations so long as the license thus taken produces the pretexts necessary to the passion which he longs to feel.”
From: Northrop Frye. The Secular Scripture (1976): “Romance is the structural core of all fiction; being directly descended from folktales, it brings us closer than any other aspect of literature to the sense of fiction, considered as a whole, as the epic of the creature, man’s vision of his own life as a quest.”