Monday, January 31, 2011

Authors on the Short Story--Paris Review Interviews: Part I

In preparing for my presentation at the April Angers conference, “The Figure of the Author in the Short Story in English,” I have thought it well that I should consult short story writers who have spoken of their own experience with the short story: their love of the form, their theories about the difference between the short story and the novel, their notions about short story technique.

The Paris Review
, which has been publishing interviews with writers under the title “The Art of Fiction,” since the late 1950s, has been generous enough to post these interviews in an archive online. The URL address is:

Although I have been collecting writers’ comments about the short story form for years, I have so far scanned the Paris Review interviews for the fifties, sixties, and seventies, looking for ideas that I might be able to develop and use in my presentation. I list below those writers’ remarks about the short story I think most helpful, followed by brief comments of my own. Next week, I will post a second set of citations, with my comments, of Paris Review interviews from the eighties, nineties, and the first decade of the twenty-first century.

[Side note: I have read Alice Munro’s new story, “Axis,” in the January 31 issue of the New Yorker four times now and think I may be ready to talk about it soon. I have also read Steven Millhauser’s story, “Getting Closer,” in the January 3 issue of the New Yorker five times, and hope to be capable of making some remarks on it soon also. These things take time, you know.]

Truman Capote, 1957
When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant. Whatever control and technique I may have I owe entirely to my training in this medium…. I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence— especially if it occurs toward the end—or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation…. Joyce, our most extreme disregarder, was a superb craftsman; he could write Ulysses because he could write Dubliners.

I like Capote’s take on the importance of getting training in writing fiction by first writing short stories—not that stories are mere finger exercises, but rather than they are more demanding, at least on the microcosmic level, than the novel is. I also like the idea that short stories depend on a certain rhythm. Some short story writers think that rhythm is as important as content. More on this later.

Ernest Hemingway, 1958
I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.

This, of course, is Hemingway’s most famous statement about leaving things out. He probably gets it from Chekhov; later Raymond Carver got it from him. More on “leaving things out” later, as I cite other writers who believe in the power of omission.

Frank O’Connor, 1957
[The short story] is the nearest thing I know to lyric poetry… A novel actually requires far more logic and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas a short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has…[The greatest essential of a story] is you have to have a theme, a story to tell. You grab somebody and say, “Look, an extraordinary thing happened to me yesterday—I met a man—he said this to me—”and that, to me, is a theme. The moment you grab somebody by the lapels and you've got something to tell, that's a real story.

Frank O’Connor is certainly not the only writer who has said that the short story is the closest thing to lyric poetry, especially in its detachment from circumstances. And there is more to be said about O’Connor’s insistence on the importance of theme—i.e. that the writer has something to say—not just an event, but an event that “means” something.

Katherine Anne Porter, 1963
If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, my last page first, and then I go back and work towards it. I know where I’m going. I know what my goal is. And how I get there is God’s grace.

The first self-conscious theorizer and practitioner of the short story, Edgar Allan Poe, was the first to emphasize the importance of beginning with the ending. There are many important implications of this notion, which I will talk more about later.

I.B. Singer, 1968
In each story, I try to say something, and what I try to say is more or less connected with my ideas that this world and this kind of life is not everything, that there is a soul and there is a God and there may be life after death. I always come back to these religious truths although I am not religious in the sense of dogma.

Singer is not the only writer of short stories who has felt that the form has something to do with the idea that “this world and this kind of life is not everything.” Probably the most famous is Flannery O’Connor, whose work I have reread in its entirely these past few months. Religious truths, in the broadest sense of that term, may have some inherent connection to the short storm form. I have explored this issue in many places and will talk more about it.

John Steinbeck, 1969
If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes but by no means always find the way to do it.

This is that idea that Frank O’Connor talked about—the writer’s need to tell the story. It might be called “The Ancient Mariner” compulsion. I have written about this before and come back to it later.

Bernard Malamud, 1975
I like packing a self or two into a few pages, predicating lifetimes. The drama is terse, happens faster, and is often outlandish. A short story is a way of indicating the complexity of life in a few pages, producing the surprise and effect of a profound knowledge in a short time. There’s, among other things, a drama, a resonance, of the reconciliation of opposites: much to say, little time to say it, something like the effect of a poem.

Here is the poem/short story connection again. And Malamud is wise to remind us that the short story can convey the “complexity of life,” can have the effect revealing “profound knowledge” by reconciling opposites.

Eudora Welty, 1972
I don’t think we often see life resolving itself, not in any sort of perfect way, but I like the fiction writer’s feeling of being able to confront an experience and resolve it as art, however imperfectly and briefly—to give it a form and try to embody it—to hold it and express it in a story’s terms... A short story is confined to one mood, to which everything in the story pertains. Characters, setting, time, events, are all subject to the mood. And you can try more ephemeral, more fleeting things in a story—you can work more by suggestion—than in a novel. Less is resolved, more is suggested, perhaps.

Welty emphasizes an aspect of the short story that others have discussed, and that I will return to: that whereas life does not have a resolution, there is something that might be defined as aesthetic resolution—something communicated not by content, but by form. Also important, I think, is Welty’s notion of “mood,” what other writers have called “tone”—a unifying rhythm or glow holding everything together in a meaningful way.


cowgrad03 said...

Dr. May, Thank you for your always insightful posts. I have just started a PhD program in English and would like to study the short story in more depth, and reading your blog helps me to continue thinking about the short story in critical ways even while I am not talking about it in class. (By the way, we met at the Short Story Conference this summer.) ~ Katy

Anonymous said...

Charles: Thank you for all this work. These things are a delight to read. Dex