Saturday, August 11, 2012

What Actually is the New Formalism? Why is It important to the Short Story?

I apologize for neglecting my blog for the past two weeks, but I have been on a jury in California involving a criminal case and have had little time for little else. 

One of the reasons I have waited so long to write a book on what I have learned over the years about reading short stories is that the dominant approach of literary criticism--at least since the late 1980s--has focused less on literature itself than it has on the political/cultural/social/historical content and context of literature—none of which has ever been that important to short stories.

Several years ago, I had a contract with a prominent publisher to write a book on the generic development of the short story.  However, when I submitted about half of the manuscript, the academic readers to whom the publishers sent it for evaluation complained that it did not take into account the new trends in criticism toward cultural and political content, that it did not take a sufficiently Marxist or Postcolonial or Multi-cultural approach—that it was, in short, too focused on the generic development of short stories themselves.

Unwilling to give in to pressures from the cultural critics, I cancelled my contract with the publisher and put the manuscript away until a more sensible critical climate developed.  Perhaps that time has arrived.  At least, with the advent of the so-called “New Formalism,” I hope so. I may even go back and finish that academic magnum opus history of the form after completing this book on Reading Short Stories.

The term “New Formalism” began to be used in the late 1980s, not in reference to a critical method or movement, but rather to a revival of formal verse among young poets. In “Notes on the New Formalism” (The Hudson Review, Fall 1987) Dana Gioia (former Chair of the National Endowment of the Arts), says the first signs of the revival can be seen at the end of the 1970s, when such magazines as Paris Review began publishing sonnets, villanelles and rhyming poems.  Gioia notes that this revival has occurred in spite of the stubbornness of some old threadbare clich├ęs from the sixties, to wit, that form is “artificial, elitist, retrogressive, right-wing, and (my favorite) un-American.” Gioia summarizes the schism between academics and the public brought on by theory and cultural studies as follows:

With the best of intentions the university has intellectualized the arts to a point where they have been cut off from the vulgar vitality of popular traditions and, as a result, their public has shrunk to groups of academic specialists and a captive audience of students, both of which refer to everything beyond the university as ‘the real world.’ Mainly poets read contemporary poetry, and only professional musicians and composers attend concerts of new music.

However, he says that young poets have rejected this split between their art and its traditional audience and hope to reaffirm poetry’s “broader cultural role.” Gioia thinks that the central debate in the future will focus on form in the wide, elusive sense of poetic structure: “How does a poet best shape words, images, and ideas into meaning? The important argument will not be about technique in isolation but about the fundamental aesthetic assumptions of writing and judging poetry.”

I think the important task for me is to find a way to bridge the gap between the academic reader and the general reader by examining how a short story writer uses language to transform an “experience” into meaning.  I think all writers and readers are interested in learning how to participate in that extremely important and vitally human process.

The most greatest impediment I face writing this new book on Reading Short Stories aka, How to Read Short Stories, is my own determination to be both conscientious and comprehensive--coupled with my desire to direct the book to three related, but often estranged, audiences: the engaged general reader of the short story, the dedicated professional writer of the short story, and the committed academic teacher/student of the short story.  The problem is figuring out how to write a book that is not opaque to the general reader, simplistic to the academic reader, or alien to the artists who create short stories. I do not think this can be done without focusing on what Gioia suggests the New Formalism seems to herald: understanding form in the inclusive sense of how writers shape language into meaning. 

In an essay in Philological Quarterly (June 2007) Thomas DiPiero says, “Virtually every discussion of the new formalism, whether remonstration or encomium, mentions some variant or synonym of the word ‘return’, which should cause us to wonder what the ‘new’ in the ‘new formalism’ is.”  He notes that advocates of the new formalism study the language, genre, structure, and aesthetic nature of the literary text and encourage readers to identify textual patterns and repetitions, as well as acknowledge the aesthetic pleasure derived from literary form.  Many have joined the ranks of the new formalists because they believe that “literary criticism has overstepped the bounds of its discipline, that it has become too politicized, and/or that it has simply lost use of some of the most fundamental tools at its disposal for the analysis of literary works.”

DiPiero is interested in the means by which a text’s formal features encode the social circumstances surrounding the systematization of those features into conventions or genre.  He says, “We need to arrive at a fuller understanding of how form signifies in order to grasp how prose—the apparently formless form—conveys meaning beyond the level of literal signification.” This is indeed a crucial point for my own studies—how a short story conveys meaning beyond its literal referential function.  When DiPiero uses the word “prose,” he, of course, means the novel, for no critic ever thinks of the short story as deserving of serious consideration.  And although the novel may often be thought of as a “formless form,” this is just not true for the short story.  This is one of the main reasons why the emergence of the so-called “new formalism” is important to me.

Kelcey Parker, in her essay, “Reading Like a Writer: A Creative Writer’s Approach to New Formalism,” soon to appear in a new collection of essays on the New Formalism, says that a New Formalist approach attempts to uncover just how language artificially constructs a ‘reality’ that gets mistaken for the Real.” “A New Formalist approach to literature,” Parker says, investigates a text’s formal devices and structures (how an author communicates with a reader), and it also examines form at the level of content (what the text assumes, questions, and communicates about ‘reality’).

In her essay, “Form and Contentment” (Modern Language Quarterly, March 200), Ellen Rooney says that form is a “reading matter: the real terror is the terror of formlessness, and it has erupted because reading has lost its place.”  Neglect of the study of form in recent years, says Rooney, has resulted in the tendency to reduce “every text to its ideological or historical context, or to an exemplar of a prior theory.” She says that history, sociology, anthropology, and communications are all disciplines that “have long since mastered the art of reading-as-summary, reading sans form.”  However, she also notes that literary studies over the past forty years have “diluted the will to form” and made “thematic analysis” the sole mode of formal analysis.”  She looks to the new formalism as a matter not of “barring thematizations but of refusing to reduce reading entirely to the elucidation, essentially the paraphrase, of themes—theological, ideological, or humanistic.”  

Caroline Levine  (“Strategic Formalism:  Toward a New Method in Cultural Studies.”  Victorian Studies, Summer, 2006) is another of those critics, like Ellen Rooney, Susan Wolfson, and Heather Dubrow, who recognize the inevitable return of formalism and want to integrate it into cultural studies--to see form “as part of a politically aware historicism.”  Levine says the new formalism suggests a “reevaluation of the force of the major cultural-political categories we have long recognized, such as gender, race, and class.”  She urges a broad redefinition of form.  Not the formalism of the New Critics, she says, or of their detractors, but of both:  Levine defines “form” as follows:

Form, in my definition, refers to shaping patterns, to identifiable interlacing of repetitions and differences, to dense networks of structuring principles and categories.  It is conceptual and abstract, generalizing and transhistorical.  But it is neither apolitical nor ahistorical.  It does not fix or reduce every pattern to the same.  Nor is it confined to the literary text, to the canon, or to the aesthetic.  It does involve a kind of close reading, a careful attention to the ways that historical texts, bodies, and institutions are organized—what shapes they take, what models they follow and rework.  But it is all about the social: it involves reading particular, historically specific collisions among generalizing political, cultural, and social forms.  One could call it ‘social close reading’; I prefer to call it ‘strategic formalism.’

Is the New Formalism the critical wave of the future?  If it is integrated into the currently popular cultural studies, will it be merely an adjunct, an admission that culture cannot be studied with studying the nature of form?  In the introduction to a special issue of the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, (March 2012), Nicholas Birns begins by saying, “ Formalism had to come back in literary criticism.  The question was only how.”   Noting that the New Formalism has made important contributions to the way we read literature, it has not “commanded the field; nor has it overthrown or even seriously vexed the historicist consensus.  Indeed New Formalism in academia today is somewhat like a tolerated opposition party in a relatively mild dictatorship that is allowed to exist simply because there is no way it will ever have the popular support to seize power.”

As Marjorie Levinson pointed out in the PMLA essay I referred to a couple of weeks ago, the new formalism might be “better described as a movement than a theory or method.”  However, one could say the same thing about cultural studies, gender studies, new historicist studies, etc.  What is important for my own book is that the short story is, like poetry, more dependent on form than the novel, which is often referred to as formless.  Moreover, the short story is less focused on exploring social and political issues than the novel is.  Consequently, a critical climate that shows some respect rather than scorn for the importance of aesthetic or formal issues is a climate in which my book on the short story might at least find a hospitable publisher and perhaps even an interested audience.

In the weeks ahead, I will increasingly focus on my developing plans for Reading Short Stories, aka How to Read Short Stories.  I would appreciate any suggestions you might have for what you would like to see in such a book.


Tim Love said...

Thanks again. All I can offer is a UK perspective.

In the UK there seems to be a wave of new poets emerging, unafraid to use forms (often loosely). They're often armed with enough theory to write about each other's work. New anthologies. A buzz.

Meanwhile I read articles about the plight of the short story in the UK, alternating with hopeful articles about the short story's revival. In 2002 "fewer than 25 books of short stories were produced by mainstream publishers. And two thirds were by writers from abroad." From you can read about the "Save our Short Story" campaign. The UK equivalent of Best American Short Stories has recently started up again though. We'll see how it goes.

I don't know about theoretical trends over here. I doubt that there are enough UK stories to base theories on. Short story writers like Ali Smith and A.L.Kennedy have books about them. Smith's work in particular lends itself to Formalist readings, but many other types of readings of her work are possible too (Scottish, lesbian, etc).

Lee said...

I'd like to see more about non-English short stories.

Charles E. May said...

Grateful thanks for Tim and Lee for taking the time to respond to my request for suggestions about the book I am working on. Tim, it's a funny thing, but although the short story has always been of less interest to the English, I think I have more English readers than American readers.

Lee, I certainly plan to focus on stories from other cultures, as long as they are in English translation.