Monday, February 16, 2015

Why is the Short Story a Neglected Form?

One of the most curious inconsistencies between literary education and academic research is that while the short story is the most frequently taught literary form in high school and college classrooms, it is the literary form most ignored and neglected by academic critics and scholars. There are many reasons for this schism: the “bigger is better” bias that prejudices critics in favor of the novel, the old-fashioned notion that the short story is gimmicky and popular, and the unquestioned assumption that complex emotions and ideas cannot be treated in the short narrative form.

The pressure on writers by agents, editors, and critics to abandon the short story as soon as possible and do something serious with their lives--such as write a novel--is unrelenting. This narrative bias that bigger is better persists in spite of the fact that the faithful few who have ignored it are among the most critically acclaimed writers of the twentieth century:  Anton Chekhov, Jorge Luis Borges, Flannery O'Connor, Peter Taylor, Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Raymond Carver. 

The most obvious fact about the short story is that agents and editors are seldom enthusiastic about taking on a collection of short stories--unless the author is a name with a novel on his or her tally or unless the author is promising, and will promise a novel in the near future.  Why?  Well, because most people would rather not read short stories.  As the popularity of so-called "reality" television makes clear, most prefer the real to the fictional, especially if the real is highly fictionalized.  Only a half dozen or so wide circulation magazines still regularly publish fiction.

What's worse, those who read fiction would rather read novels than stories.  Why?  Most people want to believe that characters have a life of their own; and they have to live with them for a while in order to believe that.  Once you get started with a novel, you become friends, get familiar, take up residence.  With a short story, you no sooner are introduced to a story than it is over, leaving you a bit dazed.  With a collection of stories, you have to do this over and over again.  Unlike chapters in a novel that tease you with the illusion of continuity, short stories are always ending.  And often those conclusions--one of the form's most important aspects--are frustrating in their inconclusiveness.  Readers finish novels closing the book with a satisfied thump and a sense of a big job well done.  Because of its poetic compression, readers often finish short stories with a puzzled "huh."
In spite of the short story’s struggle in contemporary publishing, many teachers find it a most useful form with which to introduce students to the conventions and techniques of fiction.  However, students searching for guidance in their study of the short story are often frustrated by the lack of good criticism of the form. They find it especially difficult to locate helpful discussions of  important recent short stories.

The short story is a deceptively difficult form.  Just because it is small in size does not make it simple in significance.  Quite the contrary, the short story most often involves a more scrupulous use of language than the novel; it is often more like poetry than prose.  In truth, it is not a form that comes naturally, but that one has to learn to read.

One reason why the short story has not been popular or has not maintained its place in modern literature is that readers prefer the novel precisely because it does not demand anything more than perseverance in a continuous flow of reading, becoming one with the sustained rhythm and tone of the work.  William Dean Howells noted in 1901 that although the short story may be attractive when one runs across one singly in a magazine, the short story in a collection seems most repellant to the reader.  The reason stems from the very intensity and compression and suggestiveness of the form itself.  Reading one story, says Howells, one can receive a pleasant "spur to his own constructive faculty.  But if this is repeated in ten or twenty stories, he becomes fluttered and exhausted by the draft upon his energies; whereas a continuous fiction of the same quantity acts as an agreeable sedative."

 L.P. Hartley has said that "A dozen short course are harder for the mind to digest than one long course...`Starting and stopping' exhausts the reader's attention."  V.S. Pritchett has said much the same.  In spite of the work of Flaubert and James, the length, inclusiveness, and shapelessness of the novel creates a "bemusing effect."  "The short story, on the other hand, wakes the reader up.  Not only that; it answers the primitive craving for art, the wit, paradox and beauty of shape, the longing to see a dramatic pattern and significance in our experience, the desire for the electric shock." 
In 1923, O'Brien, in his Advance of the American Short Story, said:  "The short-story writers are the destined interpreters of our time to itself and our children." (his conclusion). 

Twenty years later, H. E. Bates, in his 1941 book said that new writers would find the form essential (In Kenyon Review in 1968, he says he does not know why he was wrong, except that it is a poetic form and that the new generation did not find this conducive)  In 1952, Ray West in his book on the short story, said in his conclusion that it seems likely that "we may someday come to view the short story as the particular form through which American letters finally came of age, through which the life of its people and the vision of its artists most nearly approached full expression."  William Peden's 1964 book on the American short story says that in the last two decades there have been more short story writers creating more skillfully than ever before. 

None of these predictions have panned out.  Today the short story is not a popular form with general readers, nor a respected form with academic critics--too demanding for the former; not demanding enough for the latter. 

So we beat on, boats against the current.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your excellent views.

Ironically, perhaps there is some hope for the short story in the purported aging of the population, at least in the United States. I can speak from experience on that point. :)

Reading a novel can take days, if not weeks-- as well as an excellent memory that not only can retain but organize the novel's various parts into a meaningful whole. Even then, too often, one is left with a feeling of promise unfulfilled.

I'm not sure an aging population, with the inevitable dwindling of memory and a sense of a foreshortened future that usually comes with age, will continue to feel up to the task. Nor, for that matter, am I certain the young are up to the task, given their reported diminished attention spans.

So maybe the short story will eventually be the genre of choice-- by default, if nothing else -- and American letters (as Ray West predicted) will finally have "come of age."

Or perhaps, better, "old age." :)