In response to my recent piece on V. S. Pritchett, Pearl Street posted a comment on what Louis Menand once called the "whoa" effect of short stories. I referred to Menand's remark about his "not exactly a term of art" a dozen years ago in a paper I read on so-called "linked stories" or "short story sequences" at the Modern Language Association Meeting. I thought it might be worth posting a few paragraphs from that paper.
Wow Vs. Whoa in the Short Story
I must tell you at the outset--as perhaps the world’s oldest cheerleader for the short story as a genre--that I have some reservations about focusing on short stories as parts of a whole rather than as complete artistic entities in themselves. Given the current trend in the literary marketplace, I could say that I am interested in protecting the marginalized short story from the hegemonic influence of the globalized strength of novelistic predominance, but an old formalist like me would never use language like that.
My worry is that, precisely because of the hegemonic notion that bigger is better, focusing on the sequential nature of stories inevitably throws the focus on the novel side of the formula rather than on the short story side. The question of what makes a short story sequence something other than a group of randomly assembled stories and also something other than a novel is worth examining. I certainly do not want short stories to be read as if they were sections of a novel. However, by the same token, I do not want them to be read as “part” of an overarching sequence, a tactic that may result in neglecting the unique characteristics of short stories as individual works of art.
It troubles me that James Nagel in The Contemporary American Short Story Cycle says that some readers have misinterpreted individual stories because they did not take into account that they have a book-length intertextual context. The very word “misinterpret” suggests that one can not really read a story from, say Winesburg or Dubliners, individually, but only within the overall context of the sequence in which they were ultimately published.
I admit there is a certain pleasure involved when you read a story and run across a character you have met in a previous story. Such character reappearances create pleasurable little shocks of recognition for the reader, a sort of “wow” factor that these characters actually live outside the fictions in which they exist and have been hanging around just waiting for another story in which to pop up.
For example, although Stuart Dybek’s collection, I Sailed with Magellan, was promoted by his publisher as a “novel-in-stories,” the only thing novelistic about it is that some of the same characters appear in all the stories. In an interview, Dybek said that the overall narrative line of such linked story collections as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and James Joyce’s Dubliners doesn’t even begin to suggest what they are about, for such books do not assume that life is a neat pattern of cause and effect. Thus, to call I Sailed with Magellan an ethnic “coming-of-age novel” about a young Polish-American growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s is to minimize the universal power of the eleven individual stories, for each one is a self-contained, lyrically powerful, literary experience.
In the Dec. 1, 2003 issue of The New Yorker, Louis Menand, in a long review essay on John Updike’s The Early Stories, says that if you try to name the sensation that an individual story delivers, you might call it a general sense of “Whoa,” which, he admits, is not exactly a term of art, but you know it when you feel it--that shiver of recognition of the “whatness of a thing” being revealed when you read “Snow was general all over Ireland.”
Basically, I guess, I prefer this “whoa” feeling when a single story comes completely yet inexpressibly together over the “wow” feeling of running across the same characters, settings, or themes in several stories sequentially arranged stories.
The short story's dependence on a tightly controlled structure rather than a linear plot and mimetic methods has been one of its central aesthetic characteristic since Poe adapted from A. W. Schlegel a new meaning of the term plot as being "that from which no part can be displaced without ruin to the whole." By this one stroke, Poe shifted the reader's narrative focus from mimetic events to aesthetic pattern. Julio Cortazar has reaffirmed that “intensity in a story consists of the elimination of all the filler and transitional material that the novel permits and even demands.” This need for the elimination of all transitional material is suggested by C. S. Lewis as the human need to transcend temporality to achieve some atemporal understanding: "In real life, as in a story, something must happen,” says Lewis. “That is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied.”
Many years ago I argued that the short story “way of seeing” was like that which Ernst Cassirer says characterizes perceiving the world in a mythic way. When Alice Munro says she is primarily interested in “emotion,” she echoes Cassirer’s argument that within mythical perception “Whatever is seen or felt is surrounded by a special atmosphere.” In this realm, says Cassirer, we cannot speak of things as dead or indifferent stuff, but all “objects are benign or malignant, friendly or inimical, familiar or uncanny, alluring and fascinating or repellent and threatening.”
This also reflects Raymond Carver’s conviction that, "It's possible in … a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things--a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring--with immense, even startling power." It’s also what John Dewey means by the difference between an emotionally charged experience phenomenologically encountered and experience discursively understood. As Dewey makes clear, an experience is recognized as such precisely because it has a unity, "a single quality that pervades the entire experience in spite of the variation of its constituent parts.”
Moreover, although the novel may focus on cause and effect in time, the short story accepts the fact that what makes characters do what they do is not so simple. Flannery O’Connor once said she lent some stories to a country lady who lived down the road from her, and when she returned them the woman said, “Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do.” O’Connor agreed that when you write stories you have to show how “some specific folks will do, will do in spite of everything.”
Part of the reason for this sense of an elusive and mysterious “secret” life of the characters of short stories derives from its origins in the folk tale and later the romance form. Whereas the focus of the novel is often on multiple inner consciousnesses, the focus of the short story is more often on an obsessed inner consciousness. Characters in short fiction seem somewhat like allegorical figures because of their obsessive focus on some single task: Goodman Brown's journey into the forest, Old Phoenix's trip to get the healing medicine, Bartleby's preference not to, Nick Adam's fishing trip at Big, Two-Hearted River. Obsessiveness—centering the attention on an activity, a person, and a belief--is a limiting, formal process that can be identified as a pattern or structure. Although in Joyce’s “The Dead,” Gabriel's mind wanders through a number of memories, thoughts, objects, tasks, etc. there is a discernible pattern to his thoughts and preoccupations or else the story would not end with the revelatory sense of transcendence and meaningful closure that it does.
A number of narratologists have noted the basic tension in story between sequence and significance. Frank Kermode calls it the tension between narrative sequence and “secrets.” And “Secrets,” says Kermode, are at odds with sequence.” Paul Ricoer calls it the tension between the episodic dimension, which refers to the story as events, and the configurational dimension, “according to the which the plot construes significant wholes out of scattered events.” As Ricoeur says, every narrative combines these two dimensions in various proportions.” Most great short-story writers suggest that the short story is more configurational than sequential.
The hidden story, of emotion and secret life, communicated by atmosphere, tone, and mood is always about something more unspeakable, more mysterious, than the story generated by the reader’s focus on characters and on what happens next. The genius of great short stories is that whereas they could indeed be the seedbed of novels, they do not communicate as novels do. And if we try to read them as if they were parts of novels, they will never haunt us with their mystery. However, this mystery is not easy to describe.
As Louis Menand said in his 2003 piece in The New Yorker: "The difficulty of putting into words the effect a story produces is part of the point. The story is words; the effect is wordless, or at best, whoa."