Sunday, May 1, 2016

Short Story Month 2016: How I Read Short Stories

May 1, 2016 is the first day of Short Story Month—an unofficial designation that has no corporate, government, or public foundation support—just the interest of a number (Lord knows how many!) of bloggers and readers who love the short story..
I have been celebrating Short Story Month on this blog since it began.  This year, I plan to post a brief daily discussion during Short Story Month focusing on how I "read" a single short story.
It has always been my opinion that when we asks students to read stories for a literature class, we do so not merely to get them to find out what happens next, but to try to understand the stories.  And to understand stories, we must have some idea about how they work.  And learning how they work means making the important distinction between what we take to be actual incidents in the world and what we actually have before us when we read a story—that is, a teller's narration of events that have already taken place.
I often had to remind my students that the story is not the events, but rather a structure made up of language that somehow replicates the events.  A famous expert on language, Alfred Korzybski, expressed the different in his book Science and Sanity (1933) by using the analogy of the relationship between a map and the territory the map replicates.  "A map is not the territory it represents," Korzybski reminds us, "but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness."  Similarly, he continues, "all language structures must be considered only as maps, for a word is not the object it represents."
Of course, maps follow certain conventions or rules for depicting territories, rules that we conveniently forget so that we can maintain the illusion that they are actual.  However, in order to understand how this illusion is created, and thus understand how fictional depictions work, we must remember that all we can know of the territory is the map.  That is, all we can know of the events is what is filtered through the rhetorical devices and literary conventions that make the telling or relating of the story possible.
C. S. Lewis once said that for stories to be stories they must be a series of events; yet at the same time it must be understood that this series is only a net to catch something else.  And this "something else," which, for want of a better word, we call theme, is "something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality."
Whenever students are asked to read stories for a class, they probably do so in a straightforward, linear way. They scan the letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs, translating them into mental images—watching things happen, hearing people talk—trying to get to the end of the story.  And the "end" usually means merely the conclusion of a series of events that occur "one damned thing after another."  However, when they are asked what happened in a story and begin telling the events, one thing after another, a teacher may say, "No, that's not what I meant" and then spend the rest of the class period pointing out that something else "happened" in the story which they did not see.
How can this be? Given a fairly attentive reader who can summarize the story events accurately, how can it be that he or she did not see the same things "happen" that the teacher did?  The problem arises, of course, with the assumption that the story has "meaning."  The problem is trying to find out how a mere series of events communicates meaning.
The primary way that any information is held together and communicated is by redundancy or repetition, particularly repetition with variations. Redundancy is the sending of more messages than are necessary to communicate information, and indeed, the repetition, often with variations of the elements of the message is what creates the one essential characteristic for information to be communicated: a system or structure, that is, a pattern or a map.
Looking at narrative in terms of its systematic structure rather than merely in terms of the events it seems to recount is as old as Aristotle.  However, this approach got its most influential boost when it was adopted by the Russian Formalists in the 1920s and was then taken up by the structuralist movement of the 1960s and 1970s.  According to the formalists, when approaching narrative fiction, one must make an initial distinction between the series of events that a writer takes as his or her subject matter and the specific structure that results when the writer presents the completed narrative to the reader.  Whereas the first is merely the aggregate of the events in a casual-chronological order, the latter is the organization of the events in strategically justifiable ways that the Russian Formalists called "motivation." Basically, what they said we must do is perceive the story as a narrated story dominated by rhetorical devices and thus all laid out at once, as if in space, rather than a series of events happening one after the other in time.
The earliest and still the clearest statement of this basic tactic of reading was made by Northrop Frye in the 1960s: "In the direct experience of fiction, continuity is the center of our attention; our later memory, or what I call the possession of it, tends to become discontinuous.   Our attention shifts from sequence of events to another focus: a sense of what the work of fiction was all about, or what criticism usually calls it theme." However, by theme, Frye does not mean a conceptual statement but rather what Aristotle called dianoia, the mythos of plot understood as a simultaneous unity.  The elements of the plot are of interest not in relation to a sequence or suspense but rather in relation to a structured presentation for a rhetorical purpose.
A few years ago, Denis Donoghue lamented that his students do not want to talk about literature, but rather large-scale public themes independent of the work. ‘They are happy to denounce imperialism and colonialism rather than read “Heart of Darkness,” Kim, and Passage to India in which imperialism and colonialism are held up to complex judgment.  They are voluble in giving you their opinions on race and its injustices, but nearly tongue-tied when it is a question of submitting themselves to the languages of The Sound and the Fury, Things Fall Apart, and A Bend in the River. They find it arduous to engage with the styles of Hard Times and The Wings of a Dove, but easy to say what they think about industrialism, adultery, and greed."
I sympathize with Professor Donoghue.  In my last semester before retirement, I taught a postgraduate course on the twentieth-century short story in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, as well as several Africa and Caribbean countries. I told my students at the beginning that we were going to engage in close readings of the stories, analyzing and evaluating them on the basis of their human complexity and aesthetic excellence. When my students ignored the texts and insisted on talking about general political issues of race and postcolonialism, I realized that ‘close reading,’ ‘human complexity,’ and ‘aesthetic excellence’ were strange and unfamiliar concepts to them. 

For Short Story Month, 2016, I plan to post suggestions on I "read" thirty different short stories, starting tomorrow with Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado."

1 comment:

Karl said...

Hurray for Short Story Month! I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to a month's worth of essays from you.