Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Twenty-five Random Facts about the Short Story

Recently Facebook Members received "tags" listing twenty-five random facts about the sender. They were then supposed to post twenty-five random facts about themselves and send it to twenty-five others. Thousands of these tags were sent out. I received a couple. I realized I did not have twenty-five interesting facts about myself--a sobering thought. So I thought I would post twenty-five random facts about the short story (actually, not facts, but opinions about the form by various short-story writers and critics). I encourage my readers to post any opinions about the form with which they are familiar as a comment to this post. Of course, opinion about the authorial opinions would be welcome also.

Twenty-Five Random Opinions about the Short Story

1. "The particular problem of the short story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible...The type of mind that can understand [the short story] is the kind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery."
--Flannery O'Connor

2. "A tale from which pieces have been raked out is like a fire that has been poked. One does not know the operation has been performed, but everyone feels the effect."
--Rudyard Kipling

3. "In short stories it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because, because--I don't know why."
--Anton Chekhov

4. "The short story is a dream verbalized, arranged in space and presented to the world...the dream is said to be some kind of manifestation of desire, so the short story must also represent a desire, perhaps only partly expressed, but the most interesting thing about it is its mystery."
--Joyce Carol Oates

5. "Story is very close to liturgy, which is why one's children like to have the story repeated exactly as they heard it the night before. The script ought not to deviate from the prescribed form."
--Hugh Hood

6. "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."
--V. S. Pritchett

7. "A 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."
--William Faulkner

8. "The short story, compared with the novel, is a lonely, personal art; the lyric cry in face of human destiny, it does not deal as the novel does with types or with problems of moment, but with what Synge calls 'the profound and common interests of life'."
--Frank O'Connor

9. "Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society.... As a result there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel--an intense awareness of human loneliness."
--Frank O'Connor

10. "The first necessity for the short story...is necessariness. The story, that is to say, must spring from an impression or perception pressing enough, acute enough to have made the writer write.
--Elizabeth Bowen

11. "The first thing we notice about our story is that we can't really see the solid outlines of it--it seems bathed in something of its own. It is wrapped in an atmosphere. This is what makes it shine, perhaps, as well as what initially obscures its plain, real shape.
--Eudora Welty

12. "The strongest convention of the novel, prolonged coherence of tone...is false to the nature of whatever can be grasped of human reality.... where contact is more like the flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, not there, in darkness. Short-story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of--the present moment." --Nadine Gordimer

13. A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents--he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect... In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one preestablished design."
--Edgar Allan Poe

14. "The real challenge is to pull as much of life as a story can bear into the fewest possible pages: to produce, if possible, that hallucinatory point in which time past and time future seems to co-exist with time present, that hallucinatory point which to me defines the good or great short story..."
--Maurice Shadbolt

15. "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."
--Raymond Carver

16. "[The short story] is as if it were torn away from its cultural background." --A. W. Schlegel

17. "The short-story writer knows that he can't proceed cumulatively, that time is not his ally. His only solution is to work vertically, heading up or down in literary space."
--Julio Cortazar

18. "[The short story is] a form in which the writer makes alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe everyday, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.... Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected."
--Flannery O'Connor

19. "The belief that life is a dream and we the dreamers only dreams, which comes to us at strange, romantic, and tragic moments, what is it but a desire for the great legend, the powerful story rooted in all things which explains life to us and, understanding which, the meaning of things can be threaded through all that happens."
--Christina Stead

20. "In real life, as in a story, something must happen. 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.... All that happens may be delightful: but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted.... In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something which is not successive."
-C. S. Lewis

21. "[The short story creates] a vivid realization for the reader of that which moved the author to write, be it incident, be it emotion, be it situation.... thus the art of the short story becomes as much an art of tone as of incident."
-H. S. Canby

22. "The essence of the short story is to isolate, to portray the individual person, or moment, or scene in isolation‑‑detached from the great continuum‑‑at once social and historical.... the short story is a natural form for the presentation of a moment whose intensity makes it seem outside the ordinary stream of time, or the significance is outside the ordinary range of experience." ---Wendell Harris

23. "In the short story, the narrative form which pin‑points the strangeness and ambiguity of life, lyricism must entirely conceal itself behind the hard outlines of the event...The short story is the most purely artistic form; it expresses the ultimate meaning of all artistic creation as mood."
--George Lukacs

24. "I see today a new art of narration, a novel literature and category of belles-lettres, dawning upon the world. And this new art and literature--for the sake of the individual characters in the story, and in order to keep close to them and not be afraid--will be ready to sacrifice story itself.... The literature of individuals is a noble art, a great earnest and ambitious human product. But it is a human product. The divine art is the story. In the beginning was the story.... Within our whole universe the story only has authority to answer the cry of heart of its characters, that one cry of heart of each of them: 'Who am I?'"
--Isak Dinesen

25. "The short story, free from the longuers of the novel is also exempt from the novel's conclusiveness--too often forced and false: it may thus more nearly than the novel approach aesthetic and moral truth."
-Edith Wharton


Charlene said...

Hi Charles,
A particularly good blog post to find as I slog through writing the second half of a short story. In the past, when I’ve hit this point, I switch over in fear to a “cause and effect” style of writing that gets me quickly to the end, but with a far less successful story than I intended. I am slowly coming to the realization that it is the writer’s “impressions” or “perceptions” (#10) pressing in that will push the story to the “hallucinatory point” (#14)—love that description!—instead of a solid, well-lit plan.

#17 is intriguing: “to work vertically, heading up or down in literary space.” That feels true, but I have no idea what it means. It actually hurts my head to try to get a handle on it, which I take as a good thing.

Thanks for all your generous posts. Charlene

ChrisG said...

I have to imagine that part of you died as you typed #4 (the Oates quote). I know your disdain for her writing runs deep. :)

I imagine that you feel about Oates the way I feel about T.C. Boyle: more than a sense of "What's the fuss, anyhow?", but rather a sense that their stories are too carefully planned, the metaphors and the language too perfectly artificial for the whole of it to reflect life's blemishes. Boyle, of course, often appears in the New Yorker. A few years ago, a Boyle story called "Chicxulub" was published there, and I remember reading it one night in bed, offended on behalf of those that practice the art of the short story that this story was being presented to us as a triumph of the form in as austere a publication as the New Yorker. It had no mystery, no intangible quality that made it fun and gave it life. Instead it was a tired, obvious, and drawn-out simile; it seemed to have been produced by the literary equivalent of a drum machine--mechanical, lacking that which makes it FEEL REAL.

As you've talked about Oates, here and in front of a classroom, appreciating her success if not her artistic virtue, I've come to the same conclusion about Boyle. (Then again, having not read _Tortilla Curtain_, which many of my colleagues assign in basic writing classes, perhaps that judgment is unfair or premature. I welcome comments on that from anyone here who's familiar with that book. It sits on my bookshelf, neglected and covered with a fine layer of dust, until someone convinces me to read it.)

Charles E. May said...

Hi, Chris. Good to hear from you. Yep, I feel pretty much the same about Oates as I do Boyle. T. C. Boyle has always wanted to be famous. Almost twenty years ago, he told an interviewer, "I would like to have about four or five times the audience Michael Jackson has for his records--and out dance him publicly." More recently, the FAQ file at tcboyle.com quotes him as saying that if he had the choice of having a million people read his books or making a million dollars, he would take the first without qualification.

In print and in person, Boyle is always the showman. Tall and lean, with shaggy hair and scraggly beard, he looks like a hippie Ichabod Crane, (which seems appropriate since he is originally from a small town on the banks of the Hudson River, immortalized by the first most famous storyteller in America, Washington Irving).

Boyle says that in his readings he wants to give the audience a good show, that he likes the power of being able to cast a spell. At the Los Angeles Times Book Festival a couple of years ago where Boyle is a popular regular, he warned the audience he was going to break their hearts, and then read “Chicxulub,” a story about a parent’s worse nightmare, transforming several hundred Angelenos into transfixed peasants gathered around a fireplace in a sod hut.

The question readers must face when reading the stories of Joyce Carol Oates is whether she does indeed possess a "literary voice" that gives her gothic plots and lowlife characters artistic dignity. Is she indeed able to transform the stuff of reality television and tabloid journalism into significant art, or is she basically a competent professional who mimics the voice of better writers from whom she has learned her craft?

If Oates has not received the critical recognition her fiction deserves, as some admirers have charged, it is legitimate to ask why this is so. Readers might well ask what is the difference between what Joyce Carol Oates does with the theme of a lonely, unattractive female in her story "Ugly" and what a writer such as Andre Dubus has done with similar themes. In Oates' story, Alice, the cynical waitress, is angry at men for their insistence on beauty in a woman. However, Oates becomes so intellectually interested in this gender question and with the pop-psychology implications of female ugliness and its relationship to loneliness that her relatively uneducated waitress narrator constantly, and implausibly, ponders these issues in Oatesian aphoristic terms, observing, for example, that ugliness in a man doesn't matter much, while ugliness in a woman is her life, or that loneliness is like starvation, for you don't realize how hungry you are until you begin to eat, or that one advantage of being ugly is that you don't waste time trying to look your best, for you will never look your best.

The result of Oates' having her narrator thinking about these things so much, thereby providing exposition for the theme of the story, is that the character herself never really becomes much more than a two-dimensional embodiment of that theme. Andre Dubus's stories about unattractive women, in spite of feminist charges of gender appropriation when a man writes about a woman, create much more complex human characters and reader concern than Oates' story does.

However, to take a subject that has been "ripped from the headlines," as one television trailer touts a popular weekly crime show, is a risky business, for while such stuff may be great fodder for the tabloids, unless the writer is very intelligent and subtle, it is difficult to transform these from gritty and repulsive reality into the stuff of art. Although Oates once said, not very originally, that art is the conversion of elemental forces into permanent form, it is questionable whether she herself is able to achieve such a task. Joyce Carol Oates can write to order; she is the Hallmark Greeting Card artist of modern society's unquenchable thirst for the brutal, the violent, the morbid--all the while excusing their bloodlust by convincing themselves they are reading high art.

Too often, Oates' stories read like creative writing assignments. And indeed, students who want to learn how to write short fiction could do worse than read the stories of Joyce Carol Oates and imitate what she does. For she is a complete craftsman who can mimic the conventions of the form. However, as John Barth has his Genie and the archetypal storyteller Scheherazade say in his book Chimera (1972), telling stories, like making love, takes more than good technique; while both heartfelt ineptitude and heartless skill have their appeal, what one really wants is "passionate virtuosity." No matter how well a writer knows the conventions and techniques of a genre, without a deeply felt sense of human mystery that compels the great writer to write, the result is apt to be bloodless. Oates can scare you, but then a well-placed "boo" can do the same; the question is, can she profoundly mystify you and tear your heart out? She is certainly a virtuoso, but does she have passion?

Lee said...

'Passionate virtuosity' - wonderful!

(I agree with you about JCO - among others.)

B. J. Robinson said...

Enjoyed the quotes about short stories. Intriguing :) B. J. Robinson

Felipe Costa said...

Beautiful work, very interesting.