Introduction to the First Edition, 1994

views updated


The first 120 years of the development of the short story in Europe and America divides into two almost equal periods—the movement from romanticism to realism between 1820 and 1880 and the movement from realism to impressionism between 1880 and 1940. The first period is characterized by a gradual shift from the romantic psychologizing of the old romance and folktale form in the early part of the century by Poe, Hawthorne, Gogol, and Mérimée to the emphasis on objective reality in the latter part of the century by the great realistic novelists; the second period is marked by a lyrical and metaphoric transformation of objective reality at the turn of the century by Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Sherwood Anderson, and others. Because the story of these shifts in the form have been told so many times before, I will focus my introduction to this reference guide on the development of the short story in the last half century.

New literary movements usually begin as a reaction against whatever literary movement is predominant at the time, especially when the conventions of the existing movement become stereotyped. Realism, which dominated the writing of fiction during the latter part of the 19th century in Europe and America, was a reaction against the stereotyped sentimentalizing of the romantic movement that prevailed during the early part of the century. The basic difference between romantics and realists is a philosophic disagreement about what constitutes significant "reality." For the romantics, what was meaningfully real was the ideal or the spiritual, a transcendent objectification of human desire. For the realists what mattered was the stuff of the physical world. For the romantics, pattern was more important than plausibility; thus, their stories were apt to be more formal and "literary" than the stories of the realists. By insisting on a faithful adherence to the stuff of the external world, the realists often allowed content—which was apt to be ragged and random—to dictate form. As a result, the novel, which can expand to better create an illusion of everyday reality, became the favored form of the realists, while the short story, basically a romantic form that requires more artifice and patterning, took on a secondary role. However, the nature of "reality" began to change around the turn of the century, with the beginnings of so-called "modernism."

The most powerful influences on the short story in the modernist period were Russian and Irish. Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Katherine Anne Porter, and many others inherited from Anton Chekhov and James Joyce a technique of communicating complex emotional states by setting up artful patterns of simple concrete detail. As a result, the short story experienced a renaissance of respect not enjoyed since its beginnings half a century earlier with Hawthorne in America, Gogol in Russia, and Flaubert in France.

In the 40-year period between the publication of Sherwood Anderson's epoch-making Winesburg, Ohio in 1919 and Bernard Malamud's National Book Award winner The Magic Barrel in 1958, the "artful approach" initiated by Chekhov and Joyce dominated short fiction. However, in spite of this new kind of impressionistic realism introduced by Chekhov, Joyce, and Anderson early in the century, the form still retained its links to its older mythic and romance ancestors. Thus, two strains of the short story developed in the first half of the century—the stark new realistic style typical of Hemingway and his Russian compatriot Isaac Babel and the more mythic romance style of such writers as William Faulkner and Isak Dinesen.

Both styles are combined in the stories of Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, John Steinbeck, Carson McCullers, John Cheever, Richard Wright, Truman Capote, I. B. Singer, and Bernard Malamud during this period. The characteristics of the work of these writers are a focus on the grotesque, the use of traditional folktale structures and motifs, a concern with the aesthetic experience, a fascination with the dream experience, a search for style and form, an insistence on the importance of language, the use of surrealistic imagery, and the development of a tightly unified poetic form.

This combination of both realistic and mythic styles continued up through the second half of the century, making short story writers of the period between 1960 and 1990 also roughly fall into two different groups. On the one hand, the ultimate extreme of the mythic/romance style is the fantastic anti-story of Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth, and Donald Barthelme. On the other hand, the extremes of Chekhovian realism can be seen in the so-called "minimalism" of Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and Cynthia Ozick. The very fact that the mythic/romance style of such writers as Gabriel García Márquez is sometimes called "magical realism," while the minimalist style of Raymond Carver is sometimes called "hyperrealism" indicates that the twin streams of romance and realism are inextricably blended in the works of contemporary short story writers. The conventions of the old romance form become the very subject matter of the stories of Borges, Barth, and Barthelme, while the conventions of Chekhovian realism are practically parodied in the hyperrealism of Carver, Beattie, and Ozick.

If a major part of modernism in the early part of the century was manifested as James Joyce's frustration of conventional expectations about the cause-and-effect nature of plot and the "as-if-real" nature of character, then postmodernism pushes this tendency even further so that contemporary fiction is less and less about objective reality and more and more about its own creative processes. The primary effect of this mode of thought on contemporary fiction is that the short story loosens its illusion of reality to explore the reality of its own illusion. Rather than presenting itself as if it were real—a mimetic mirroring of external reality—postmodernist short fiction often makes its own artistic conventions and devices the subject of the story as well as its theme. The short story as a genre has always been more likely to lay bare its fictionality than the novel, which has traditionally tried to cover it up.

The most important precursor of the contemporary self-reflexive short story is the South American writer Jorge Luis Borges, who in turn owes his own allegiance to Poe and Kafka. Because of Borges's overriding interest in aesthetic and metaphysical reality, his stories, like many of those of Poe, often resemble fables or essays. Borges's most common technique is to parody previously established genres such as the science fiction story, the philosophical essay, or the detective story by pushing them to grotesque extremes. He realizes that reality is not the composite of the simple empirical data that we experience every day but rather much more subjective, metaphysical, and thus mysterious than we often think that it is. Poe's detective story reminds us, says Borges, that reality is a highly patterned human construct, like fiction itself.

The most important follower of Borges is John Barth, who turned from the novel form to the short story in the late 1960s with Lost in the Funhouse (1968), an experimental collection in which the stories refuse to focus their attention on the external world and instead continually turn the reader's attention back to the process of fiction making. Barth insists that the prosaic in fiction is only there to be transformed into fabulation. The artist's ostensible subject is not the main point; rather it is only an excuse or raw material for focusing on the nature of the fiction-making process. Great literature, says Barth, is almost always, regardless of what it is about, about itself.

For Donald Barthelme, the most important postmodernist writer to specialize almost solely in the short story, the problem of language is the problem of reality, for reality is the result of language processes. The problem of words, Barthelme realizes, is that so much contemporary language is used up, has become trash, dreck. Barthelme takes as his primary task the recycling of language, making metaphor out of the castoffs of technological culture. He has noted that, if photography forced painters to reinvent painting, then films have forced fiction writers to reinvent fiction. Since films tell a realistic narrative so well, the fiction writer must develop a new principle. Collage, says Barthelme, is the central principle of all art in the 20th century. One of the implications of this collage process is a radical shift from the usual cause-and-effect process of fiction to the more spatial and metaphoric process of poetry. Critics have complained that Barthelme's work is without subject matter, without character, without plot, and without concern for the reader's understanding. These very characteristics, of course, have placed Barthelme with such writers as Robert Coover, William H. Gass, Ronald Sukenick, Raymond Federman, John Hawkes, and John Barth on the leading edge of postmodernist fiction.

However, alongside this extension of the Poe/Kafka fantastic story can be seen a further development of the Chekhov/Joyce realistic story, the most polished and profound practitioner of which is Raymond Carver. Since his collection of short stories Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? was nominated for the National Book Award in 1976, Carver has been the most admired short story writer in American literature and the leader of a renaissance of the form in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Part of a trend of short fiction that Barth playfully termed "hyperrealistic minimalism," or the "less-is-more" school, Carver's stories are stubbornly taciturn and reluctant to speak. Like the stories of his mentors, Chekhov and Hemingway, they communicate by indirection, suggesting much by saying little. The stories are like stark black-and-white snapshots of lives lived in a kind of quiet, even silent, desperation, told in a language that, even as it seems simple and straightforward, is highly studied and stylized. Most of Carver's stories have more of the ambience of dream than of everyday reality, yet the stories are not oneiric parables in the usual sense. His characters give us the feel of emotional reality that reaches the level of myth, even as they refuse to give us the feel of physical or simple psychological reality.

Although marital strife is perhaps the most common subject in modern American short fiction, Ann Beattie probes beyond the ordinary level of this theme by projecting the seemingly inevitable conflicts between married partners outward onto a metaphoric object or a mirror-image third party. Beattie is not interested in something so ordinary and blatant as adultery as the cause of separation; rather she focuses on the elusive emotions and subtle tensions that often underlie breakups. Because of their delicate nature, the conflicts Beattie is concerned with cannot be expressed directly and discursively but rather must be embodied in a seemingly trivial object or an apparently irrelevant other person. One result of this realistic-minimalist technique is that, although a story may begin with seemingly pedestrian details, as the details accumulate, they begin to take on a lyrical tone and to assume a metaphoric importance.

A number of contemporary short story writers have combined the realism of Chekhov and Joyce with the mythic and linguistic characteristics of Hispanic, Native American, and African-American cultures. The best-known example of this combination is the South American writer Gabriel García Márquez, whose so-called "magical realism" presents events that take place within the realm of magic even though they seem to be given a context of earthly realism. Like Franz Kafka, whom he imitated in his early works, García Márquez creates a world in which human dreams, desires, and fears are objectified as if they existed in the real world.

Leslie Marmon Silko's "Yellow Woman" is a model in some ways of this combination of styles, for, although it takes place in the modern world of jeeps and Jell-O, it also resonates with the primitive world of folktale and legend. What Silko succeeds in doing in this story is yoking a modern woman's fantasy with ancient myth. Since myth is the objectification of desire, the events of "Yellow Woman" seem mythically appropriate, for, by identifying the protagonist with the mythic creature Yellow Woman, the mysterious male stranger transforms her into a goddess who represents the power of all women—huntress, moon goddess, mother of the game, and wife of war—even as she remains a character in the modern world.

Toni Cade Bambara says that her preference as a writer and a teacher is for the short story because it "makes a modest appeal for attention, slips up on your blind side and wrassles you to the mat before you know what's grabbed you." Furthermore, she says about her own use of fiction as a method of persuading: "Writing in a rage can produce some interesting pyrotechnics, but there are other ways to keep a fire ablaze, it seems to me…. There are hipper ways to get to gut and brain than with hot pokers and pincers." One of her best-known stories, "The Lesson," communicates its lesson without leaning heavily on the lesson itself. The focus of Bambara's story, although it is based on the social issue of the disparity between the economic states of African Americans and white Americans, is not the social issue itself but one young girl's confrontation with it.

Cynthia Ozick, a Jewish short story writer in the tradition of Bernard Malamud, manages an almost magical blend of lyricism and realism to create a world that is both mythically distant and socially immediate at the same time. Although she is also a skilled novelist and poet, as well as the author of a number of essays on Judaism, art, and feminism, it is her short stories that most powerfully reflect her mythic imagination and her poetic use of language. Ozick's most powerful story, "The Shawl," which won first prize in 1981 in the O. Henry Prize Stories collection, is about a young Jewish woman in a German concentration camp whose infant is thrown into an electrical fence. It is not solely the event that creates the story's powerful impact, however, as horrible as that event is; it is also the hallucinatory style with which the fiction is created.

Ever since the beginning of the form in both Europe and America, there has always been something vaguely disturbing about short stories. Whereas novels leave us with a sense of completion, even satisfaction, short stories are apt to make us feel vexed, disconcerted, or mystified. We are not quite sure what Roderick Usher's illness is, why Bartleby "prefers not to," or why Goodman Brown must go into the forest on this one night of all nights of the year. What, we wonder, would cause ordinary people to stone someone to death in "The Lottery"? What is so important about Gogol's overcoat? Why do Hemingway's hills look like white elephants? What on earth are we to make of Kafka's human-sized cockroach?

Although we may not be sure why, we sense that the short story does not tell the same kind of story that the novel does. The novel seems to present human experience in a mostly familiar way, as if a mirror were held up to reality in which all the details of life, big and little, are reflected. Novels seem therefore relatively artless, the actions they describe motivated by cause and effect, the mere passage of time, many of them jogging along as if they could go on forever. Short stories, on the other hand, seem motivated by the inner necessity of the story, the need to recount an event that breaks up familiar experience and then moves toward an ending that is purposeful, meaningful, planned.

The short story is, on the one hand, a primitive or mythic form that seems to spring forth primarily in societies in which social structures in the broad sense have not taken over. Short stories present characters in situations in which the social does not exist to substitute social abstractions for existential confrontation. Because the short story situation is like that of dream or myth, because it is more atmosphere than events, its meaning is difficult to apprehend. As Conrad's Marlowe understands in attempting to tell the story of Kurtz and the journey into the heart of darkness, the meaning of the kind of episode on which the short story is usually built is not within like a kernel "but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze." "Do you see the story?" Marlowe impatiently asks. "Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—-making a vain attempt. No relation of a dream can convey that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams."

However, even as these characteristics of the short story link it to its origins in the oneiric vision of myth and folktale, the South African writer Nadine Gordimer suggests that the short story is a distinctively modern form, better equipped than the novel to capture ultimate reality in the modern world of truth as perspective. The strongest convention of the novel, says Gordimer, "prolonged coherence of tone, to which even the most experimental of novels must conform unless it is to fall apart, is false to the nature of whatever can be grasped of human reality." Gordimer points out that even if chronology and narrative are juggled and rearranged in the novel there still is a consistency of human experience that is false to the nature of life as we experience it, in which "contact is more like the flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, now there, in darkness." The short story writer sees "by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of—the present moment…. A discrete moment of truth is aimed at—not the moment of truth, because the short story doesn't deal in cumulatives."

The question of the short story form being true to reality or false to it, of being a basically primitive form or most appropriate to the modern vision, requires a reevaluation of what we mean when we define what is truly real. If we assume that reality is what one experiences every day as our well-controlled and comfortable self, then the short story often seems fantastic or hyperrealistic. If, however, we feel that immanent in the everyday is some other reality that somehow evades us, then the short story is more real than the novel can possibly be.

—by Charles E. May

About this article

Introduction to the First Edition, 1994

Updated About content Print Article


Introduction to the First Edition, 1994