Friday, May 29, 2015

The Evolution of the Short Story: Genre and Form

In the January 25th, 1914 edition of the New York Times, twenty-six of the most successful authors of their day responded to a query, "What is the best short story in English?"

Original article here.
Previous discussion here.

The stories they selected constitute a time capsule: what the literati deemed as the best in short literature before the diversity of literary voices was commonplace, before the best of writing was defined by its shades of grey and infused with the wicked taste of irony.


The short story, as we know it today, is approximately two centuries old and 1914 can be seen as its midpoint. In fact, this year may have provided the perfect dividing line. On the eve of the madness of World War I, many of the more experimental forms of writing were still germinating. (Years later, Virginia Woolf would assert that modernism began in or about December of 1910). In June 1914, James Joyce published his first collection of short stories, The Dubliners. D. H. Lawrence’s first collection of stories, The Prussian Officer, was published in November. Franz Kafka’s first collection, including Metamorphosis, came in 1915. The revolutions of modernism, surrealism, and imagism, which had begun to appear in novels and poetry, for the most part, had yet to infuse the art of the short story, which was still dominated by the need to publish in popular magazines.

At the same time, the old guard had passed on. In the previous ten years the world had lost the voices of Mark Twain (1910), O. Henry (1910), Leo Tolstoy (1910), Jules Verne (1905), Kate Chopin (1904), and Anton Chekhov (1904). In an event that symbolized of the end of an era, just one month before the New York Times article was published, the great short story writer Ambrose Bierce disappeared, fate unknown.

The year 1914 can also be viewed as being at the cusp of the turning point in the formal recognition of excellence in writing. The Best American Short Stories series would begin in 1915. Also for Americans, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction would begin in 1917 and two years later, the O. Henry Awards for short stories. In Britain, the Hawthornden Prize and the James Tait Black Prize were founded in 1919. Other than school prizes, the only regular awards for literature presented before 1914 were the Nobel Prize and the Prix Femina (France). The New York Times article referenced here joins with these as an historic tribute from their peers.

Genres and Styles of the Stories that were Selected.

The development of short stories in part grew out of fantasy and fairy tales, from Aesop to the Brothers Grimm. This heritage is reflected in such selections as Rip Van Winkle, A Christmas Carol, Will o' the Mill, The Door in the Wall, Markheim and A Cricket on the Hearth.

Horror and mystery, so integral to the foundation of short stories, appeared as common genres. Beyond selecting four tales by Poe, there are suspense mysteries by Cobb and Elliott, a mummy story by Conan Doyle, a ghost story by Bulwer-Lytton, and such horror classics as The Turn of the Screw and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Even the family novella A Christmas Carol employed ghosts and chain rattling.

Several of the selections include extensive use of dialect in a manner which seems antiquated—at least—and often offensive. The best (e.g., Twain) do this with a sense that most everyone has a peculiar form of speech. The worse relegate it only to the poorer classes, the rural or certain ethnicities, often employing fractured speech for humor. If the goal of the author is to communicate, what does the following achieve?

And dis all cum ob de goole-bug! de putty goole-bug! de poor little goole-bug, what I boosed in dat sabage kind ob style! (Poe’s The Gold Bug)

It has no use other than presenting the character (a slave in the Old South) as ignorant and fearful, the basest of comic relief.

In contrast, in A. Neil Lyons’ Love in a Mist, the cockney brogue rises to the elegance of music. We celebrate with the character the glories and pratfalls of their fractured English. "Ruth was 'er name. She 'ad 'er whack of sorrows, but kep' 'er sense, an' most of 'er sauce, too."

Race is a frequent theme in many of the stories. One of the recurring subjects of the literature of Kipling was the examination of the interaction of races and cultures, and of empire and those under its rule. Two of his selected stories (Beyond the Pale and Without Benefit of Clergy) depict the tragic consequences of romantic relations between the British and Indians. Some critics (Orwell among them) view his writing as racist while others (T. S. Eliot) have defended its subtleties. The contrast between some stories is stark, such as comparing The Man Who Would Be King (Kipling), a rousing adventure of would-be monarchs, with Heart of Darkness (Conrad), a horror story where the "emperor" is the monster.

A word applied to people of black origin and offensive to most people today, in various forms—person, place-name and adjective—is found 64 times among the selected works both in stories dealing with race and in casual appearances such as in "n----- luck" in The Outcasts of Poker Flat. Beyond blacks, other minorities did not fare well (although certainly well below the 64 derogatory epithets noted above). Though a master craftsman, Kipling often comes across as offensive.

Some of the best stories looked at race and class by turning convention on its head. The top two vote-getters, A Lodging for the Night and The Outcasts of Poker Flat, deal directly with who is given the role of hero and who is the castoff of society.

Among the selected works, nine included lyrics from songs. The great expansion of copyright laws that took place over the subsequent years and the unfeasible pricing for use of even a bit of lyric have extinguished this practice: the modern author would lose all revenue from the story (and more) to pay for rights. Even novelists can seldom afford such a luxury. Author Blake Morrison used one line from the song "Jumping Jack Flash" for a price of £535, about $800. A line from a Beatles song cost $1000. Such gouging is likely preventing the artists from receiving a reasonable tribute and impoverish our culture heritage.

Several pieces include poetry mixed with narrative. The story Rebecca and Rowena is particularly long on verse. The combination of poetry and narrative was much more common in the nineteenth century, with Ivanhoe and Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, as prime examples.

Melodrama and overt sentimentality infuse a number of the stories. O. Henry’s An Unfinished Story is a slyly constructed tale about a noble shop girl and the few sad choices in her life. Morris's The Claws of the Tiger takes many of the same elements as O. Henry's piece and plays them to a crescendo of tragedy.

What may seem most antique is the sense of heroism that often informs these pieces. Whether it is the quiet nobility of Bob Cratchit or the braggadocio of a Kipling hero, these characters represent how the readers liked to imagine themselves, the soldiers in their armies and their nations. Many of these works are populist and patriotic. With some notable exceptions — e.g., The Outcasts of Poker Flat, The Heart of Darkness — good was good and bad was bad.

Plotting, Not Plodding

In a recent opinion piece, author and teacher Hanif Kureishi stated, “A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between.” The works presented in the 1914 article don’t suffer from that syndrome. Plotting is methodical and characters are etched with precision. It is easy to argue that these works go to the other extreme: they are too focused on the narrative drive, in other words, too traditional. However, in being the best of the best, they often violated the conventions of their day. This could be through subject matter, such as Cantwell’s An Incident, in which Southern injustice is laid bare. It could be through a complete disrespect for propriety such as in Rebecca and Rowena. It could be through experimenting with form, such as in O. Henry’s delightful A Municipal Report, which mixes travelogue with narrative. Among others in this collection, Stevenson’s A Lodging for the Night and Harte’s The Outcasts of Poker Flat play with moral conventions. In a more serious manner, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was among the first to use an anti-hero and take on the idolized and idealized notion of empire. James’s A Turn of the Screw draws horror from the then modern notion of psychological dissonance and what is left unsaid.

Other works, although conforming to tradition, represent masterpieces of craft. Dickens’ Doctor Marigold is narrated by a pushcart peddler and hawker. To him, everything, including his wife and child and life and death, are described in bartering terms. In Wharton’s A Journey, we are trapped with a woman in a desperate situation: on a train, sitting next to a corpse and unable to escape.

Each of the works selected was deliberately and carefully crafted. Although many are flawed, each is a jewel. The works were collected in three volumes, totaling over 1500 pages. 


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