A Poetics of Immediacy: Oral Narrative and the Short Story (the Short Story: Theory and Practice)

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The field of orality-literacy studies has helped broaden understanding m many disciplines, but it has not been introduced into discussions of the short story with any rigor, To approach the short story as something other than a kind of truncated novel and thus to consider what it means to read a story, I would like to propose an alternative model for studying the short-story form. That model is the oral epic. The epic is not the oral genre most immediately associated with the short story: Mary Louise Pratt, among other critics, has discussed the proximity of the written story to oral forms of the fairy tale, the exemplum, and the ghost story as it has influenced theoretical discourse surrounding the short story (189-91). The oral epic differs, however, from these shorter forms because of its density and the complex nature of its audience, both of which are relevant to the modern written text.

Certainly, this is a genre that dramatically differs from the short story because it is not written down and because, more often than not, it occurs in verse rather than in prose. In his useful book, Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong also warns that for anyone in a literate culture, an oral way of thinking is extremely difficult to imagine.(1) With these reservations firmly in mind, however, we should nonetheless be able to learn something useful about storytelling from the oral epic. This pairing may be helpful to theorists and students of the short story precisely because of its unlikeliness. It is not meant as a way to separate clearly the short story from the novel, but as a way to step around the very comparison between those two written forms that has become the conventional method of understanding what a short story may be. That comparison can at times be no more inevitable than a recurring comparison between a sonnet and a long poem would be in a critical discussion of the sonnet. While the short story and the novel may share the very important qualities of being fictional, narrative, and written in prose, therefore, my aim in these pages is to focus on the story as a genre in its own right, bringing in comparisons to the novel only as occasional points of overlap and reference.

The oral-epic episode as a model serves to isolate and render more complex a critical understanding of the short story on a number of ways, and all of these contribute to an approach to the genre that I call a "poetics of immediacy." To begin with, the oral epic gives us another way to understand the density of meaning in short stories. It also provides a paradigm of audience that may bring to light certain aspects of reading the short story that are not as prevalent in discussions of the reading of texts in general. This audience, as it is related to the short story, works on the oral dynamic of a participating community, although the need to situate that community in terms of our myths or our politics can be problematic in a modern context. In the meantime, the density and multiple dimensions of the oral episode suggest another approach to ironic and metaphorical structures within the story form, and that new focus may need to rely more heavily on the unique role of the reader of the short story.


The study of oral art, as it occurs in primarily oral cultures, is an ongoing effort for which living examples are dwindling as the world becomes more and more literate. Within a diverse corpus of field studies and material, the work of Milman Parry, Albert Lord, and Adam Parry, although controversial, continues to serve as a cornerstone for the literary focus of much of the work on oral epic.(2) Oral narratives are highly formulaic. This formulaic construction applies not only to the surface language of a poem or story, but operates on a much deeper level, so that the most basic ideas that construct a narrative are themselves common and reusable. One of the most familiar instances of oral epic is The Odyssey although, ironically enough, the text we have put at the center of our canon of Western culture is itself a static version of what was probably a constantly changing oral narrative. …