The Short Story: The Short of It

Article excerpt

A number of significant changes in our understanding of the short story have occurred since the 1983 publication of two major books: Susan Lohafer's Coming to Terms with the Short Story and Valerie Shaw's The Short Story: A Critical Introduction. Perhaps most important, we have turned away from the unhelpful posture that generic distinctions are pernicious, a position that dominated criticism growing out of the Nouvelle Critique. Rather than struggling to show that we cannot know--that prose fiction may be referred to only as recit or narrative or fiction, that rare exceptions invalidate any generic rule--most professional readers have accepted the common knowledge that there is such a thing as genre and that delineating the various manifestations helps to understand what creative writers are about.

Among the advantages that could be claimed for current definitions of the short story, I might cite the effort to avoid emphasizing technique and to focus on function. Just as building codes that made lead pipes a legal requirement became needlessly restrictive when the much cheaper and more effective PVC pipe came into general usage (since lawmakers codified the material rather than addressing the issue of strength, durability, and capacity), so short-story definitions that turned around devices and vehicles (even one as important as plot or a narratively based conception of "story") crumbled when artists rolled out legions of "stories" that go nowhere, that exemplify what Joseph Frank has called "spacial form" and I have termed "image structure" (Pasco, Novel Configurations).

Take, for example, the case of Dominic Head's persuasive analysis of conflicting voices and cultural context in the modernist short story. His additional claim, however, that these traits have the status of generic characteristics for the short story as a whole fails to convince anyone who has read widely in the genre. As Head defines the qualities that interest him, there is no question that they occur in many short stories, but they are not universal traits. Despite the undoubted importance of work by such writers as James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, and Malcolm Lowery, as Lohafer put it, "|t~he modern story is merely a kind of story" (Coming to Terms 10). It is no more or less a short story than the preceding generation's creations, which tended to be dominated by a single, narrative voice. And, as Miriam Marry Clark makes clear in her consideration of recent short fiction (above), the postmodern story has carved out yet another set of characteristics.

Generic definitions based on devices, techniques, subject matter, in short on the short story's paradigm of interchangeable parts, have historically limited life and usefulness. Almost always, they exclude the preceding generation's creations, though the next generation takes revenge by rejecting these strategies for others. Most recent attempts at circumscribing an appropriate definition have, however, succeeded in minimizing emphasis on the constituent elements to center on the essential, core characteristics. Still, although I do not dispute the usefulness of definitions advanced by Norman Friedman ("Recent"), Lohafer (Coming to Terms), Michel Viegnes, Gerald Prince (above), and others, for the sake of simplicity, perhaps even of elegance, I turn to the formula I advanced several years ago: a short story is a short, literary prose fiction ("On Defining Short Stories"). I do so because, after reading the contributions to this special issue on the short story, I believe it appropriate to expand on a portion of my earlier essay and discuss the implications of one of the qualities incorporated in the definition: shortness.

Although I had thought to avoid the dangers of dark ice in these remarks, and not return to a defense of my definition, I find myself skating around the thinning edge when I turn towards brevity. As William Carlos Williams put it, however, "The principal feature re. …