Modernism, Postmodernism and the Short Story

Article excerpt

Abstract This essay discusses the different approaches to modernism and postmodernism together with the development of the modern short story in English and its theorisations. Drawing on Dominic Head's The Modernist Short Story (1992), the essay highlights the genre's importance in the genesis of modernism as a significant instance of artistic and personal autonomy, a key modernist issue which is linked to a mode of subjectivity in conflict with social totality to which the literary text gives formal expression. The abandonment of previous realist models meant the problematisation of representation and interpretation in modernism and their abrogation in postmodernism along with the evanescence of modernist autonomy and subjectivity. These issues re-emerge at later stages in answer to the need of accounting for the experience of the Other, a re-politisation of postmodernism that links it in some way to the historical avant-garde (Huyssen). The essay tackles in passing the controversial distinction between the avant-garde, modernism and postmodernism, sees in recent approaches to the postmodern short story a reformulation of a previously theorised association between the short story and the marginal, and closes by stating that postmodernism continues nowadays in the works of some talented innovators of the genre.

Keywords: short story, modernism, postmodernism, (anti-) representation, subjectivity, autonomy.

The Modern Short Story: Beginnings

As is commonly acknowledged, the modern short story in English is American in origin and is linked to Edgar Allan Poe more than anyone else. Poe had a great influence on writers such as Charles Baudelaire, the French symboliste poet to whom we owe the stock definition of "modernity" as "the transient, the fleeting, the contingent" (qtd. in Nicholls 5). Poe's dictum (published in 1842) that the structuring principle and aim of "the tale proper" was "the unity of effect or impression" (46) was echoed by later critics and practitioners such as Brander Matthews, in whose 1901 book-length study "the tale proper" became the "true Short-story" (52). Central to all these writers' arguments was the definition of the modern short story as a genre distinguished from other pre-existing shorter forms and from the novel in particular. Poe began his review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales by making clear that not all of the pieces collected there were "tales"; some were "pure essays" that lacked the remarkable "precision and finish" of the others which, unlike "the ordinary novel", were endowed with "true unity" and organic "totality" (45, 47). In Poe' s wake, Mathews affirmed that a "true Short-story is something other and something more that a mere story which is short" (57). Thus, he "perceive [d] that the Novel and the Short-story are essentially different - that the difference between them is not one of mere length only, but fundamental" (57). If, for Matthews, characteristics such as "symmetry of design", "compression" and "ingenuity" (57) were essential to the genre, for Elizabeth Bowen "the short story proper" exhibited features like "oblique narration, cutting (as in the cinema), the unlikely placing of emphasis, or symbolism [... which] were unknown" to those nineteenth-century English authors for whom the short story was just "the condensed novel" (153). Among the latter, Bowen counted James and Hardy, authors in whose stories "shortness is not positive; it is nonextension" (153). She echoed Poe' s insistence on the genre's organic unity ("spherical perfection", she called it), while at once declaring the short story "exempt from the novel's conclusiveness", "the crux of the plot" (156-57). By forsaking the novel's "too often forced and false" closure, the short story comes nearer "aesthetic and moral truth", and renders and perpetuates the subjective experience of "amazement" which "was in life a half-second of apprehension" (155).

Writing in 1939, Bowen affirmed that the short story - meaning the English short story - was "the child of this century" (152). …