A SHORT HISTORY of the SHORT STORY

Article excerpt

JOHN BIGUENET would be your favorite English professor, were you fortunate enough to be in one of his classes at New Orleans' Loyola University. But even if you can't make it to the Crescent City, he might be one of your favorites--as an author. Biguenet, a former poet-turned-fiction writer, is one

of a growing number of ambitious artists doing terrific work in a form that until recently seemed to be in decline but may be gathering its strength for a genuine renaissance: the short story.

On an unusually chilly winter day, Biguenet patiently waits in line for his daily dose of caffeine at a coffee shop near campus, and as several of his students say hello, he returns their greetings in a soft, tenor voice. With his generous smile and dry wit, conversations with him reveal the same broad-ranging intellect and creative reach that can be found in his debut collection of short stories from Ecco Press, The Torturer's Apprentice. (One of the stories, "I Am Not a Jew," appears on this issue.)

The collection's name, drawn from the title of the first story Biguenet ever published, wasn't chosen lightly. "The very things that drove me to fiction from poetry had to do with older and younger people--teacher, student, father, child--and the idea of apprenticeship was an interesting motif to explore," Biguenet says. "The subjects [of the stories] are very difficult, so I'm demanding a great deal of my readers. I think literature is the most serious of human undertakings, and if it doesn't change us, then what's the point?"

As a poet, Biguenet strove to master as many variations on that form as he could, from free verse to the sonnet. He grew frustrated, however, with poetry's limitations, specifically American poetry's overriding concern with issues of the self. "I found that as I got older there were a lot of subjects I wanted to address that I couldn't effectively address in a first-person poem," he says. "When I turned to fiction, I had my choice of settings, of character and, most importantly to me, of structures."

As a short-story writer, or "craftsman," as Biguenet likes to describe himself, he felt the same responsibility to master as many elements of fiction as he could. His dedication and discipline paid off: He's been published in magazines and journals such as Granta, Story and DoubleTake, and his haunting, 700-word story "Rose," which originally appeared in Esquire in January 1999, won him a 2000 O. Henry Award.

THE SHORT STORY IS DEAD. LONG LIVE THE SHORT STORY.

Everyone has a story. It's often told to great roaring laughter at dinner parties and rolled eyes and groans at family gatherings. But while the tradition of oral history hails from an ancient time, the written short story--as Biguenet and an encouragingly large number of other writers working in the genre define it--is a surprisingly modern invention. The form was established with the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales in 1837 and Edgar Allan Poe's renowned review of it for Graham's Magazine in 1842. "We have always regarded the Tale (using this word in its popular acceptation) as affording the best prose opportunity for display of the highest talent," wrote Poe. "It has peculiar advantages which the novel does not admit. It is, of course, a far finer field than the essay. It has even points of superiority over the poem."

Poe called the short story the child of the American magazine, and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the growing number of pulp magazines--Argosy, Shriek!, The Literary Digest, The All-Story and others--all needed short fiction to fill their monthly or weekly pages. Editors found a receptive audience, eager for cheap entertainment. "Slick" magazines like Collier's, Cosmopolitan and The Saturday Evening Post also offered fiction, although the price and contents were geared toward middle- and upper-class readers. Plot-driven pieces provided regular installments of suspense to readers who wanted to know what was going to happen next--not what the larger import of symbolism might be. …