The American Short Story since 1950

By Kasia Boddy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
How to Write Short Stories

The mutual dependence between the short story and the magazine was well established by mid-century and, during the 1940s and 1950s, it continued to flourish as the New Yorker became the magazine in which every writer wished to publish. Chapter 2 will consider some of the major writers, such as J. D. Salinger and John Cheever, associated with the magazine and ask whether it makes sense to talk of a ‘New Yorker short story’. But during this period, a rather different symbiotic dependence was also being forged: one between the short story and the university classroom. This chapter will consider what mid-century Americans learned about short-story writing in college.


A ‘Teachable’ Form

Education in how to write short stories began in response to the magazine-fuelled short-story boom of the late nineteenth century. The first textbook, Charles R. Burnett’s Short Story Writing, was published in 1898, and looking back from 1923, Fred Lewis Pattee declared the first decade of the century to be the great ‘era of the short-story handbook’.1 And for those who wanted further instruction, there were correspondence schools. The first opened for business in Scranton, PA in 1889, and by 1924, Ring Lardner wryly observed that ‘a glimpse at the advertising columns of our leading magazines shows that whatever else this country may be shy of, there is certainly no lack of correspondence schools that learns you the art of short-story writing.’ In response Lardner offered his own spoof, ‘How to Write Short Stories’, ending up with the advice to the novice writer not to enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope because ‘this is too much of a temptation to the editor’.2

It didn’t take long for colleges to realise how ‘particularly teachable’ the ‘short-story art’ was: perhaps because they didn’t think of it as an ‘art’ but as an ‘exact science’ and one whose rules could be easily, and

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