The Tardy Evolution of the British Short Story

By Baldwin, Dean | Studies in Short Fiction, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

The Tardy Evolution of the British Short Story

Baldwin, Dean, Studies in Short Fiction

One of the more curious anomalies of literary history is why the short story was so late to blossom in Britain. By the 1840s the genre was already established in America, and within two decades it had taken root in Germany, Russia, and France. I am speaking here, of course, of the modern short story, defined loosely as Poe's story of "single effect," not simply of fiction shorter than the typical novel. This modern story did not achieve prominence in Britain until the 1880s, even though Britain would appear especially likely to develop the genre, since during the period of the story's "invention," if we may call it that, Britain was a world leader in the writing and dissemination of fiction. I believe that the late appearance of the modern short story in Britain can best be understood as a question of literary economics, and, in the essay that follows, I attempt to outline how the business of literary production, in combination with aesthetic and theoretical factors, retarded the evolution of the short story in Britain until late in the nineteenth century.

It must be admitted at the outset that tracing the economic conditions that at first retarded and then encouraged the British short story after 1880 is not easy. The problem is not simply the usual one of trying to relate the complexities of audience, publication practices, and artistic propensities to the development of any literary phenomenon; it is also that the materials for such a study have not been gathered. By contrast, a considerable amount of work, both theoretical and statistical, has been done on the British and American novel to show the relationship between economics and the growth and development of that genre. Q. D. Leavis's Fiction and the Reading Public (1932) concerns the development of the reading audience. lan Watt's Rise of the Novel (1957) was among the early studies to link the popularity of the form with the growth of a middle-class readership. Richard Altick's English Common Reader (1957) contains a wealth of important information about the sociology of English readers and their tastes, but it touches only briefly on the short story. William Charvat's Literary Publishing in America 1790-1850 (1959) and his The Profession of Authorship in America, 1800-1870 (1968) cut across genres and have some useful things to say about the rise of magazines and the production of short stories, as does Frederick Lewis Pattee's The Development of the American Short Story (1923), but obviously, these studies focus on American literature. Since these early studies, there have been many more on various aspects of audience, economics, and literature, but again, the focus is on the novel: N. N. Feltes's Modes of Production of Victorian Novels (1986), James M. Brown, Dickens: Novelist in the Market-place (1982), Michael Anesko, Friction with the Market. Henry James and the Profession of Authorship (1986), James L. W. West III, American Authors and the Literary Marketplace Since 1900 (1988). Theoretical studies include Robert Escarpit, The Sociology of Literature (2nd ed, 1964), Per Gedin, Literature in the Marketplace (1977), and Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production (1978). All of this scholarship and much more--on the literary agent, the important literary magazines in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and on the literary aspects of the short story--have swirled around the economic and commercial aspects of the British short story without ever addressing the subject directly or in any detail.

Another impediment to understanding the evolution of the British story has been the lack of historical studies focused on it. Rather recently, however, two detailed histories of the nineteenth-century British short story have appeared that lay the foundation for an economic study: Wendell Harris's British Short Fiction in the Nineteenth Century: A Literary and Bibliographic Guide (1979) and Harold Orel's The Victorian Short Story (1986). Together they provide an important literary history of the British short story. …

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