Whatever Happened to the American Short Story?

By Shivani, Anis | Contemporary Review, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Whatever Happened to the American Short Story?


Shivani, Anis, Contemporary Review


RECENTLY, Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, made a controversial statement that American writers 'were too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture'. He added: 'The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining'. Not since Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993 has an American received it, leaving partisans of Philip Roth, John Updike, Don DeLillo, and Joyce Carol Oates to complain about the injustice. The sheer volume of literary output in America dwarfs anything produced by other countries. But how much of it is of quality, and does Engdahl have a point?

On the whole, his assertion about American literature's insularity is dead-on. Ironically, this seems to have been less true prior to America's emergence as the biggest global power after World War II, than in the days since. This may have had something to do with earlier American writers feeling insecure with respect to Europe's literary accomplishments, and wanting to be part of the great conversation, as Engdahl would have it. The short story is arguably America's literary form par excellence; it suits shorter attention spans, fulfilling the craving for concentration and economy. Until the 1960s, Americans probably wrote the best short stories of the twentieth century, not only from writers better known to the world, but from a legion of masters of the short form who were regularly anthologized in the Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Prize Stories, in the 1930s, 1940s. 1950s, and with evidence of high quality, well into the 1960s. To open any of these ancient anthologies at random is to come across example after example of mastery of the craft, from writers like William March, Harvey Swados, Kay Boyle. Roderick Lull. Robert M. Coates, David Cornel DeJong, William E. Barrett, Jean Stafford, R.V. Cassill (interestingly, the founder of the Associated Writing Programs, the umbrella for the nation's burgeoning creative writing departments, who later advocated its abolition), and countless other masters. But after the 1960s, writing became too professionalized, publishing too commercialized, and it became much safer - certainly more profitable - to wallow in the culture's narcissistic obsessions than to critique it in any substantial manner. America's 300 university writing programmes compel callow graduates to produce enormous quantities of short stories, published by literary quarterlies so great in number that there is no parallel in the world. These truly meet the definition of insularity breeding on insularity. Removed from the arena of experience, the professionalized teacher-writer now gives us not the existential hero of John Cheever and Richard Yates, at odds with society, but the inarticulate slouch of Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. The steep decline in short story writing rather accurately reflects determining trends in politics and culture. The insularity is of a peculiar kind, insofar as it is premised on a sad masochism - a psychological retreat in the face of the nation's mastery of global economic and scientific processes.

To illuminate this retreat, I wish to postulate a theory of decadence to explain current American compulsions in literary fiction. The term typically applies to art and style of the last fin de siecle in the 1890s, but aside from the starkly absent fixation on pleasure for its own sake, the rest of the structure works well again today. Borrowing from C. E. M. Joad's Decadence: A Philosophical Inquiry (1947), and Henri Lefebvre's Everyday Life in the Modern World (1971), I see all American fiction today as representing categories of victimization. A stronger theoretician than I am would connect today's victim chronologies with changing modes of nostalgia in its temporal and spatial manifestations. All American literature now is self-conscious pseudo-minority literature (when did America have a majority literature, and what happened to eclipse it? …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Whatever Happened to the American Short Story?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.