The Short Story: An Overview of the History and Evolution of the Genre

By Patea, Viorica | DQR Studies in Literature, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Short Story: An Overview of the History and Evolution of the Genre


Patea, Viorica, DQR Studies in Literature


A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of the story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully.1

Theory and history of the form

As early as 1937 Elizabeth Bowen claimed, "The short story is a young art ... the child of this century", which developed at the same time as the cinema and photography.2 According to Mary Rohrberger, one of the first theorizers of the genre, "short narrative fiction is as old as the history of literature .... But the short story, as we know it today, is the newest of literary genres."3

The origins of the short form go back to myth and biblical verse narratives, medieval sermons and romance, fables, folktales, ballads and the rise of the German Gothic in the eighteenth century. But its mythic origins, filtered through the Romantic influence, had to come to terms with the conventions of mimesis and vraisemblance of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century realism.4 Charles May observes that "the short story has from its beginning been a hybrid form combining both the metaphoric mode of the old romance and the métonymie mode of the new realism".5

Although the short story constitutes a form in its own right, it has suffered a theoretical neglect in comparison with other genres such as poetry, drama, the epic, or the novel. As May argues, "a genre only truly comes into being when the conventions that constitute it are articulated within the larger conceptual context of literature as a whole".6 In the case of the short story this was a long-deferred process. Until half a century ago those who theorized about the genre were not literary critics but practitioners of the form themselves: Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville and Anton Chekhov in the nineteenth century; and Henry James, Flannery O'Connor, Julio Cortázar and Eudora Welty, among others, in the twentieth. But interest in the short story has been growing continuously since the Sixties; critical and theoretical studies of the form have been flourishing since the last decades of the twentieth century.

Poe' s critical comments towards the middle of the nineteenth century are responsible for the birth of the short story as a unique genre.7 As the first short story theorist, he brought into discussion issues of form, style, length, design, authorial goals, and reader affect, developing the framework within which the short story is discussed even today. Evaluating the status of the short story as a genre, he ranked it very high in the pantheon of arts, second only to the lyric form. His major contribution was to invest the short story with tension and thus to impregnate it with the defining attributes of poetry. Its compact and unified form, which it shares with the lyric, allows the short story to achieve effects unattainable in the novel. He also observed that its brevity and intensity created a strong "undercurrent of suggestion".8 Poe was the first to consider endings as crucial elements in compositional strategies and defined the short story in terms of reading experience.

A traditional view of the short story is that it is a compressed, unified, and plotted form. Theoretical discussions of the genre explore notions such as totality, brevity, intensity, suggestiveness, unity of effect, closure, and design. Attention to the formal structure of the short story is mainly a twentieth-century critical enterprise. The aesthetics of the genre's form attracted the interest of critics and narrative theorists in the Sixties - the period of the international dissemination of Russian Formalist writings of the 1920s (Boris Éjxenbaum, Viktor Shklovsky), the emergence of structuralism (Vladimir Propp) and anthropology (Claude Lévi-Strauss), and the philosophy of culture (Ernest Cassirer).

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