The Tales We Tell: Perspectives on the Short Story

By Barbara Lounsberry; Susan Lohafer et al. | Go to book overview

Introduction

Susan Lohafer

This volume has its origins in the story of short fiction theory. Without that often lonely history of a field-in-the-making, we might never have had the outpouring of scholarship, dialogue, criticism, and sheer delight in the short story captured in these pages.

As everyone knows, the first theorist of the short story was Edgar Allan Poe. He gave us our primary emphases in discussions of the form: style; brevity; status. He identified what he called the short prose tale, and told us it could be read in one sitting. He placed it once and for all between the lyric poem, with its power to concentrate effect, and prose forms like the novel and the sketch, with their power to represent the world. He was a writer of the very form he defined, and he gave short story theory a practitioner bias it has to this day.

For Poe, the short story was nearly at the top of the pantheon of genres. It was, after all, the form he and Nathaniel Hawthorne reimagined, turning the stuff of tales and sketches into poetically crafted, resonant short fiction. However, Poe's theories and practice were co-opted by the hacks of later decades when the short story was too often seen as a formula-driven genre for slick magazines. Long inaccurate, the stigma lingered in the air of condescension with which stories were viewed as apprenticeship for the novel.

Then, in the first quarter of the twentieth-century, writers of the short story found a dominant image--the organic form so lyrically described by, among others, Sherwood Anderson, Katherine Anne Porter, and Elizabeth Bowen. Stories grew from seeds, these writers said. The intensity of the form came from subjective points of view, pervasive imagery, controlled tone, ellipsis--in short, the techniques of impressionism. Porter was a practicing argument for the highbrow status of this nuanced art in the Joyced world of High ModernªAD ism. In the decades following her famous little jibe--"No Plot, My Dear, No Story"--the short story became the favorite "demo" narrative for New Criticism and the cult of close reading.

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