Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Contemporary Short Fiction and the Postmodern Condition

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Contemporary Short Fiction and the Postmodern Condition

Article excerpt

Entangled on one side with the tribe, on another with the marketplace, the short story inhabits postmodernity differently from the novel. It moves differently, and in ways still unarticulated, on the force field of contemporary culture, participating in what Fredric Jameson has called a "revival of storytelling knowledge" in the postmodern world and giving voice to the increased "vitality of small narrative units" (Foreword xi) but inadequately explained with respect both to its modernist precursors in Chekhov, Joyce, and Welty and to its raw materials, life at the end of the twentieth century.

While a few story writers (Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, William Gass, and Max Apple, among them) have advanced under the sign of the postmodern, producing in sometimes-brilliant miniature the kinds of metafictional, anti-mimetic, ontologically indeterminate narration writ large in the postmodern novel, many recent stories appear to have no significant share in those ironies and indeterminacies. The working class passivity of Raymond Carver's characters, the middle-class anomie of Ann Beattie's seem no more than lifelike, minutely reflective of individual alienation and disarray in America but unaffected by postmodern disruptions of discursive practice and the dislodging of referentiality. I want to argue here, however, that beneath the finely drawn neo-realist surfaces of their stories writers like Carver and Beattie, Grace Paley, Mary Robison, Jayne Anne Phillips and others mark out the radical troubling of realist claims; beyond their modernist inheritance they surrender in small ways and little narratives the expectation of epiphany, the hope for metaphysical consolation in a fragmenting world, a lingering commitment to a transcendental subject.

The end of epiphany and the exhaustion of familiar reading strategies and genre definitions call for new ways of reading and for a redefinition of both the narrative and the cultural logic of short fiction. Unlike the unified, complex modernist short story, grounded in image or metaphor and moving toward revelation, many stories of the last decade and a half are marked by depthlessness, incoherence, and ephemerality. In a bitter attack on American fiction, particularly short fiction, in the 1980s, John W. Aldridge gives voice to the disappointment of readers in search of insight:

Memory is given nothing to retain, nor form in which the harmonious relation of part to part creates a pattern on which the mind is able to construct a memory. . . There is no evidence that these experiences are meant to coalesce into drama or so arrange themselves as to produce some climactic insight into a truth about the human condition. (35)

Both Aldridge's complaint and his diagnosis (too many writer's workshops, too little of silence, exile and cunning) are echoed in other reviews and commentaries on the state of the story, most recently by Madison Smartt Bell, who remarks on the temporal depthlessness and "weird foreshortening" of contemporary stories (58-59).

Still, contemporary stories have readers, perhaps more readers than ever before. From the late 1970s to the present, the genre has seen a revived or at least a sustained popularity among American book buyers. Although mass-circulation magazine outlets for the story dwindled,(1) little magazines (some of them underwritten by commercial houses, as Quarterly was by Random House) and writing workshops flourished. Story annuals and anthologies multiplied. Between January 1988 and December 1992 American trade book publishers brought out nearly twice as many single-author volumes of short stories as during a comparable period between 1973 and 1977.(2) By most accounts the story's fate in the American book market improved dramatically during the 1980s.

"Has there ever been a time like the present for short story writers? I don't think so," Raymond Carver mused in a late piece on contemporary fiction, "An author who publishes a collection of stories can expect to sell, generally speaking, roughly the same number of copies as his or her novelist counterpart. …

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