Between the Lines: Dissidence
and the Short Story
In 1935, the left-leaning writer and critic James T. Farrell reviewed recent changes in the American short story. Farrell argued that the reaction against the plot-driven stories of O. Henry had led to character-based writing that assessed 'the cost of American capitalist democracy in terms of human destinies and human suffering'. The greater social range of these stories drew their readers into 'the bottom of the so-called American melting pot' (Farrell 1948: 113). Yet, despite this new-found awareness, Farrell found the attempts at political criticism to be forced, 'glued on … to the ending as a slogan or revolutionary direction sign'. Alternatively, the content was often so generalised that the stories left no 'flashes of insight' but were 'exhausted as soon as they [were] read' (Farrell 1948: 114). Instead, by referring to writers such as Erskine Caldwell and Langston Hughes, Farrell argued that political radicals needed to use the tendencies of the short story toward implication and obliqueness on which to base their social criticisms.
Farrell's account is significant because it illustrates one of the perennial questions that surround the short story, the extent to which a self-reflexive narrative mode can successfully address wider social issues, and offers a way of surmounting this conundrum. Yet, Farrell's critique is also a product of its time (the middle years of the Great Depression) and of an ideological view of the author, one associated with American novelists such as John Dos Passos and Richard Wright, in which the writer declares a political stance to their work. Farrell would have far less to recommend about an experimental writer such as Samuel Beckett, whose fractured and disjointed texts question so many of the certainties surrounding human identity.
An alternative approach to thinking about the role of dissidence in literature is offered by the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton in his book Criticism and Ideology (1976). Eagleton regards the literary text as the