Writers on Writing: The Art of the Short Story

By Maurice A. Lee | Go to book overview

The Short Story—A Surviving Species

Aleksandar Hemon

In a recent review of several short-story collections in the New York Review of Books, ominously entitled “An Endangered Species,” Joyce Carol Oates asserts that the short story is a minor art form that, in the hands of a very few practitioners, becomes major art. Its effect is rarely isolated or singular, but accumulative: a distinguished story collection is one that is greater than the mere sum of its disparate parts. In isolation, striking and original as individual stories might be, it's likely that they would quickly fade from literary memory …

Well, I write short stories for a living, and it is hard to face up to the fact that I am forever sentenced to the indignities of “a minor art form,” particularly since it is extremely unlikely that I'll ever belong to the coterie of “a very few practitioners,” to which J. C. Oates apparently has unlimited access. Having read since I could see, and having spent interminable years in graduate school, I still do not know how exactly you can measure art. Where is the border between the minor and the major? (The first Billy Wilder movie was The Major and the Minor, in which the “impostor” minor was Ginger Rogers, but I don't think that's what we are talking about here.) J. C. Oates is hardly original when she employs the phrase “a minor art form” talking about the short story, with the implication that the art form majoring over the short story is the novel. The offhand disparaging is less annoying than the persistence of the phrase in describing the short story, and I want to make a humble contribution to its inevitable demise.

It has become hard to dispute that the novel as a genre had its heyday in the nineteenth century, the time of the rise of the nation-state. Timothy Brennan notes that

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