The American Short Story since 1950

By Kasia Boddy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Turning Points and the American
Short Story Today

In 2006, Martin Scofield concluded The Cambridge Introduction to the American Short Story by defining the ‘essential short story effect’ as a ‘focus on the most intense and life-changing experiences’. The short story, he argued, is ‘perhaps the exemplary form for the perception of crisis, crux, turning point; and as such it has proved ideal for recording decisive moments, intimately private but often with broad social resonances’.1 There is, of course, a long history to the association of the short story with the turning point, or more strongly (as here) to the sense that the formal essence of the short story is its staging of turning points. Frank O’Connor, in perhaps the most influential book on the genre, The Lonely Voice, puts it like this:

The short story represents a struggle with Time - the novelist’s
Time: it is an attempt to reach some point of vantage from which
past and future are equally visible. The crisis of the short story is the
short story and not as in a novel the mere logical inescapable result of
what preceded it. One might go further and say that in the story what
precedes the crisis becomes a consequence of the crisis - this being
what actually happened, that must necessarily be what preceded it.2

O’Connor’s focus here is on the turning point as a narrative function - on the representation of time as turning point, as crisis. The effect of brevity on narrative, he suggests, is to allow a kind of panoramic perspective: ‘some point of vantage from which past and future are equally visible’. The short story, being all crisis and nothing but crisis, turns on itself. But it’s also worth noting an additional emphasis in O’Connor’s book: the alignment of the short story’s methods with those of lyric poetry. His description of the form as ‘the nearest thing I know to lyric poetry’ has been echoed by many other writers.3 For Elizabeth Bowen, for example, the short story ‘is at an advantage over the novel, and can claim its nearer kinship to poetry because it must be more concentrated,

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