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Notes for Introduction to Literature
~~ Defining the Short Story ~~
Here's a definition from a standard literary glossary:
" a relatively brief fictional narrative in prose, anywhere from 500-15,000 words in length. Distinct from the "sketch" or the "tale" in that it has a definite formal development, finding its unity in more than plot-in character, effect, theme, tone, mood, and style."
Here are some interesting definitions offered by graduate students in a fiction writing workshop:
Here's how five influential authors have defined their aims for fiction:
EDGAR ALLEN POE
Were we called upon however to designate that class of composition which, next to such a [lyric] poem as we have suggested, should best fulfill the demands of high genius-should offer it the most advantageous field of exertion-we should speak of the prose tale, as Mr. Hawthorne has here exemplified. We allude to the short prose narrative, requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal. The ordinary novel is objectionable, from its length, for reasons already stated in substance. As it cannot be read at one sitting, it deprive itself, of course, of the immense force derivable from totality. Worldly interests intervening during the pauses of perusal, modify, annul, or counteract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book. But simple cessation in reading would, of itself, be sufficient to destroy the true unity. In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out the fulness of his intention, be it what it may. During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is a the writer's control. There are no external or extrinsic influences-resulting from weariness or interruption.
A skilfull literary
artist has constructed a tale. If wise, has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate
his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique
or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents-he then combines
such events as may best aid him in establishing the preconceived effect. If
his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of the effect, then he
has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word
written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established
design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length
painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art,
a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented
unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel.
Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem; but undue length
is yet more to be avoided.
You abuse me for objectivity, calling it indifference to good and evil, lack of ideals and ideas, and so on. You would have me, when I describe horse-thieves, say: "Stealing horse thieves is an evil." But that has been known for ages without my saying so. Let the jury judge them; it's my job simply to show what sort of people they are. I write: you are dealing with horse-thieves, so let me tell you that they are not beggars but well-fed people, that they are people of a special cult, and that horse-stealing is not simply theft but a passion. Of course it would be pleasant to combine art with a sermon, but for me personally it is extremely difficult and almost impossible, owing to the conditions of technique. You see, to depict horse-thieves in seven hundred lines I must all the time speak and think in their tone and feel in their spirit, otherwise, if I introduce subjectivity, the image becomes blurred and the story will not be as compact as all short stories ought to be. When I write, I reckon entirely upon the reader to add for himself the subjective elements that are lacking in the story."
To A.S. Souvorin. Moscow. April 1, 1890.
Fiction-if it at all aspires to be art-appeals to temperament. And in truth it must be like painting, like music, like all art, the appeal of one temperament to all the other innumerable temperaments whose subtle and resistless power endows passing events with their true meaning, and creates the moral the emotional atmosphere of the place and time. Such an appeal, to be effective, must be an impression conveyed through the senses .All art appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its high desire is to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions .My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel-it is , before all, to make you see. That-and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there, according to you deserts, encouragement, consolation, fear, charm, all you demand-and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.
If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing .
I like it when
there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories. I think
a little menace if fine to have in a story. For one thing, it's good for the
circulation. There has to be tension, a sense that something is imminent, that
certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won't
be a story. What creates tension in a piece of fiction is partly the way the
concrete words are linked together to make up the visible action of the story.
But it's also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape
just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things.
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