West Chester University
~~ Notes on the Art of the Short Story~~
When it comes to defining the art of the short story, nearly everyone hesitates, including me. We're all a little wary of defining exactly what a short story is, what it's supposed to do. Notice the careful way that writer (and in this case, reviewer) Sven Birkerts begins this review, which appeared in the New York Times a while back. He's getting ready to discuss T. Coraghessan Boyle's new short story collection, After the Plague.
My guess is the Times editor working on this article probably cut Birkerts short! Once you start a list like that you can hardly stop. What about the uncanniness of Kafka or Melville, the ironic subtlety of Kate Chopin, the verbal pyrotechnics of John Updike? What about the mythic folkiness of Marquez, the psychological allegories of Hawthorne, or the psychotic characters and suspenseful plots in Poe? Where do you stop with something like this once you start?
Where do we start in our own effort to grasp the art of the short story?
As we've seen previously, although the written "narrative" is at least as old as civilization, the short story as a distinct literary genre, a consciously crafted art-form, developed relatively late in the game, in the 19th century. Even today people who study literature struggle to define precisely what a short story is "supposed' to be, how it's "supposed" to be crafted. Every time someone comes up with a definitionsaying, for instance, something like "stories are about real people"some gleefully playful creative writer comes along and breaks the ruleshatters the rule. Wins a Nobel Prize redefining the parameters. (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for instance) So new definitions have to be fashioned to accommodate the stuff innocently sitting out there on the fringe. Or at least we try not to be so arrogant as to think we can encompass everything with one definition.
But academics have to try; it's what we do. So here's the standard definition from a standard literary glossary:
This works at least part way, emphasizing formal, measurable elements like length, plot, character, etc., etc. We can make use of it because all of those things do on the whole appear in most short stories. But what about a short story like "Girl"? No plot. Is it not a short story? And there's that very strange point of view. What to make of that? But it works. It started her entire career as a writer in America. Or what about stories just one paragraph, or even just three sentences long?
How can we define something that tries so hard to be undefinable?
Fortunately, I think there are ways. I think it's possible to understand the short story by understanding, first, that one of its primary purposes is to reveal a character in action. Even in this three sentence story we have character revealed in action. Fabian wants to listen to his guardian angel, but fate is stronger than human will; the guardian angel (who seems pretty human, too) wants to help but like a schlemiel winds up hurting more than helping. As brief, compact, and compressed as a short story is, the reader gets to know the true nature of its main character, even intimately. Fabian has a guardian angel. There's a lot to infer from that if we wish to. And the guardian angel isn't all that swift. Maybe there's even more to infer from that! Think of how much we know about Miss Brill in just a few short pages of words. Now in a novel, we can watch a character develop over time, as a result of accumulated experience, but in a short story, there's no time. There's more or less one blazing moment, sometimes very brief. The art of the short story as opposed to the novel, then, is economy. Although there are notable exceptions, by and large the action in a short story takes place in a relatively brief period of timeand what happens in this brief period of time gives us a glimpse into the true nature of the person, the human being embroiled in that moment's flame.
Another way to approach understanding the art of the short story is to recognize that there are more than a few elements common to many short stories, and studying these elements can help us get started. You've already identified several of these story "elements" yourselves in class last week. You emphasized issues relating to character, plot, style, theme...obviously you're not novices. These are many of the same basic elements your textbook emphasizes. Let's look more closely at some of these key elements.
As you can see, analyzing a story's plot involves more than feeling suspense. Suspense is one small part of the package. Essentially, plot means the artistic arrangement of events in a story; the causal sequence. In life, things happen chaotically. It isn't always possible to trace the causal sequence that binds events to one another. But like practicing Buddhists who believe in causation as an inherent truththe law of karmaa traditional short story operates on the premise that everything that happens as a result of cause and effect. You may have learned the famous dictum in your high school lit class when you studied Oedipusone theme of that artful, ancient play is that "character determines fate." Things happen for a reason. In life we can't always discern the reasons why certain things happen. But in an expertly crafted short story, it's possible to discover how we create our circumstances by being the kind of people we are. We create our own fate. Character determines fate. The traditional short story very much lives by that rule.
On the other hand, you may, even in your young years, have come to the conclusion that the universe is absurd, following no laws, or absurd laws. You may have observed bad things happening to good people, or good things happening to bad people, and you may have completely rejected the notion that character determines fate. In that case, you may find yourself bored with the traditional kind of story and your taste may take you out to the fringes. You may be more alternative, with a penchant for Franz Kafka or Samuel Beckett, or you may find yourself drawn to the kind of stories that don't sum up easily or offer easy answers to complex questions, stories that don't telegraph what you should think about them, stories that leave it to you to decide. "What happened?" is often a complex kind of question to answer after reading a story like that. ("Girl" by Jamaica Kinkaid comes to mind )
There are a few ways you can think about the characters you meet in a short story. Here's some new terms to consider:
POINT OF VIEW
Other elements like setting contribute to a story's "form" as well. Some of best stories are those in which form and content merge and reverberate so seamlessly that they seem to be inherently connected to one another.
LITERARY ELEMENTS NOT SPECIFIC TO FICTION
Fiction, because it is a literary art, shares certain artistic elements with poetry and drama:
We'll visit these terms more in depth in A Vocabulary for Fiction and Beyond.
Questions? Contact me.
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