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Home Notes for Introduction to Literature Notes for Basic Writing (ENG 020)
Notes for Introduction to Literature
Notes for Basic Writing (ENG 020)
~~ NOTES ON THE ART OF FICTION ~~
Forms of Fiction:
The art form we think of as the modern short story actually took shape relatively recently compared to the other forms of literature we'll study. Unlike poetry and drama, short stories arose about 150 years ago, about a century following the rise of the novel-in the middle of the 19th century. Typically Edgar Allen Poe is credited with "creating" the form, although he wasn't the only early practitioner. Writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, and Herman Melville also helped popularize the form.
Before the short story, writers and readers thought in terms of the "tale," "legend," "fairy tale," or "fable." We've briefly examined some of these earlier forms. Early American prose writers like Washington Irving, who wrote "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" helped put the United States on the literary map with some great works that share certain elements with the modern short story, but they aren't exactly equivalent.
The modern short story transcends early forms like fables, tales, and legends and is a genre in its own right.
I think if we pull together your ideas, my ideas, and what some famous practitioners of the form have had to say, we may get close to an understanding of the art of the modern short story .
DEFINING MODERN SHORT FICTION
Notice the careful way reviewer Sven Birkerts begins his piece in last Sunday's NY Times (9/2/01). He's going to discuss T. Coraghessan Boyle's new short story collection, After the Plague.
There are probably as many ways to skin the short story cat as there are qualified skinners. What a range of approaches the form allows, and what a range of pleasures it delivers. From Chekov's subtly suggestive bleeding together of characters and circumstances to Borges's sly metaphysical parables to Alice Munro's deep-time feats of narrative counterpoint, every great short-story writer has a unique way of making the world come alive on paper.
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? It had to be the editor!
Where do we start?
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 in the 19th century. Critics still struggle to get a grip on what a short story is-how to define it. Here's an attempt by a specialized literary glossary-
This works part way, and it's at least part way correct. But even this formal definition can be disputed. Some stories are as short as three sentences.
What to do?
We can understand the short story by understanding, first, that one of its primary purposes is to reveal a character in action (like Mrs. Mallard in "The Story of an Hour" unexpectedly rejoicing at the news of her husband's death), so that the reader gets to know the true nature of that character. That character may be flat, round, dynamic, or static (terms we'll get to know later)-but we get to know him or her intimately. In a novel, we are accustomed to watching a character develop as a result of accumulated experience, but in a short story, there isn't always that much time. The art of the short story is economy. Although there are notable exceptions, by and large the action in a short story takes place in a relatively brief period of time-and what happens in this brief period of time gives us a glimpse into the true nature of the human being embroiled in that moment's flame.
Another way to approach the art of the short story is to understand that, fortunately, there are some 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 both your individual responses to the stories you chose as well as in your group work. I agree with most-if not all-of what you came up with.
Here's what I compiled from the board last week. I've combined some of your comments to avoid repetition. You said good short stories are-
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 truth--the law of karma--a 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 Oedipus Rex--one theme of that artful, ancient play is that "character determines fate." Things happen for a reason. We create our circumstances by the 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
CONCEPTS NOT SPECIFIC TO FICTION
Fiction, because it is a literary art, shares certain concepts with poetry and drama--
We'll detail these terms soon and fill in the definitions. But before we pursue that track, let's stick to the art of fiction in particular, and examine some ways in which writers themselves have tried to explain the art of the short story.
Notice how Poe refers to the short story as a "prose tale" or "prose narrative"-the modern nomenclature hasn't taken hold yet, and he refers to it in the language of his day. But Poe's understanding of the art of the short story is very specific and very different from the art of the "tale." Notice how he emphasizes the time factor: a short story should only require "a half hour to one or two hours" to read. He emphasizes that only then can we get the satisfaction of "totality," or enjoying a work in its totality. When we read something of this length we're less likely to become distracted-the soul of the reader will be "under the writer's control." Then Poe stresses that a short story should communicate a "single effect." Everything in the story-every word, every sentence, every image, every suggestion-should contribute to bringing about this effect on the reader.
The way Poe insists on the primacy of "effect" is similar to the way Tim O'Brien describes the mission of fiction in his short piece "How To Tell A True War Story": "It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe." For O'Brien, fiction has a visceral effect on the reader, not just a mental or emotional one.
Another way of thinking about the way modern short stories work comes from the nineteenth century Russian practitioner, Anton Chekhov, who seems to be working out the difference, here, between the kind of moral tale that readers were familiar with and the more modern form that he himself helped to shape:
Chekhov argues here for a kind of story that invites the reader's own interpretation. He has introduced an anti-moralistic type of fiction that fixes the responsibility of moralizing on the reader rather than the writer. Many have interpreted Chekhov's statement here as his belief that the writer's responsibility is to "show" rather than "tell." And that the "art of the story" is in the showing, not the telling. No longer are events introduced by summary; they are recreated in vivid detail so that we can participate and draw our own conclusion about them. We aren't told by the narrator what to think about what's going on-we decide for ourselves. The writer's task is to give us enough of an experience to allow us to participate as fully as possible.
Directly related to this approach is Joseph Conrad's:
Let's jump to two well respected twentieth century writers: Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver. Notice how these two express ideas similar to Chekhov's and Conrad's. They are all interested in describing what they consider the "art" of the short story to be:
You can hear how many of these writers echo each other. There's almost complete consensus on a few key ideas about the artistry of the short story: (1) it communicates-a feeling, an idea, a moral; (2) it invites interpretation; (3) it encourages depth reading-to gain access to meaning that lies, as Carver and Hemingway suggest, beneath the surface, which is just the small visible tip of the iceberg; (4) it refrains from specific moralizing, encouraging readers to draw their own conclusions.
Although fiction writers leave a lot for the reader to infer, they do their fair share of guiding and shaping. More than likely, a work of literature will express a particular "vision" of the world or of life or of people (or of all of these) that's unique to that author. Consider how Toni Cade Bambara describes the purpose of her fiction:
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