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West Chester University

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West Chester University

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Course Information
  Lit 165 Syllabus
  ENG 020 Syllabus
  About the Instructor

Notes for Introduction to Literature
  Approaching Literature
  Notes on the Art of Fiction: Early Forms
  The Short Story
  Graduate Students Define the Art of Fiction
  Bartleby the Scrivener - Questions for Analysis
  Notes on Melville
  Critical Approaches to Literature
  A Vocabulary for Short Fiction and Beyond
  Study Guide for Fiction Exam
  Reading Poetry
  The Craft of Poetry
  A Catalogue of Poems
  Notes on Langston Hughes
  Lines of Continuity
  Poetry Take Home Exam
  The Birth of Drama
  Oedipus
  A Doll House
  Study Guide for the Final Exam
  A Glossary of Literary Terms

Notes for Basic Writing (ENG 020)
  The Rhetorical Situation
  Essay #1 Assignment Sheet
  Workshop Assignment for Essay#1
  How to Write Descriptively
  Building a Thesis
  Overcoming Reader's Block
  Analysis and the Culture of Advertising
  Essay #2 Assignment Sheet
  Writing Effective Introductions
  Writing Effective Conclusions
  Propaganda Analysis
  Politics and the English Language
  Propaganda: A Sample Analysis
  Midterm Exam: Tips for Writing on the Spot
  Notes on Rational Argument
  Mapping the Parts of an Arugment

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~~ NOTES ON THE ART OF FICTION ~~

Modern Forms of Fiction:
THE SHORT STORY

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-

"…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."

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-

· Suspenseful (good climax, resolution)
· Imaginative; unique; good details
· [Evocative]-they help us relate to the main character; they make us feel something; they get our emotions going
· Good at communicating a theme, moral, meaning
· Well organized; they have an interesting topic; a good flow, good conclusion, good opening, good action, comedy, triumph, failure


All of these comments make sense to me, but in some cases you could benefit by having an extended vocabulary to talk about the qualities you want to describe. That's what I want to add for you here.

PLOT
Sometimes plots are suspenseful. Sometimes they aren't. Some readers prefer suspenseful plots. Some readers don't care, as long as there is some element of intensity that holds their interest. Some concepts to consider when you're analyzing or evaluating a story's plot are-

· Exposition: what information do you need to appreciate what will happen during the time frame of the story?
· Foreshadowing: a technique the author uses to plant the seeds for action that will follow. Early hints to what will happen later.
· Rising action: When the action/conflict/events intensify
· Conflict: What are the forces opposed to one another in the story?
· Crisis: Sometimes called the turning point-when the action reaches its peak or the biggest conflict arises
· Dilemma: What's the problem at the heart of the action?
· Crisis point: Sometimes called the climax-the pinnacle of the action.
· Falling action (denouement): After the climax, the restoration or resolution of the conflict. The outcome.\
· Epiphany: a moment of startling, sudden insight gained by the main character as a result of the unfolding of events in the story

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…)

CHARACTER
This is a pretty straightforward element, meaning, the people in the story. I agree with you that you want characters you can relate to, feel something for, get worked up about. Making that happen is the writer's biggest responsibility, because if you decide you don't care about the characters, you probably don't like the story. You may hate the characters, but that's not the same thing as not caring. When you get apathetic about or bored by a character, the writer has probably failed.

There are a few ways you can think about the characters you meet in a short story. Here's some new terms to consider:

· Protagonist--the leading character; the main character
· Antagonist--the force acting against the main character
· Flat character--a one-dimensional representation
· Round character--a multi-dimensional representation
· Dynamic character--one who changes or grows from beginning to end
· Static character--one who never changes or grows from beginning to end

POINT OF VIEW
No one mentioned this element in the group comments or the individual responses! But every short story has a "storyteller"--a narrator, or a voice that tells the story. This voice is NOT the voice of the author, but an element of the story. The narrator can be a crucial part of the story. The point of view is so named because it's the storyteller which determines the angle of vision, the vantage point from which readers see and hear what's going on. There are many familiar, and some unfamiliar points of view possible in a short story.

· Omniscient narrator--an all-knowing consciousness in the mind of every character simultaneously
· Limited omniscient narrator--in the mind of one character, usually the main character
· First Person: reliable vs. unreliable narrators--a character in the story tells the story
· Objective or "camera eye" narrator--an omnicient narrator with a neutral consciousness, like a camera filming events

CONCEPTS NOT SPECIFIC TO FICTION

Fiction, because it is a literary art, shares certain concepts with poetry and drama--

IRONY
AMBIGUITY
PARADOX
SYMBOLISM
ALLUSION
VERISIMILITUDE
SIMILE/METAPHOR
PERSONIFICATION

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.

EDGAR ALLEN POE
Since he practically invented the form, it's only fair we start by examining what Edgar Allen Poe had to say. This passage is excerpted from a review he wrote of Nathaniel Hawthorne's story collection, Twice Told Tales:

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.

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:

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.

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:

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.

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:

Hemingway:
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….
….
The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer's radar and all great writers have had it.

Carver:
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.

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:

….I start with the recognition that we are at war, and that war is not simply a hot debate between the capitalist camp and the socialist camp over which economic/political/social arrangement will have hegemony in the world. It's not just the battle over turf and who has the right to utilize resources for whomsoever's benefit. The war is also being fought over the truth: what is the truth about human nature, about the human potential? My responsibility to myself, my neighbors, my family and the human family is to try to tell the truth. That ain't easy. There are so few truth-speaking traditions in this society in which the myth of "Western civilization" has claimed the allegiance of so many….
I do not think that literature is the primary instrument for social transformation, but I do think it has potency. So I work to tell the truth about people's lives; I work to celebrate struggle. To applaud the tradition of struggle in our community, to bring to center stage all those characters, just ordinary folks on the block, who've been waiting in the wings, characters we thought we had to ignore because they weren't pimp-flashy or hustler-slick or because they didn't fit easily into previously acceptable modes or stock types. I want to lift up some usable truths….
From Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate


Ultimately fiction is no different from scores of other art forms that attempt to communicate the creator's unique vision, her sense of the truth.

 

 

 

     

 


Questions? Contact me.

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