Currently reading all round the topic of the short story to fill in the gaps of knowledge lingering in my noggin. Aspects including but not limited to: defining the short story, aspects of craft, historic development of the form, and structural theory.
Bliss Perry devotes a chapter to the short story in A Study of Prose Fiction and during last night’s reading of it something rankled me. The short story is today viewed by many as the apprenticeship form for the aspiring novelist. In the various discussions that promote this idea, it is often stated that this is a change from a past time when the short story itself was given greater respect as a form. Yet, in 1903, in the midst of what some describe as a Golden Age (if not the Golden Age) of short fiction, Perry proposes just such a view.
When discussing the ‘opportunity which the shorts story, as a distinct type of literature, gives to the writer’, Perry first discusses the work of Henry James, describing James’ stories as ‘chips from the workshop where his novels were built…an exploration of a tempting side path, of whose vistas he had caught a passing glimpse while pursuing some of his retreating and elusive major problems.’ This description, however apt its notion of the short story as a ‘glimpse’ might be, is weighted with value terms of the ‘chips’ and, more damning still, the attaching of the adjective ‘major’ to mention of James’ novels. By extension, if the novels are the major works, then the short stories are clearly the minor ones.
So far so bad, but Perry goes on:
‘It is obvious, likewise, that the short story gives a young writer most valuable experience at the least loss of time. He can tear up and try again…He can test his fortune with the public through the magazines, without waiting to write his immortal book’ (1903, 316).
Again, the use of the adjective reveals the value judgements inherent in this thinking of the short story as mere apprenticeship. One which, despite the works of Chekhov and Mansfield and Carver and Hempel and Paley and Munro and Saunders (and so, so many more), still sees the writer of the ‘mere’ short story as something less than the ‘immortal’ novelist. Worse still, Perry even extends this thinking.
‘For older men in whom the creative impulse is comparatively feeble, or manifested at long intervals, the form of the short story makes possible the production of a small quantity of highly finished work’ (1903, 317).
So, it appears, for Perry, the short story as a from is fit only to provide training wheels for the novice or a walking frame or mobility scooter of the elderly. While modern variants of this argument don’t stray so far as to so clearly state that the short story is not a fitting form for writers in their prime, it amused and irritated me to see the same old argument being levelled at the short story. The short story is the form best adapted to describing the experience of being human and the eternal present consciousness through which we view both the world and ourselves and should be celebrated for the unique challenges and rewards it presents to both the author crafting the work and the reader experiencing it. It’s a shame that, seemingly from the birth of its modern iteration, the short story has been and continues to be viewed by so many (not least publishers and critics who should know better) as an aside to the ‘real work’ of the novel.
Perry, B. (1903) A Study of Prose Fiction. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company.