Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Short Story

At the moment, the most famous American invention is intransigence. There was a time when we were known for positive things: jazz, bourbon whiskey, baseball, basketball, and, some would say, the short story.

There can be no question about our intransigence as it relates to such painful subjects as Iraq, foreign policy, womens' reproductive rights, the right to privacy, guns, and so-called faith-based initiatives. Such intransigence comes from distrust, which is generally used by those in power to manipulate those who wish to be in power.

On a happier scale of measurement, there is little question about jazz, which also extends to bebop; bourbon, baseball, and basketball. Arguments about the origin of the short story, even if they become acrimonious, are still lively and instructive, as opposed to our intransigent position at the table, which is not only acrimonious, it is frustrating and frightening.

My take on the origins of the short story sets its birthplace in the early tales of Washington Irving, relishing in its infancy and gaining coordination in the tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose early collection of stories, Twice-Told Tales, were reviewed by Edgar Allen Poe in an iconic moment where Poe, as though he were taking dictation from Aristotle, fresh off his Poetics, set forth a standard for what the short story could and should accomplish.

While Poe was writing some of his own ventures into the short form of fiction, a young man in the Midwest was busily listening to tales, some of them fanciful in origin, others as rooted in heritage as jazz was rooted in the blues. In time this young man extended his range of interests and activities to the West, where he lived and worked among miners, cowhands, and the vast undifferentiated audience of unlettered men, waiting for the beginnings of The Industrial Revolution.

Do I need to tell you that the young man took on the name Mark Twain?

In one way or another, Twain helped spread the allure and effect of the short tale from its oral tradition to the printed page, influencing writers throughout Europe and stirring up additional interest here. In what I shall claim as my own invention, the blog leap, a convenient compression of time, the American version of the short story was off and running, championed by the likes of Jack London and not to forget the short story writer we are always too quick to forget, Rheingold "Ring" Lardner.

Like Twain, Lardner used regional dialect and attitudes, a true sociologist as well as a ranking humorist. Before Lardner, our baseball heroes were all good-natured man, perhaps under read but by no means lacking in acuity. After Lardner, we began to see them for all their humanity and bigotry and superstition, at once making them more real and more heroic.

Meanwhile, in Europe, a famous mentor was working with a famous student. Gustave Flaubert was willing to mentor Guy de Maupassant, provided de Maupassant followed Flaubert's instructions to the letter. One such letter was that de Maupassant was not to even consider sending his stories to potential publishers until he had one hundred of which Flaubert approved. De Maupassant quickly provided the hundred stories and Flaubert, after making editorial suggestions , ultimately gave his approval. Within ten years of that approval, de Maupassant had become synonymous with the short story, a sky rocket in the literary heavens.

The modern short story--the twenty-first-century short story--is no longer American; it has a world view and an international pedigree although many argue that another short story writer, Ernest Miller Hemingway, gave the form a considerable boost. Well, maybe so, but you'd also have to factor in John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury, John Cheever, Annie Proulx, Raymond Carver, Bernard Malamud.

Not to forget those two estimable Canadian writers, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood, also keeping in mind the Brit, Somerset Maugham, and from Ireland, James Joyce, Frank O'Connor, and arguably the most emotionally and technically deft writer at work today, William Trevor. The Russians have added to it, and we also get the Wasabi bite of Haruki Murikami from Japan, as well as, ah, she is splendid, Jhumpa Lahiri, from beautiful downtown Cambridge (Mass., not England), but with a Bengali flavor.

In spite of protestations from literary agents and publishers, new collections not only appear sporadically, they appear in ever increasing numbers, attesting to the bottom-line mentality in which demand creates supply.

Having invented the blog leap of time to make a point, the point I'm after is the way the short story in addition to its already solid dramatic structure, has begun shaping the long form, the novel. At the forefront is a collection of short stories that began to take on their final form in The Lion's Den, the Saturday morning workshop I co-hosted with Leonard Tourney before he moved off to take a post at BYU. Jean Harfenist's A Brief History of the Flood (Knopf, 2003) appeared as neither fish no fowl; it is not a novel, but they more or less let the browser think it is. Every one of the chapters was placed as a short story in a literary journal. Arranged in a more or less chronological order, A Brief History can, indeed, add up to a novel. Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine becomes another example, taking us away from the more or less conventional novel format of a single narrator or a select group of narrators to a kind of ensemble cast effect.

Because of its length, a novel has the opportunity, indeed the obligation, to portray change. A short story simply doesn't have the room, and so it doesn't deal with change so much as it takes us up to a point of awareness which the protagonist may or may not experience (see , for instance, "The Peacock," or "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver). Thus the short story is a living, breathing example of opaqueness and ambiguity; the modern novel, although unlikely to tie up all relevant loose ends, has the space to be more attentive to resolving a theme. For convenience sake, you might consider the short story as a concerto to the novel as a symphony. In dramatic terms, the short story is more like the one-act play, the modern novel more of a piece with the modern two-act play.

Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood get past conventional and editorial discomfort with a short story having more than a single point-of-view; William Trevor writes so well in omniscient point of view that he is effective with it in short fiction as well as the novel.

If you were to look at the point of origin of stories appearing in the three major best-of-the-year collections of short stories, you'd be sure to discover that the great majority first appeared in The New Yorker, with the likes of Granta, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, Georgia Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Paris Review as also-rans. The Gettysburg Review would be more likely to place candidates were it not for the fact of its editor producing a continuing stream of editorials best described as self-indulgent.

Many of the short stories of Annie Proulx that appeared in Open Range rank among my favorites, and because of my long association with universities and because of my politics, and because of the author's ability to evoke complex feelings I have a special fondness for Tobias Wolfe's "In the Garden of the American Martyrs."

The 2006 edition of The Best Mystery Stories contains at least four short stories that demonstrate how the demands of the mystery genre are not necessarily a lead weight, holding the short story down.

Many of today's younger--under forty--short story writers are bringing the energy of their discovery to the form, using it as a building block for learning to write in the longer form, but investigating the dramatic potential as a step-ladder to their own voice.

Ever have the experience of blowing a paper bag full of air, twisting off the top, then using that air-filled bag as a weapon to scare someone by popping it unexpectedly behind them?

The many times I did that as a kid, I never thought I'd be using the memory of the experience as a metaphor for the short story. A finite container, filled with one's own breath, suddenly brought to a surprising explosion. What a lovely metaphor for an art form that may help America earn back a reputation that has been too long in the unemployment line.

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