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Defining the short story



Often you hear students clumsily say “a short story is a small novel.” The more desperate ones indicate that a short story is an incomplete novel! It is as if a short story comes as a result of a writer’s failed attempt to write a novel. You get a feeling that the general society thinks that every writer has to write a novel to become a real writer. I have met some writers who actually believe that. It may offend as there are many writers out there who have been writing and publishing nothing but short stories all their lives. It is a form that gives them strength. Some more technical voices say that a short story is usually a brief prose narrative working with a specific idea, few characters in a single locality and is able to be read in one sitting. It is clear that short narratives and tales had existed for centuries in one form or another but the ‘short story’ proper emerged in a blitzkrieg of 19th-century magazine publishing, reached its apotheosis with Chekhov, and became one of the great 20th-century art forms. It is important to explore the various dynamics in defining the short story and even try pursuing the history of the short story itself as given by various key scholars. Abrams, M. H in 1999 gives what appears to me like a straightforward definition statement on the short story: “A short story is a piece of prose fiction, which can be read in a single sitting. Emerging from earlier oral storytelling traditions in the 17th century, the short story has grown to encompass a body of work so diverse as to defy easy characterisation. At its most prototypical, the short story features a small cast of named characters, and focuses on a self-contained incident with the intent of evoking a “single effect” or mood. In doing so, short stories make use of plot, resonance, and other dynamic components to a far greater degree than is typical of an anecdote, yet to a far lesser degree than a novel.” However, according to scholar Viorcio Patea, writing in 2012, one unique feature of studies on the short story is that those like Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melvillie and Antony Chekhov, who theorised about the short story genre in the nineteenth century, were not critics but practitioners themselves. It means that unlike the novel, the short story theory is mainly coming from amongst insiders. This renders short story theory as a thoroughly peer reviewed enterprise because short story theory erupts from practice. It is defined right at its source by its very producers. Viorica Patea further points out that the short story stretches back from fables, romance, folktales and ballads, but the short story as we know it today, “has suffered a theoretical neglect in comparison with other genres like poetry, drama, the epic and novel. The short story tends to be a melting point of all these genres…” It is apparent that although people have written short stories for hundreds of years, it was not until the nineteenth century that the short story came to be seen as a genre in its own right. Nineteenth century critics and writers discussed the short stories in ways that encouraged readers to think about them as separate from novels. The subject matter, form and general characteristics of the short story came under close consideration and by the end of the nineteenth century, the short story as we know it today had become a well developed form in Europe and North America. It is Charles May’s view that “a genre only truly comes into being when the conventions that constitute it are articulated within the larger conceptual context of literature as a whole.” You will notice that this did not happen for the short story until 1846 and the years later than that. Charles May describes Poe as “the first short story theorist who brought into discussion issues of form, style, length and design of the short story.” May further states that, “Poe’s critical comments on the short story towards the middle of the nineteenth century, are responsible for the birth of the short story as a unique genre.” Indeed, as JC Lawrence intimates, it was not until 1846 when Edgar Allan Poe aptly described the short story as a short piece of prose fiction meant to produce a single effect and being brief enough in length to be able to be read in one sitting. Poe writes of the short story in a review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales and describes it, in his own words, as a prose narrative that is able to bring out ‘a certain unique single effect to be wrought out.’ Firstly, Edgar Allan Poe dismisses the notion of the writer’s artistic intuition at the moment of writing and argues that good writing is methodical and analytical, not spontaneous. Secondly, Paul argues that a good piece of writing should be short and should be facilitated by the limit of a single setting. Poe may also have been referring to poetry or creative writing in general but he also noted that the short story is superior to the novel for this reason. Thirdly, Poe wrote that a good tale should be produced only after the author has decided how it is to end and which emotional response or effect he wishes to create, commonly known as “the unity of effect.” From the rest of Poe’s definition of a short story, scholar Mary Louis Pratt is largely captivated around the idea of a “single effect to be wrought.” This means that a short story is a concentrated form of narrative prose fiction in all its elements like setting, character, length, purpose and language. This is better illuminated by Brander Mathews who postulates in 1963 that “the short story deals with a single character, a single event, a single emotion, or the series of emotions called forth by a single situation.” The word ‘single’ indeed sets aside the short story from the other forms. J. A. Cuddon’s Dictionary of Literary Terms of 1999 defines the short story as a brief prose narrative working with a specific idea, few characters in a single locality and is able to be read in one sitting. The idea of it being consumed in one sitting, links the short story with the appearance of journals and magazines. With no periodical market for the novel in the US, writers of fiction in the first half of the 19th century borrowed the form of the short tale from German authors such as Wilhelm Kleist and E. Hoffmann and altered the form to suit American newspapers. The result was the literary form we now know as the short story In 2011, D. Fulton proposed that in contemporary usage, the term short story most often refers to a work of fiction no shorter than 1 000 and no longer than 20 000 words. Stories of fewer than 1 000 words are sometimes referred to as “short short stories”. As recent as 1992, J. Brown writes that short narratives and tales had existed for centuries in one form or another but the short story emerged as a stand-alone genre in the 19th-century in Europe and the United States with the rise of the magazine and the journal publishing, to become became one of the great 20th-century art forms. Brown further argues that the technology for printing was improving and cheap magazines were widely read. Many of the Victorian novels we now think of as single volumes were originally published as serial magazines. In line with the above, that is why Frank O’Connor considers the short story to be both an essentially ‘modern art’, attuned to ‘modern conditions – to printing, science, and individual religion’, and, in its anti-traditionalist versions, a distinctly literary one that will persist for as long as ‘culture’ survives the onslaught of ‘mass civilization.’ The reason for its pre-eminence in the twentieth century, O’Connor argues, is that it manages to embody ‘our own attitude to life’. There are indications that in the United States, the development and rise of the short story were the result of simple market forces which forced out the serialised novel from magazines and periodicals and replaced them with short stories. Because urban populations in America were so unstable, with workers moving from city to city in search of new lands and employment, newspapers found that serializing novels was now bad business. Advertisement space was worthless alongside a chapter from a novel that no one lived in town long enough to read. In Europe, British novelists like Dickens and Trollope had published their novels first in serial form, and then collected the chapters together to sell as single books. American novelists had very few venues for serialization, which is why the shape of the American literary novel differs so radically from its British counterpart: chapters from serialized novels read like “episodes of soap operas—each chapter opens with a crisis that is soon resolved and closes with the introduction of a new crisis or cliff hanger which will be resolved at the beginning of the next instalment.” In America, the short story, which could be read in one sitting, became more preferable to serialised novels. That is how the short story may have won the place in periodicals and magazines. O’Connor Frank makes another important observation on the short story. He says the basic difference between the novel and the short story is that in the latter we always find “lonely voices of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society.” He actually associates the short story with rebellion as it gives space to key individual characters throughout the narrative. O’Connor feels that the protagonist of the short story “is less an individual with whom the reader can identify than a submerged population group; that is, someone outside the social mainstream.” It pays attention to particular troubled individuals in a society that is trying to submerge them. As Mary Louise illuminates in a theoretical discussion in 1981, presents eight very illuminating ways that the short story is different from the novel. These are as follows: 1. where the novel tells a life, the short story tells a fragment of a life. 2. The short story deals with a single thing. The novel deals with many things. 3. The short story is a sample; the novel is the whole hog. 4. The novel is a whole text, the short story is not. 5. The short story is often the genre used to introduce new subject matters into the literary arena. 6. The short story lends itself to orality. The novel affirms writtenness, using the authoritative voices of writing. 7. The novel has its origins in history, the short story in anecdote and folklore. 8. The short story’s generic status is the widespread tendency for it to be viewed as a craft rather than an art. Julio Cortazar’s definition of the short story is however most graphic and therefore revealing: “the short story resembles the photograph, which isolates a fragment from the whole, circumscribes it, and paradoxically uses its limitation in order to open it up…” Nearly every Southern African writer who has become prominent today started with short-stories or has a short story collection somewhere along the way. Charles Mungoshi’s Coming of the Dry Season, Njabulo Ndebele’s Fools and Other Stories, Ezekiel Mphahlele’s Corner B, Alan Paton’s Debbie Go Home and many others are short stories books. Even the so called novels from Southern African tend to be merely long-short stories sometimes called novellas. One only has to see the very thin volumes of ‘novels’ like Gordimer’s July’s People and Laguma’s In The Fog of The Season’s End. The short-story is “the genre of Southern Africa” and the reasons for this are yet to be properly established. Maybe the very obvious reason is that colonial southern Africa quickly developed a vigorous magazine and periodical culture whose limited space tended to attract the publication of shorter forms like the poem and the short-story. Both Honwana and Mungoshi’s short-stories first appeared in magazines in both Rhodesia and Mozambique. It is with the short story that the Southern African writers tend to cut their teeth. Another suggested reason, among many, is that the very acute nature of colonialism in Southern Africa demanded that the writer be subtle and muffled and the best form to do that in is usually the short-story. It is no accident therefore that the short-story of Southern Africa tends to be of a relatively shorter length when compared to short-stories from other parts of the world. The author is under some pressure to tell his story in as short a space as possible. In fact these stories reminds one of letters. Honwana’s “The hands of the Blacks” is just about three pages but the burden and depth of that story is infinite. The narrator in this kind of short story is usually a child. The child grows up alongside the development of the short story collection. The child in these short stories is a clever technique to suggest a certain innocence when, in fact, these children lead the reader into very important issues. Memory Chirere

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