Viorica Patea, ed. A Twenty-First-Century Perspective.
While I suspect that it is a little early in the new century to subtitle a collection of essays "a twenty-first-century perspective" I understand that the impulse springs from the desire to differentiate the book from what presumably counted as twentieth-century short story theory. It is accurate enough to imply that one can trace a trajectory going from Brander Matthews's The Philosophy of the Short-Story (1901) to the late twentieth-century collections of essays such as Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey's Short Story Theory at a Crossroads (1989) as well as Charles E. May's Short Story Theories (1976) and The New Short Story Theories (1994). Viorica Patea's collection does open up some new approaches to short story studies, but it comes as no surprise to note that in each of these books mentioned, whose publication dates span over one hundred years, of all those who have contributed to short story theory, it's a mid nineteenth-century writer who figures the most prominently: Edgar Allan Poe. As every short story theorist knows, when Poe reviewed Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales in 1842, he initiated short story theory by advancing the idea that it is incumbent upon literary critics to ponder the nature of genre when they investigate individual short stories. If his belief that a story should strive for a "single effect" (61) divides scholars almost equally, Poe's attention to the reading experience anticipated how reader response and analyses of closure would occupy subsequent short story theorists. As Erik Van Achter convincingly demonstrates in "Revising Theory: Poe's Legacy in Short Story Criticism" from the Patea collection, almost all twentieth-century approaches to the short story are variations on Poe's original formulations.
Furthermore, it is noteworthy that it was Poe as a successful short story writer who first began theorizing about short fiction. Practitioners of the form, especially in the twentieth century, have played a central role in mapping out the genre's dimensions. I will return to this phenomenon later; let me now only note that writers such as Julio Cortazar, Nadine Gordimer, and Frank O'Connor (among numerous others) were fundamental in developing a provisional poetics of the short story. When May assembled the seminal essay collections referred to earlier, he took care to include almost as many practitioners as scholars. The field of short fiction studies has shifted considerably since May (along with Susan Lohafer and Mary Rohrberger) solidified its foundations during the 1980s, but one of the ways the field has altered is that it seemingly attracts proportionately more scholars than practitioners than it once did. Indeed, in her efforts to sketch out the history of short story theory to an audience at the 2012 mla Conference in Boston, Lohafer mentioned that one of her initial observations concerning Patea's book is that its contributors are all academics. That Patea's collection of essays differs in this respect from the earlier collections garnered by May (who has an essay in Patea's book) gives only one intimation of how what we talk about when we talk about short fiction (to borrow from Raymond Carver somewhat egregiously) has altered since the previous century.
Short Story Theories: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective, which was distinguished with the "Javier Coy Biennial Research Award for the Best Edited Volume" by the Spanish Association of American Studies (the highest distinction of saas) is composed of sixteen essays divided into sections based on Poe's legacy, discourse analysis, hybrid genres and gender, and postmodernist approaches to short fiction. One of the book's particular strengths is its multinational authorship with its contributors based in Belgium, Canada, Mexico, Norway, Spain, and the United States, which has the result of exposing readers to numerous writers and critics not usually discussed in the Anglo/American scholarly community. Because it's impossible to examine each essay, the focus here will be on the range of methods embodied in the collection, and I will offer some ideas as to its overall significance to short fiction studies.
Patea's own essay, "The Short Story: An Overview of the History and Evolution of the Genre" provides a concise but thorough treatment of the development of short fiction studies; if much of the material will be familiar to specialists, the essay's admirable synthesis of a wide body of work will be of considerable value to anyone involved in the field. Noting the form's "long-standing theoretical neglect" (7), Patea delineates the primary developments in short story theory that have attempted to correct this neglect by differentiating the genre from other ones (the novel especially); most often, practitioners and scholars have argued that the short story manifests distinctive epistemological positions which are interwoven with the aesthetic strategies (and structural implications) of brevity. As Patea reminds us, "the short form renders perception in a mode close to the way in which we experience and know the world: occasionally, in fragments" (19). Many writers and scholars (O'Connor and May most notably) set the short story's emphasis on discontinuity and the almost incommunicable nature of private experience apart from the novel's capacity for rendering human life into largely cohesive narrative structures that intersect with culture as a whole. Other theorists, less overtly concerned with epistemological issues but still interested in studying the short story as a distinct form, concentrate on the reading experience: for instance, Lohafer's empirical studies on how actual readers "process" pre-closure signals in numerous stories have illuminated the genre's exploration of what she calls "storyness" (3). Given the attention Patea pays to those theorists who accept the hermeneutical value of seeing the short story as a discrete (though changing) genre, it would appear that she is committed to this particular approach, which is noteworthy because many of the essayists either openly disagree or prefer to ignore this stance. When one considers Patea's essay within the context of the collection, it's striking that her essay accentuates the comingling of practitioners and scholars alluded to earlier; additionally, it subtly emphasizes the form's predilection for static spatial objects such as photographs and paintings; finally, her essay underscores the way that those who desire to clarify the parameters of short fiction often resort to the rhetorical mode of making comparisons. These observations may seem overly meticulous, but, as we shall see, they take on particular resonance when we reflect on the quite varied perspectives in the collection as a whole.
A significant question regarding the scholarly interpretation of short stories is whether or not genre need be considered at all: while May (and others) have chafed at critics who treat Alice Munro's short fiction as miniature novels for instance, what of those scholars interested in literary history? Peter Gibian's erudite "Anticipating Aestheticism: The Dynamics of Reading and Reception in Poe" pays no attention to generic concerns but compellingly shows how Poe elicited an "ambivalent" artistic response from Hawthorne, although he received an entirely different reception from Charles Baudelaire who sensed that Poe was "playing [Baudelaire's] own thoughts back to him" (62). If Poe was crucial to international aestheticism, Gibian further traces his recurrence as a "repressed" figure in American literature, concluding that "Poe's vision was uncannily familiar and yet strange to Hawthorne ... [and provided an effect that] would be even more pronounced for American artists by the 1890s" (72). My point here is that I have learned a great deal about Poe from Gibian, although the latter isn't interested in devising a theory about the short story per se. Other essayists in the collection similarly avoid problems of generic definition but persuasively use a variety of theoretical tools or vantage points to offer original readings of various short story writers: among others, Per Winther persuasively illuminates work by Bernard Malamud and Leslie Marmon Silko through an examination of their "framing devices"; Consuelo Montes-Granado's analysis of "code-switching" (moving from one language to another) in Sandra Cisneros's short fiction through linguistic anthropology is astute and especially germane for those unfamiliar with Spanish; Santiago Rodriguez Guerrero-Strachan reassesses minimalism by arguing that Tobias Wolff's careful modulations between attention paid to "external reality" and "subjective internal reality" in narratorial voice result in a new form of realism "filtered by modern and postmodern aesthetics" (280).
Theorists attuned to postmodernism often concentrate on generic "hybridity" Building on W. S. Penn's late twentieth-century claim that "the short story has genres of its own invention" (44), Rebecca Hernandez surveys a number of postcolonial writers who use the personal letter as a literary device that "fus[es] oral storytelling, written narration, and lyrical poetry into one single epistolary form" (172). That one might explore the short story's mutability by reading a letter contained in a novel as a kind of "hybrid oral" short story suggests that we reconsider the relationship between part and whole, something that occurs in what Lauro Zavala calls "'dispersed short stories,'" self-contained stories that can be spread across different novels written by one author or "within a single novel" (295). Zavala's essay is perhaps the most daring in the collection because he encourages the "specialized reader" to be very elastic: this reader has the freedom to arrange "separate stories, minifictions, chapters or fragments into a single whole" or conversely isolate "extremely short fragments from very long works" (295), very much in the spirit of Jose Luis Borges. Thinking of short fiction in this way shifts a short story from being an autonomous text that a writer might publish in a journal to becoming a reader's engagement with a mode of generic textuality that resembles a conceptual art project. Carolina Nunez-Puente also considers generic hybridity, although she does so via Mikhail Bakhtin's notion that "genres are epistemologies or forms of thought" (142), a position that May was the first to explore specifically regarding the short story in his ground-breaking 1984 essay "The Nature of Knowledge in Short Fiction" Analyzing Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," Nunez-Puente proposes that Gilman created "a new genre or form of thought: the dialogical feminist short story" (142). Gilman's story is dialogical in many respects, according to Nunez-Puente, but chiefly in its capacity to embody simultaneously numerous genres--diary, letter, short narrative--and modes--it is potentially both a realist and gothic short story--that "easily [offers] an analogy [with] the history of the feminist movement" (152). Similar to Lohafer, whose experiments in closure indicate that readers can animate several genres within a single story, Nunez-Puente invites readings that may comprise "more than one gender, one genre, one voice" (153). Patea's collection certainly expands our notions of what the short story as a genre might entail; however, Maria Jesus Hernaez Lerena's "Short-Storyness and Eyewitnessing" is the essay that goes the furthest to provide a new approach to short story theory. For this reason, I will reply to it at some length.
Lerena directly responds to the epistemological strand of short story theory established by twentieth-century theorists and practitioners alike by beginning her essay with the question "Is reality amenable to storytelling?" (173). As a means of trying to think through the implications of this question, she looks to witness literature in order to clarify what she sees as the short story's radical skepticism toward the "sequential patterning" (173) of narrative itself. Examining trauma theory derived largely from Holocaust testimonials, Lerena maintains that witness literature is often suspicious "of the presumed comforts of narrative" (175); that is, while Holocaust survivors may use narrative to convey their experiences they are often simultaneously wary of narrative's capacity to "'tidy things up'" (185). To be precise: what was seen cannot be translated adequately into verbal discourse. For Lerena, then, witness literature is not equivalent to the short story as a form, but it illuminates how the short story predicates the incomprehensible over narrativity. Offering a close reading of four recent Canadian short stories, Lerena demonstrates their penchant for situations in which characters are overwhelmed by unintelligible images. These images, according to Lerena, "constitute the landmarks of a narrative that moves forward not by change or by the concatenation of events but by ocular bondage" (187). Lerena's essay is quite suggestive in areas that go beyond her immediate claims: there are those who argue that the short story is a specifically modern invention; one could extend Lerena's argument as a way of thinking about the short story arising as a reaction to the experience of modernity generally, if the experience of modernity entails a psychic response to what Walter Benjamin identified as shock. It is worth noting that her decision to relate the short story to witness literature is essentially to rely upon a comparison (a technique used almost uniformly by practitioners when they speak about the form); to understand the short story better we might say that the form is similar to witness literature. Patea refers to Cortazar, who, for instance, differentiates the novel from short fiction by comparing the former to a movie, whereas "the short story resembles the photograph, which isolates a fragment from the whole, circumscribes it ... presenting 'a dynamic vision that spiritually transcends the space reached by the camera'" (11). While not all short story theorists would necessarily fully endorse Lerena's thesis of relating short fiction to ocular bondage, it's worth recalling that moment in Poe's "The Oval Portrait" to which Gibian refers earlier in the collection: the narrator's "first response [to the painting in the story] ... is to try to stop the process, to shut out this stimulus--" 'I glanced at the painting hurriedly, and then closed my eyes'" (63).
May would accept Lerena's observation that "the short story represents a distinct form of invocation of reality" (201) as a fundamental premise that animates his survey of American short story writers in the twenty-first century, the volume's concluding essay. It is unlikely that anyone today can match May's familiarity with contemporary American short fiction. Part polemic, part celebration, the essay singles out a few short story writers worth praising but mostly anguishes over the banality of a culture ruled by "reality" television, a culture in which there's a declining readership of serious fiction and, of these few readers, most choose novels over short stories. In some respects, this essay resembles Poe's review of Hawthorne insofar as both writers offer a prescriptive poetics of the form alongside cogent aesthetic judgments. Readers of May's essay will respond variously: some might dismiss parts of it as being cranky; others will revel in its insights. My sense is that the intended audience isn't scholars as much as the essay is an impassioned plea to American short story writers, soliciting them to hone their skills at what he believes the form does best and to be encouraged that there are still readers, however few, who take their work very seriously indeed. I would advise all readers of May's essay to ponder its companion piece, "Why many authors like short stories and many readers do not" in the new British journal Short Fiction in Theory & Practice. This essay compiles citations from a large number of short story writers who endorse May's position "that the short story is a unique literary form that makes different demands on readers than its big-shouldered brother, the novel" (6). Taken together, these two essays show May to be an immensely dedicated reader whose love for the short story is beyond question.
Short Story Theories: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective is not a collection of new short story theories precisely; that is, the bulk of the essays don't attempt to create new theories pertaining to the form as a distinct genre in need of further definition. While not all the scholars in the book would necessarily agree with Van Achter's claim that the "sterile and ultimately static position that endures in short story theory in the post-modern era is the direct legacy of the particular critical position that was first introduced and elaborated by Poe" (77), it is readily apparent that most of the scholars in the collection prefer other approaches than those that emphasize genre. These essays succeed in elucidating the texts under discussion and devise approaches that will be useful to both short story enthusiasts and to critics who are interested in interpreting the work of individual authors who happen to write short fiction. Whether or not further generic theories will develop in the twenty-first century is anyone's guess. In his essay on contemporary American fiction, May looks to the short story renaissance that occurred in the late twentieth century, featuring writers such as Carver and Ann Beattie (among others), and observes: "Occasionally a short story writer will arrive on the scene at just the right time, with just the right voice and vision, to reignite interest in the form" (300). Perhaps a single writer or a confluence of such writers will emerge and stimulate further developments in theory that accentuates generic qualities or perhaps the future will judge the twentieth-century preoccupation with short story theory as essentially an historical phenomenon.
University of Regina
Lohafer, Susan. Reading for Storyness. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins up, 2003.
May, Charles E. "Why many authors like short stories and many readers do not" Short Fiction In Theory & Practice 2:1-2 (2012): 5-22.
Penn, W.S. "The Tale as Genre in Short Fiction" The New Short Story Theories. Ed. Charles E. May. Athens: Ohio up, 1994. 44-55.
Poe, Edgar Allan. "Review of Twice-Told Tales'" The New Short Story Theories. Ed. Charles E. May. Athens: Ohio up, 1994. 59-64.
MICHAEL TRUSSLER has published literary criticism, poetry, and fiction. His short story collection, Encounters, won the City of Regina and Book of the Year Awards from the Saskatchewan Book Awards in 2006. His collection of poetry, Accidental Animals, was short-listed for the same awards in 2007. A Homemade Life, an experimental chapbook of photographs and text, was published by JackPine Press in 2009. His poems and stories have won contests in several literary journals.
He teaches English at the University of Regina and was the Editor of Wascana Review from 2002 to 2008.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2014|
|Previous Article:||Mad translation in Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers and Douglas glover's Elle.|
|Next Article:||Uncomfortable lessons in literary studies.|