Short Story as an Art Form

Origin: The Short Story is a comparatively recent development in English literature. As early as Chaucer there were short stories in verse, for his Canterbury Tales are stories put into the mouths of travelling pilgrims; but a proper prose medium was lacking in the English of the time, and although Chaucer’s Parson’s Tale and the Tale of Melibee are attempts at prose stories, they are of poor quality. In Italy, however, Chaucer’s friend Boccaccio had written his own tales, contained in the Decameron, in prose, with much greater success. Under Italian influence, prose romances continued to be translated and written in English during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but none of these can be claimed as direct ancestors of the modern short story. In the 18th century, Steele and Addison evolved the tale-with-a-purpose to drive home a moral, but this again is different from the present-day tale of ‘impression’ or ‘idea’. The stories produced in the later half of that century do not display any appreciable advance, and perhaps Scott’s Wandering Willie’s Tale, written in 1824, makes the first English approach to the modern type. The decisive step, however, was taken in America about 1830 by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, who, both by precept and example, formulated the modern theory of Short Story writing. Each laid stress on a ‘final impression’ in the story, holding that plot alone was not enough. In a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, Poe defined his principle as follows: “A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he 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 this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the out bringing of this 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”. Years later, in England, Robert Louis Stevenson’s insistence on an initial impulse in the Short Story was strongly reminiscent of Poe. “There are”, he once remarked to his biographer, Graham Balfour, “three ways, and three ways only, of writing a story. You may take a plot and fit characters to it, or you may take a character and choose incidents and situations to develop it, or lastly you may take a certain atmosphere, and get actions and persons to realise it”. In each case he considered that the writer must have an ‘impression’ or ‘idea’ to communicate, which should engage his attention from the first to the last. As A. H. Upham’ puts it, he must see the end in the beginning.

Structure: The Short Story is not merely a greatly shortened novel. It shares, of course, the usual constituents of all fiction-plot, character, and setting-but they cannot be treated with the same detail as in a novel. Each has to be reduced to the minimum in the interest of the impression they are together intended to convey. All, in other words, take the shortest route towards the “preconceived effect”, “the one pre-established design”. They are all a means to an end. Any superfluous detail only retards the progress towards the final effect. The plot is confined to the essentials, the characters to the indispensables, and the setting to a few suggestive hints.

Sometimes one of the three elements may predominate over the other two. In other words, the writer may construct a story of plot alone, with characters and setting confined strictly to its requirements, or of character alone, with plot and setting just sufficient to display it, or of setting alone, with plot and characters as mere subsidiaries. To illustrate from Stevenson, The Bible Imp is a story of plot, Dr. Tekyll and Mr. Hyde (hardly long enough to rank as a novel) a story of character, and The Merry Men a story of setting. Speaking of the last, he explained to Graham Balfour, “There I began with the feeling of one of those islands on the west coast of Scotland, and I gradually developed the story to express the sentiment with which that coast affected me”.

The language of the Short Story should be a model of economy. Every word in it should contribute to its effect. A novel often has passages which could be scored out without detriment to the plot, but there is no room for these in the Short Story. They will only act as a drag on its progress and lead nowhere. Like a man of limited means, the Short Story cannot afford to spend two coins where a single one would suffice. It requires the apt word and the telling phrase. Descriptive passages are only valuable in so far as they contribute towards the total effect. Here above all it is true to say of style that it should be a means to an end. The form of the Short Story precludes indulgence in stylistic elegance or ‘fine writing’ for its own sake.

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Vogue in the Modern World: The Short Story is a favourite form of present day writing. Many novelists, like Arnold Bennett and Hugh Walpole have treated it as a sideline, and Elizabeth Bowen has described it as the obvious medium for the unsuccessful poet, but there are nevertheless authors who are chiefly famous for contributions to the Short Story. Its popularity can be accounted for in many ways, perhaps the chief being the many other demands upon the leisure of the modern reader, which in its turn has assisted the vast development of the magazine which contains several complete stories in one issue. Broadcasting, too, has played some part in its success.

From the time of Stevenson, the influence of the Short Story has been international. Its popularity has grown and spread to and from England, France, Russia and America. As a youth Kipling achieved world-wide success with his tales from India. The French author, Guy de Maupassant, had a whole troop of followers in every country. The Russian, Chekhov, came to have considerable influence upon Short Story writers between 1900 and 1920 (e.g. Katherine Mansfield), while the Americans Ernest Hemingway and William Saroyan have been widely imitated more recently.

To return to English writers, just as Kipling was a pioneer in describing life overseas, so H. G. Wells widened the field by applying his imagination to scientific discovery. There was a sharp contrast between work of this type and that of Oscar Wilde and other writers of the 1890’s, who concentrated upon the beauties of an elaborate prose style and themes very remote from the problems and possibilities of a materialist industrial civilisation. They studied the art of the Short Story with great earnestness, but so far as the ordinary reader was concerned, the most memorable work of this decade appeared in a series quite outside their influence-the world-famous Sherlock Holmes stories by (Sir) Arthur Conan Doyle. Some Reference is also due to the delightful humorous tales of W. W. Jacobs.

Since 1900 John Galsworthy, Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, and James Joyce have all written memorable short stories in addition to their work in the realm of the Novel. Walter de la Mare, A.E. Coppard, H.E Bates, and Rhys Davies have added delicacy and insight to the form, and are perhaps typical of all that is best in the Short Story of to-day. Their work is conscientious and literary, slower in its method than that of their American counterparts, but possibly more lasting in its effect. Altogether, in spite of complaints that the requirements of magazine editors have reduced it to a formula, there seems no reason to doubt that the Short Story will long continue to meet the needs of authors and readers alike, and to find new material for its special purposes in a constantly changing world.



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