The short story is the most resistant of literary puzzles: what it is, or what it does, or why people write them at all seem, to me, questions that deserve more of an answer than “what is a poem?” or “what is a novel?” though perhaps the best way to answer these questions would be the same way to answer the questions about the novel or poems: look at what the term meant, at different times, to different authors and audiences.
But something about the short story makes these questions feel worth asking, as they do not (for me) in the case of novels and poems. The reason is clear enough: I am baffled by how short stories succeed, confused even by what they do when they do succeed.
The answer that ought to satisfy: a short story is a piece of fiction of brief length, which can succeed in many different ways, and accomplish many different ends. To seek out the essence of the short story’s value or power is as mistaken as attempting to seek out the essential value of a poem. It depends, and it depends on a great many things.
But against this, authors and audiences inherit forms, and they might inherit forms without reflecting upon them in adequately articulate or self-conscious discourse. It might be that the short story is transmitted with an implicit knowledge of practitioners that cannot be identified or adequately described by the standard means of reception studies or literary history.
My starting hunch is that the short story is a tool for a great many things, turned to many ends, but that there is nonetheless a reason that some authors are inclined to take it up, that some can wield it with more powers than others. A great many of the best novelists are not the best short story writers. Most of the best short story writers are not the best novelists. So we can ask: what is the relationship to language, fiction, and imagination that facilitates and is facilitated by a short story, as opposed to a novel? Rather than turn to reception studies, or to a historical analysis of criticism, perhaps we can uncover the relationship by approaching the matter through something like a genealogy.
First, then, which author in English can be said to have consummated this relationship so as to inspire others to do the same?
My proposal: Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
First, the obvious objections: Are not fairy-tales short stories? Did not Chaucer write something like short-stories in his verse? Can short stories exist in verse? I’ll attempt to meet these as I go.
The first modern short-story in English is, I’ll say, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Why not its great counterpart in Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth’s “Michael”? Because of what we see happening to the short story after this; nearer to “Rime” would be Wordsworth’s “Ruined Cottage,” but it was never published in his life-time.
In “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge establishes a relation to the imagination and narrative that recurs throughout short stories: something has happened, nobody is certain what, but it must be told for the sake of a higher judgment that is itself in some way inscrutable.
In any civilized narrative, all of the characters are on trial, Empson wrote. But in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the judgment is centered on one character; the burden of the judgment is placed upon a few crucial moments of choice and change, in which something that cannot be fully apprehended, let alone comprehended, went wrong; the substance and nature of the judgment is equivocal or indeterminate; and, what matters most, the story is compelled by an overwhelming sense of guilt and a need, not met, for absolution.
We might think that these derive from Coleridge’s peculiarly paranoid, neurotic, guilt-ridden personality, by his yearning for a judgment that he cannot understand; but others have shared in Coleridge’s plight in varying degrees, and others have been repeatedly tempted to imagine individuals in that same situation.
Who, then, are the great short story writers in the language? Coleridge, Scott, Poe, Hawthorne, James, Wharton, Kipling, Lawrence, Mansfield, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, John Cheever, and more.
Beyond English, Maupassant and Kafka come to mind immediately.
As different as these are from one another, as varied as their tones, in many of their greatest works, something constant, at a fairly general level, holds.
What often drives their work is the belief that there is some act, some source of guilt and wrongdoing, that might be revealed in the telling; what propels the work is the inability to satisfactorily identify it, in the region where they are sure it must be; what closes their works is the arrival of a judgment that almost never can be understood in terms of human justice, or else resignation to judgment’s absence, which in turn makes itself felt.
Behind the short story: self-condemnation and self-confession—its forebears are not the fairy-tale, where the center of gravity is not on a guilty or erring self; nor are they in Chaucer, whose poetry anticipates the novel much more than the short-story; instead, they are in the confessional, or the witness stand, scrutinizing that single perspective, seeking the defining act.
Kafka’s “novels” are in fact extremes of the short story–the search extended, the judgment passed down in stages, each as frustrating as the last.
The tradition does not shift to prose exclusively: it is the life-blood of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues (as it is not of Tennyson’s).
Consider how the tales of Conan Doyle—the Holmes stories—stand in relation to the tradition.
The supernatural element of “Rime” is not alien to this account of the short story, but central to it: faced with an act that cannot be understood, or even identified, and a judgment that defies or challenges understanding, the recourse to the supernatural is a symptomatic reaction to the short story’s basic situation. It is a non-answer that fits the blank, incomprehensible but nonetheless apprehensible.
Accepting that there is something to all of this, what is the consequence for actually reading? Some must still fall short? Perhaps it is helpful in orienting oneself towards the regions of experience a short story can understand with special forces. Perhaps it is helpful simply in comparing stories that might otherwise seem hopelessly dissimilar—not, as if equipped with a narratological anatomy by which we can look for the moment of judgment, and compare—but for the sake of more broadly reading with an eye for the way that ambivalent or obscure judgment, self-justification (whether in the first or third person) and avowal are subject to such varied treatment, and move writers to such varied forms, in the tradition. And perhaps also to look for short stories that do something else entirely, that are of another tradition that does not find its proper origin in Coleridge’s ballad.