Here in the year 2000 we lack a proprietary critic of the short story as, for example, Professor Helen Vendler is a proprietary critic of the lyric poem. Given the great story writers Chekhov, or Joyce, or Hemingway we might wonder about this, except that Hemingway turned to novels after In Our Time just as Joyce didafter Dubliners. Chekhov in his maturity turned to drama. While there are exceptions Isaac Babel or Grace Paley, for example, writers-for-life of brilliant, tightly sprung prose designedly inhospitable to the long forms we may say that short stories are what young writers produce on their way to their first novels, or what older writers produce in between novels. The critic of fiction will hold title to all its estates, and the novel is a major act of the culture.
Apart from that, it may be that the short story, as it has shifted historically from the episodic tale to the compressive illumination, can't sustain that much formal analysis. Some years ago, the late Frank O'Connor published a study of the genre entitled The Lonely Voice. O'Connor, himself a masterful writer of short stories, wanted to find some means of distinguishing the form from the novella and the novel. His title suggests the nature of his conclusion: it is not any particular technique of the short story that sets it apart, because as a selective rather than an inclusive art, it can construct itself in an endless number of ways. Nor is its length definitive, for, as he points out, not a few of the great examples of the genre are quite long. What makes the short story a distinct literary form, says O'Connor, is "its intense awareness of human loneliness." Sprung from Gogol's seminal story "The Overcoat," in which an impoverished clerk in winter manages to buy a warm overcoat only to have it stolen, a disaster that drives him to his death, the modern short story is a genre that deals with members of "submerged population groups," excluded by one means or another from living in the certainties of civilization people of a minority, outsiders, marginalists, for whom society provides no place or means of self-respect. By contrast, according to O'Connor, the fiction of the novel assumes that man is "an animal who lives in community, as in Jane Austen and Trollope it obviously does." But one can think immediately of stories rising from nonsubmerged populations, stories of people centrally located in community as they are in many of Katherine Mansfield's or Henry James's stories who are not of the alienated and marginalized, though they may come to be from their own actions.
Perhaps anticipating this problem, O'Connor modifies his thesis to include in his submerged population groups people who are notmaterially but spiritually isolated artists, dreamers, idealists, antiheroes, visionaries, and so forth. But then who does not belong to a submerged population group? The lonely voice is a universal chorus, and we are left with the not terribly useful truism that the story as a form deals with the human condition.
Besides which, one is immediately able to cite novels not at all as societally rooted as Austen's or Trollope's: Sartre's Nausea, for example, or Richard Wright's Native Son, or Samuel Beckett's Molloy trilogy, among others. These works bring their awareness of loneliness to a pitch that the word "intense" hardly begins to describe.
So finally O'Connor's attempt to differentiate the short story as a genre by virtue of its sociology doesn't hold up under examination.
On the other hand, if we deny it as a thesis, we can still accept it as an insight. We can acknowledge the tendency of the short story to isolate the individual paradoxically, perhaps, from the technical factors Frank O'Connor has dismissed. The story as a particular kind of fiction may not be definable by its construction or its length, but what is critical is its scale. Smaller in its overall dimensions than the novel, it is a fiction in which society is surmised as the darkness around the narrative circle of light. In other words, the scale of the short story predisposes it to the isolation of the self. And the author's awareness of loneliness is the literary dignity he grants his characters in spite of their circumstances the same dignity or moral consequence that, according to the critic Walter Benjamin, is granted even to the humblest person on the occasion of his death. We can say, then, that the subjugated population of a short story is likely to be, before anything else, a population of one. And whoever in a short story is deprived of the certainties of civilization may attribute it, among other things, to the author's >concise attentions.
It was the Freudian disciple Wilhelm Reich who realized that extensive dream analysis was not necessary to uncover a patient's psyche: annnnnywhere you looked in actions taken, habits of thought, tone of voice, body language you would find the typified self. That about describes the working principle of the short story as practiced by James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway.
Joyce, who brought the modern short story to perfection, showed us that its point of entry can be quite close in time to its denouement in other words, that the story may look in on someone's life as it just happens to reach its moment of inexorable moral definition. Hemingway added to that the technique of composing a story whose suspense derives from the withheld mention of its central problem.
I have read perhaps 140 stories to make this selection of 21 for the year 2000. Here is the news: the writers of today are drifting away from the classic model of the modern short story. They seem more disposed to the episodic than the epiphanic, and so their stories sometimes point to the earlier model of the tale. Stories in this mode tend to be longer, their points of entry can be quite distant from their denouements, and their central problem is made quite explicit.
But if the twenty-one outstanding stories in this volume are an indication, the art of the story hardly seems to have suffered. Oddly, the reader discerns a nice sense of freedom in what has to be thought of as a conservative tendency, one that glances back to the nineteenth century. It's as if some literary shackle has been broken one made of gold, admittedly, but a shackle nevertheless.
And there is more news: although my coeditor, Katrina Kenison, and I have functioned as plain and modest readers, going from story to story to find the pleasure or excitement or truth in them, and although we have chosen them one at a time with no thought for their effect overall or their relationship to one another, they turn out as a collection to reflect the evolving demographics of ourliterary republic. Their protagonists are Latino, African American, Chinese, Israeli, Indian, Bosnian, Bengali, Hawaiian, and Trinidadian in greater numbers than they are native white middle-class. This brings us back again to Frank O'Connor's untenable theory but useful insight. I don't mean to suggest that the tones or moods or states of mind of the stories are uniform. Humor, wonder, serenity, horror, sadness, stoicism, and love come off these pages. Geniuses are portrayed, as are the brutally retarded and the Alzheimer-ridden. Parables are given, and stories echo the realism of the front page.
I think it is possible to see in this collection the universality of theliterary conscience. You may find proof too of the vibrant, revivified energies given to this country by its immigrant infusions. But above all, here is the felt life conferred by the gifted storyteller ... who always raises two voices into the lonely universe, the character's and the writer's own.
Copyright (C) 2000 by E.L. Doctorow. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Compa...