Histry of Shrt Story

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A SHORT HISTORY OF THE SHORT STORY The short story emerged in a blitzkrieg of 19th-century magazine publishing, reached its apotheosis with Chekhov, and became one of the great 20th-century art forms. With the arrival of the inaugural National Short Story Prize, WILLIAM BOYD reveals his taxonomy of the short story, and assesses the state of the British form ET us begin at a notional beginning. I have an image in my head of a band of Neanderthals (or some similar troupe of humanoids) hunkered rou
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          5    |    T   H   E    Q   U   A   R   T   E   R   S  u  m  m  e  r   2   0   0   6 L ET us begin at a notional beginning.I have an image in my head of a band ofNeanderthals (or some similar troupe ofhumanoids)hunkered round the fire at the cave-mouth as the night is drawingin.One ofthem says,spontaneously:“You’ll never believe what happenedto me today.”Gnawed bones are tossed aside,children are quietened andthe tribe gives the storyteller its full attention.The anecdote,the fond rem-iniscence,the protracted joke,the pointed recollection are surely the gene-sis ofthe short stories we write and read today.You could argue that story-telling in one form or other is hardwired into our human discourse as if—as soon as our sense oftime past and time future evolved in our awaken-ing consciousnesses—we became aware we could shape the telling ofourpersonal histories and imagine possibilities that would enchant,terrify,enthral,admonish,titillate—and the rest ofthe gamut ofemotions thatattend a compelling story. All this is somewhat fanciful and unproveable,I know,but it strikes methat something ofthis order must explain the strange power ofshort fic-tion.The short form is,conceivably,more natural to us than longerforms:the anecdote that lasts several hours is going to find its listenersdrifting away pretty soon.The stories we tell to each other are short,orshortish,and they are shaped.Consider what happens in the telling ofatale:even the most unprofessional anecdotalist will find him or herself having to select some details and omit others,emphasise certain eventsand ignore the irrelevant or time-consuming,elide,speed up,slow down,describe key characters but not all,in order to head—ideally—towards adenouement ofsome sort.A whole editing process is engaged,almostunconsciously,ofchoosing,clarifying,enhancing and inventing.A con- vincing lie is,in its own way,a tiny,perfect narrative.The well-told storyseems to answer something very deep in our nature as if,for the durationofits telling,something special has been created,some essence ofourexperience extrapolated,some temporary sense has been made ofourcommon,turbulent journey towards the grave and oblivion.Ifall this is true then why has it taken so long for the short story,as aliterary form,to evolve? After all,the cultural history ofthe publishedshort story is only a few decades longer than that offilm.The answer,of course,is to be found in industrial and demographic processes.The shortstory had always existed as an informal oral tradition,but until the massmiddle-class literacy ofthe 19th century arrived in the west,and the mag-azine and periodical market was invented to service the new reading pub-lic’s desires and preferences,there had been no real publishing forum for apiece ofshort fiction in the five to 50-page range.It was this new mediumthat revealed to writers their capacity to write short fiction.Readers William Boyd is a judge of theNational Short Story Prize.He isthe author of eight novels andthree collections of short stories: On the Yankee Station  (1981), The Destiny of Nathalie X  (1995)and Fascination  (2004)    ©   J  e  r  r  y   B  a  u  e  r A SHORT HISTORY OFTHE SHORT STORY The short story emerged in a blitzkrieg of19th-century magazine publishing,reached its apotheosis with Chekhov,and became one ofthe great 20th-century art forms.With the arrival ofthe inaugural National Short Story Prize, WILLIAM BOYD reveals his taxonomy ofthe short story,and assesses the state ofthe British form          6    |    T   H   E    Q   U   A   R   T   E   R   S  u  m  m  e  r   2   0   0   6 wanted short stories,and writers suddenly discoveredthey had a new literary form on their hands.Theway the short story effectively sprang into being in itsfull maturity almost proves my point.There were nofaltering first steps,no slow centuries ofevolution.The fact that in the early to mid-19th centuryHawthorne and Poe and Turgenev were capable of writing classic and timeless short stories virtuallyfrom the outset signals that the ability had alwaysbeen dormant within the human imagination.Theshort story arrived fully fledged in the middle ofthe19th century and by its end,in the shape ofAntonChekhov,had reached its apotheosis. S o who wrote and published the first true mod-ern short story? Who was the great precursor?Short narratives and tales had existed for centuriesin one form or another:think ofScheherazade,Boccaccio’s  Decameron and the Canterbury Tales  ,letalone the Bible,subplots in plays and novels,satires,pamphlets,sagas,narrative poems,essays,journal-ism.But what is the first literary text we can pointto,classify and declaim with confidence:“This is amodern short story”? It has been argued that thehonour goes to Walter Scott’s story “The TwoDrovers,”published in Chronicles ofthe Canongate  in1827.It’s a convenient starting point,ifonlybecause the short story’s subsequent rapid develop-ment was international and Scott’s influence,hugein its day,was international also—not only inspiringGeorge Eliot and Thomas Hardy at home,but alsoBalzac in France,Pushkin and Turgenev in Russiaand Fenimore Cooper and Hawthorne in America.Ifone thinks ofthe influence these writers had inturn on Flaubert and Maupassant,Chekhov,Poeand Melville we can credibly begin to trace thebirth lines ofthe modern short story back to itssrcinal source.The only problem is that afterScott’s start,the short story in Britain hardly existedin the mid-19th century,such was the dominance of the novel;writers in France,Russia and Americaseemed to take more immediately to the form andit’s not until Robert Louis Stevenson in the 1880sthat we can see the modern short story beginning toemerge and flourish in Britain once more,with theline extending on from Stevenson through Wells,Bennett,James and Kipling.Therefore,in many ways the true beginnings of the modern short story are to be found in America.One might posit the publication ofNathanielHawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales  in 1837 as a startingpoint.When Edgar Allan Poe read Hawthorne,hemade the first real analysis ofthe difference betweenthe short story and the novel,defining a short storyquite simply as a narrative that “can be read at onesitting.”This is not as facile as it may seem at first.What Poe was trying to put his finger on was theshort story’s curious singularity ofeffect,somethingthat he felt very strongly came from its all-in-one-goconsumption.Poe continues:“In the whole composi-tion there should be no word written,ofwhich thetendency,direct or indirect,is not to the one pre-established design.And by such means,with suchcare and skill,a picture is at length painted whichleaves in the mind ofhim who contemplates it witha kindred art,a sense ofthe fullest satisfaction.”Poe is perhaps too schematic and prescriptive—wanting only one “pre-established design”as thedominating template ofa short story—but he is veryacute on the nature ofthe effect a short story canachieve:“a sense ofthe fullest satisfaction.”Theshort story can seem larger,more resonant andmemorable than the shortness ofthe form wouldappear capable ofdelivering.One thinks ofPoe’sstories—the first detective stories among them—suchas “The Fall ofthe House ofUsher”and one realis-es he was attempting to practise what he preached.However,I would take Poe’s definition a step furtherand recast it thus:the true,fully functioning shortstory should achieve a totality ofeffect that makes italmost impossible to encapsulate or summarise.Forit is in this area,it seems to me,that the short storyand the novel divide,where the effect ofreading agood short story is quite different from the effect of reading a good novel.The great modern short sto-ries possess a quality ofmystery and beguiling reso-nance about them—a complexity ofafterthought—that cannot be pinned down or analysed.Bizarrely,in this situation,the whole is undeniably greater thanthe sum ofits component parts.Poe,perhaps inad- vertently,achieved this on occasion,but the writerwho followed Poe and in whom we see this qualityreally functioning is Herman Melville.Melville hated writing stories—he claimed to doso purely for money—but it is in Melville’s stories,published in The Piazza Tales  (1856),such as “BenitoCereno”and “Bartleby the Scrivener”that themodern short story comes ofage,with remarkablesuddenness.In Melville’s stories you can see the firstreal exemplars ofthe short story’s strange power.If  you understand and relish what Melville is doing in“Benito Cereno”then you can understand and rel-ish what is happening in Stevenson’s “Dr Jekyll andMr Hyde,”in Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer,”inChekhov’s “House with the Mezzanine,”Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants,”    “   B  o  o   k  s  o  n   B  o  o   k  s ,   ”   b  y   J  o  n  a   t   h  a  n   W  o   l  s   t  e  n   h  o   l  m ,   P  r   i  v  a   t  e   C  o   l   l  e  c   t   i  o  n   /   ©   P  o  r   t  a   l   G  a   l   l  e  r  y   L   t   d   /   T   h  e   B  r   i   d  g  e  m  a  n   A  r   t   L   i   b  r  a  r  y  Mansfield’s “Prelude,”Carver’s “Cathedral,”Nabokov’s “Spring at Fialta,”Spark’s “Bang BangYou’re Dead,”Borges’s “Funes the Memorious,”toname a very few.We cannot summarise or para-phrase the totality ofeffect ofthese stories,try as wemight:something about their unique frisson escapesor defies analysis.It is Melville who establishes thebenchmark for what the short story can attain andallows us to set the standards by which all the othergreat writers ofthe form can be measured.Turgenev was also publishing short stories in the1850s—and one could throw his hat in the ring withMelville’s as the first originator ofthe modernform—but Turgenev’s great contribution was tostart something that Chekhov finished.Why is Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) routinely and correctlydescribed as the greatest short story writer ever? Allanswers to this question will seem inadequate but,toput it very simply,the fact is that Chekhov,in hismature stories ofthe 1890s,revolutionised the shortstory by transforming narrative.Chekhov saw andunderstood that life is godless,random and absurd,that all history is the history ofunintended conse-quences.He knew,for instance,that being good willnot spare you from awful suffering and injustice,thatthe slothful can flourish effortlessly and thatmediocrity is the one great daemonic force.By abandoning the manipulated beginning-middle-and-end plot,by refusing to judgehis characters,by not striving for a climaxor seeking neat narrative resolution,Chekhov made his stories appear agonis-ingly,almost unbearably lifelike.Chekhovrepresents the end ofthe first phase ofthemodern short story.From his deathonward,his influence is massive andineluctable:the short story becomes there-after in the 20th century almost exclusivelyChekhovian.Joyce is Chekhovian,Katherine Mansfield almost plagiaristicallyso,Raymond Carver simply could not existwithout him.Perhaps all short stories writ-ten after Chekhov are in one way or anoth-er in his debt.Only in the last 20 years orthereabouts have writers begun to emergefrom his shadow,to middling effect.But with Chekhov and with the adventofthe 20th century,the modern short storyentered its golden age.The adjective is veryapt:in the early decades ofthe century youcould become rich writing short stories,particularly in America.Magazines prolifer-ated,readers were eager,circulation rose,fees went up and up.In the 1920s,Scott Fitzgeraldwas paid $4,000 by the Saturday Evening Post  for a sin-gle short story.You need to multiply by at least 20 toarrive at any idea ofthe value ofthe sum in today’sterms.It was about this time,also,as the shortstory’s popularity grew and was subjected to thepressures and influence ofmodernism,that the formbegan to metamorphose somewhat:certain types of short story became distinct from each other and theform’s categories grew. A couple ofyears ago I wrote an article in the Guardian (reprinted in my collection  Bamboo  ) inwhich I proposed a rough taxonomy ofthe shortstory and came up with seven basic varieties.Fundamentally,up until the beginning ofthe 20thcentury,you have the two great traditions:the event-plot story and Chekhovian story.The event-plotstory (the term is William Gerhardie’s) refers to thestyle ofplotted story that flourished pre-Chekhov—before his example ofthe formless story becamepre-eminent.Most short stories,even today,fall intoone ofthese two categories.From them other typesemerged over the coming decades.Perhaps the mostdominant ofthese new forms is what I termed themodernist story,in which a deliberate,often baffling         7    |    T   H   E    Q   U   A   R   T   E   R   S  u  m  m  e  r   2   0   0   6 FEATURE William Boyd           8    |    T   H   E    Q   U   A   R   T   E   R    S  u  m  m  e  r   2   0   0   6 obscurity is made a virtue,however limpid the style inwhich it is written.Hemingway was the great practi-tioner here ( In Our Time  being the key volume),andafter Chekhov his influence on the 20th-century shortstory is possibly the greatest.Next among the other varieties I classified was thecryptic/ludic story.In this form ofstory there is ameaning to be deciphered that lies beneath the appar-ently straightforward text.This is also known as “sup-pressed narrative”and is a more recent develop-ment—perhaps the first clear move away from thegreat Chekhovian model.Mid-20th century writerslike Nabokov,Calvino and Borges are representativeofthis mode ofwriting,though Rudyard Kipling,instories such as “Mrs Bathurst”(1904) and “MaryPostgate”(1917),is an early master ofsuppressed nar-rative.The mini-novel story is a variety ofthe event-plot,trying to do in a few pages what the novel doesin hundreds.One could see Dickens’s “ChristmasSpecials”as early examples ofthis type,though manyshort story writers turn to it from time to time (includ-ing Chekhov).The next category,the poetic/mythicstory,is a rarer beast.Dylan Thomas’s and DHLawrence’s stories are typical and JG Ballard’s bleak voyages into inner space also conform to this set.Here the short story comes as close to lyric poetry asit can—and in so doing most obviously attempts todefy easy summary.Ballard’s tremendous short sto-ries—a haunting body ofwork that stretches from the1950s to the present day—will come to be seen as oneofthe few successful attempts to escape Chekhov.Thefinal category,and one that brings us up to the presentday,is what I called the biographical story,a catch-allterm to include stories that flirt with the factual ormasquerade as non-fiction.Often the impedimenta of the non-fiction book is utilised (footnotes,authorialasides,illustrations,quotations,font changes,statistics,textual gimmickry).This is the most recent transmuta-tion ofthe short story form and largely originated in America in the 1990s,where it has found particularfavour with younger writers:Dave Eggers,DavidFoster Wallace,William T Vollman are notable expo-nents.In the hands ofless capable writers,this modecan easily degenerate into the whimsical or the twee(almost deserving ofits own sub-class).The biograph-ical story also includes stories that introduce real peo-ple into fiction or write fictive episodes ofreal lives.This can be seen as an attempt by fiction,in a worlddeluged by the advertising media,the documentary, journalism,and 24-hour rolling news,to colonisesome ofthat territory,to invade the world ofthe realand,as a cannibal will devour the brain ofhis enemyto make him stronger,to make fiction all the morepowerful by blurring the line between hard facts and The five stories selected for this year’sinaugural National Short Story Prizewere drawn from over 1,400 entries,all from professional authors.In hisessay above,William Boyd identifiesthe seven dominant types of story intowhich the form developed over the late19th and 20th centuries.He arguesthat the stories shortlisted for the prizefall roughly into four of these cate-gories:Event-Plot,Cryptic/Ludic,Chekhovian and Mini-Novel.Here arethe authors,the stories and theirBoydian types. Rana Dasgupta Rana Dasgupta was born in 1971 inCanterbury,where he picked up on thelegacy of the Chaucerian tale.In 2001,he moved to Delhi,where he lives andwrites.His first book, Tokyo Cancelled, was published last year.It is a storycycle that uses folktale and myth toexplore the forces of globalisation. “The Flyover”(Event-Plot) Marlboro lives in the Belogun market,under the concrete flyovers of Lagos.His talent is knowing other people’sbusiness,and this draws him into thedark labyrinth of the local economy. Michel Faber Michel Faber was born in Holland andlived in Australia before moving toScotland in 1992.His novels include The Crimson Petal and the White  .Avirtuoso of stylistic variety,his shortstories have appeared in two collec-tions: Some Rain Must Fall  and The Fahrenheit Twins  . “The Safehouse”(Cryptic/Ludic) A man wakes up destitute,with nomemory of his past.His life story iswritten on the front of his T-shirt,butit is of no importance.His only optionis to find his way to “The Safehouse.” THE NATIONALSHORT STORYPRIZE 2006The shortlistedauthors
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