Monday, July 10, 2006

Still Thinking About Short Stories

After reading the first few chapters of Frank O'Connor's book of lectures The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story, I posted some food for thought about what O'Connor saw as basis of the short story form. Well, I finished the book and I am no closer to understanding what a short story is than I was when I began. John tells me I shouldn't worry about genre distinctions, and I don't normally worry about them. But in this case, I can't help it. It's like Kate's wondering what the difference is between a novella and a novel. I wonder the same thing about short stories. Are they on a continuum with short story being on one end, novella in the middle and novel on the other end? And if a short story is nothing but a really short novel, then why is it called a short story not a short novel? Or a short novella? What is a short story other than short? Is there a difference between it and longer forms? O'Connor thought so:

The novel and the short story are two different forms [...] the novel can take handicaps which the short story cannot take. The novel is the more primitive of the two forms; it is closer to the children's tale in which one can prepare for a fantastic event by a single sentence [...] the short story does not permit of such preparation. In fact the reader of the reader of the short story cannot be induced to expect anything. The short story represents a struggle with Time--the novelist's Time; it is an attempt to reach some point of vantage from which past and future are equally visible. The crisis of the short story is the short story and not as in a novel the mere logical inescapable result of what has preceded it. One might go further and say that in the story what precedes the crisis becomes a consequence of the crisis--this being what actually happened, that must necessarily be what preceded it.
I can see what he means here. There is not time in a short story for a slow accumulation of information or facts, no time to see what brought the characters to the current situation. Time must be handled differently, more efficiently. The story must do more with less. But I don't think that means a short story cannot have any preparation, cannot have a sentence that "prepares for a fantastic event." I am tempted to say that a story has to be about the particular while a novel is about the general even though it may be built of particulars. But I am not sure if that is true. I do not feel well versed in short stories to be comfortable arguing that position. But it seems true. I guess I will have some things to think about while I work at reading more short stories. I do know, however, that I found The Lonely Voice unsatisfying. The book is not meant for people like me who are trying to learn about short stories. The book is meant for people who have already read a large number of short stories, who are familiar with the likes of Chekhov, D.H. Lawrence, and A.E. Coppard. Perhaps in a few years I will be able to read the book again and be able to confidently argue with O'Connor over what a short story really is. Until then, I will enjoy the "research."