Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Short Story's Lonely Voice

My Sunday Guardian column.

We’re all aware that the novel is dead. People have been making pronouncements about its demise for ages, even as new novels continue to appear and thrive. When it comes to the state of the short story, though, the word used to describe it is “renaissance”: apparently, the form has been undergoing one for decades. Clearly, though, there’s been more of resurgence of late. As Paul McVeigh, director of the London Short Story Festival, points out, it’s the short story that has won against the novel in the recent International Man Booker, the Nobel, the Folio Prize and even the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This also shows the short story’s flowering in terms of style: it’s not just the quiet realism of Alice Munro that’s lauded, but also the telling vignettes of Lydia Davis and the satirical observations of George Saunders, among others.

What is it, then, that makes for a good short story? Though there have been many theories of the novel over the years – from Bakhtin to Forster to Lukács -- there have been fewer assessments of the short story. Most of them are to be found in essay collections, introductions to anthologies and writers’ own musings.One of the most well-regarded remains Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice, based on a series of lectures the Irish writer delivered at Stanford in 1961. As Russell Banks writes in the introduction to the Melville House edition, this arose out of “a need perhaps to sum up a lifetime’s ruminations and writings on the subject—theories and beliefs hammered out and tested in lectures, arguments, essays, debates, and discussions for over forty years”.

The short story, says O’Connor, has never had a hero: “What it has instead is a submerged population group—a bad phrase which I have had to use for want of a better.” It’s this “submerged population group” that, to his mind, is the key to unlocking the short story’s secrets. This “Little Man”, as he goes on to explain, is omnipresent: “Gogol’s officials, Turgenev’s serfs, Maupassant’s prostitutes, Chekhov’s doctors and teachers, Sherwood Anderson’s provincials, always dreaming of escape”. These aren’t just voices of those from underground but also of those standing against convention, marching to their own drummer and illuminating uncomfortable truths about the way we live.

This, to O’Connor, is also the essential difference between the novel and the short story. In the former, he writes, at least one character must represent the reader in some manner— “as the Wild Boy, the Rebel, the Dreamer, the Misunderstood Idealist” – and such identification leads to some concept of normality and relationship with society as a whole. Not so in the short story, with its “sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society”. It’s evident that there’s as much to debate on as chew upon in the author’s pronouncements, which often veer towards the oracular.

O’Connor goes on to apply this thinking to the work of some of his favourite authors, and also explores other aspects of what, to him, makes for a good short story -- primarily a moral dimension and a realistic, non-experimental approach, all of which leads to “applied”, organic, as opposed to “pure”, storytelling. One could disagree with his conclusions, and many will, but what is fascinating is the way he draws parallels between writers to bring out their strengths and weaknesses: Hemingway and Joyce; Browning and Turgenev; Kipling and Poe; Maupassant and Chekhov (in passing, he claims that ‘The Lady with the Lapdog’ may “well be the most beautiful short story in the world”).

Parts of The Lonely Voice do come across as dated (he lauds Lawrence) or downright cussed (he’s less than charitable about Katherine Mansfield). One-size-fits-all theories can be Procrustean beds, especially for a form as protean as the short story, but there’s no denying that O’Connor provides a stimulating and always impassioned argument in favour of his own informed views. 

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