Charles May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 1 – Genre and the Short Story

The difference between the many critics who doubt that a definition of the short story is possible and those few, like me, who argue for the validity and value of such a definition, revolves around two different concepts of generic definition… I do not need to argue for a definition that satisfies necessary conditions to distinguish the short story from the novel. I do argue, however, that if we develop an understanding of the generic characteristics of the short story, we will be able to read individual short stories with more appreciation and understanding.

~~Charles E. May, “I Am Your Brother”: Short Story Studies (2013)

What is a short story? Is it merely defined by length? Or is there some more underlying characteristic? Is there a type of tale best suited to this short form, as opposed to the novel? These are some of the questions Prof. May looks at in this essay, printed as Chapter 1 of his book. This is not a review of that book, by the way; I wouldn’t presume. I’m using it as a springboard for my own exploration, at a much simpler level, of the ideas and materials he incorporates.

As before, I’ll focus on a couple of source documents he uses in his argument. Neither of these are short stories – one is a philosophy treatise, one a book review – but that’s what this chapter holds; we’re looking at the genre of the short story, and, to some degree, the history of that genre (the history will be continued in the next chapter). Edit: I added in a short story on reconsideration of my overall purpose here.

May begins with Wittgenstein. In Philosophical Investigations, aphorisms 65 – 67, Wittgenstein argues for a description of language that uses, not a checklist of features every language use must have, but a group of characteristics generally shared:

(65) …Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all,—

but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all “language”… (66) And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall

similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. (67) I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”…

~~Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

I stumbled across Wittgenstein last Fall and Winter, running into him over and over again – in a philosophy class, obviously, but also in a math class and a poetry class (not to mention one very odd but compelling film). I was also in a Norwegian loop at the time, encountering references to Norway in several venues (including three works of fiction new to me, and one pre-existing one). Turned out Wittgenstein retreated to Norway at a particularly troubling time in his life. Networks, indeed.

I was also struck by the similarity of this “family relationship” classification to the medical diagnostic model. Not everyone with a cold has the whole menu of a sore throat, stuffy nose, cough, mild fever, fatigue, and body aches, but your doctor will diagnose a cold if you have three or four of those, and lack certain others (high fever or rash, for instance). For some reason, we expect literature to behave more rigidly than a rhinovirus. This is amusing, since there is no such thing as “the” cold virus – there are hundreds of them, and new ones crop up all the time, which is why some prefer your sinuses and some your trachea, and they will land in different places thus set up shop in the nose, eyes, or throat and spread from there. Isn’t this a great analogy for literature? I know I can enjoy stories in different ways for different things: beautiful writing (and that alone can define a multitude of beauties), a moving theme, a charming/hilarious/admirable character, a clever narrative or structural technique. They’re all stories. Why shouldn’t the definition of the perceived “story” – the symptoms – also be given some latitude in diagnosis?

At some point in what passes for my formal education, mediocre as it was, I came across a definition of “short story” that limited them to events occurring in a limited amount of time – hours, days, maybe weeks. By this definition, the number of words was irrelevant. I took that as The Definition, only to find it wasn’t (like I said, a mediocre education). In my periodic explorations of fiction writing (once a decade, I check to make sure I still can’t write fiction or play the guitar), the “short story” required of editors has word limits. That’s a rather superficial definition, however. So just what is a short story?

May looks at Poe’s consideration of the short story, through his 1842 review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales. I found a copy of Poe’s review online via Eldritch Press; it offers a comparison of the “tale”, and poetry, but demands both uphold the same primary standard: “unity of effect or impression.” While rhymed poetry is his #1 choice for “how the highest genius could be most advantageously employed for the best display of its own powers,” it seems that he feels prose, thanks to its lesser intensity, can sustain the all-important unity for a longer period, and that the tale – the short story – is the highest form of prose.

I find his writing advice to be remarkably similar to that offered even today, when the short story has had nearly two centuries to develop and evolve; new schools and structures seem to crop up in every generation, but this unity remains:

A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents–he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.

~~Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-Told Tales: A Review” from Graham’s Magazine, May 1842

Many of us, thanks to our ninth-grade English teachers, associate Poe with horror, mystery, and the macabre, and thus dismiss him as a serious artist. He was, in fact, a diligent literary critic and analyst; none less than Jorge Luis Borges claimed him as a major influence, writing several “doubles” to Poe tales.

Poe’s expertise is borne out by the longevity, not only of his stories, but of his advice. One of Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules of Writing – rules often given as laws in high-level writing programs, by the way – is: “Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.” Steve Almond, a devotee of Vonnegut, relayed an anecdote in his itty-bitty book of half-writing-advice/half-flash This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey that echoes this:

Years ago, at a writers conference, I asked one of the teachers the sort of question that I now dread having to answer. “When I revise,” I said, “what am I supposed to cut?”

The teacher responded by quoting the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, which I suppose served me right. “Ask yourself, ‘What work does it do?'”

“What work does every sentence do?” I said.

“Every word,” she said.

Poe’s exhortation to unity, and the technical process through which that needs to be achieved, is upheld and passed along from Brecht (early 20th C) to Vonnegut (mid-late 20th C) to Almond (late 20th/early 21st C) to the unknown author writing her first lines today. And whereas in the public mind the short story has been of late eclipsed by the novel, abandoned to “new writers” as a kind of introductory offer, there are those – Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, for example – who still work exclusively, or nearly so, in this medium.

Poe’s essay looks at other differences between poem and tale. His concept of what is and is not poetry is, I think, what limits its scope in his view; I’m glad that the modernists and their successors have freed poetry from strictures of structure and allowed such things as blank verse and prose poetry to flower. I think the dividing line is much less apparent today, as our idea of “beauty” has shifted:

The writer of the prose tale, in short, may bring to his theme a vast variety of modes or inflections of thought and expression–(the ratiocinative, for example, the sarcastic, or the humorous) which are not only antagonistical to the nature of the poem, but absolutely forbidden by one of its most peculiar and indispensable adjuncts; we allude, of course, to rhythm. It may be added here, par parenthèse, that the author who aims at the purely beautiful in a prose tale is laboring at great disadvantage. For Beauty can be better treated in the poem. Not so with terror, or passion, or horror, or a multitude of such other points.

~~Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-Told Tales: A Review” from Graham’s Magazine, May 1842

To continue my exploration into short story, I read one of the Twice-Told Tales Poe refers to in his review: “The Minister’s Black Veil” (also available online through Eldritch Press). I chose that particular story, first, because Prof. May also mentions it in his Introduction (though I didn’t mention it when I wrote about that chapter), and secondly, because of the distinctly snobbish attitude Poe brings to his comments:

“The Minister’s Black Veil” is a masterly composition of which the sole defect is that to the rabble its exquisite skill will be caviare. The obvious meaning of this article will be found to smother its insinuated one. The moral put into the mouth of the dying minister will be supposed to convey the true import of the narrative; and that a crime of dark dye (having reference to the “young lady”), has been committed, is a point which only minds congenial with that of the author will perceive.

~~Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-Told Tales: A Review” from Graham’s Magazine, May 1842

Apparently Poe considers that Hawthorne’s mention of the funeral was sufficient cause for the reader to conclude that the reason for his veiling was an encounter with the young lady funeraled. As I read the story, I did indeed think it was odd that a young woman would die and no mention of the cause of her death would be made; I realize life was a bit more precarious in the early 19th century, but I’m not under the impression that the death of someone described as “young” would be regarded as routine, as if they were dropping like flies in the streets. I wondered if her death had significance that I lacked the historical/cultural background to understand. Now I wonder if suicide was the cause, and it was not mentioned out of propriety, and the very non-mention would have signalled that to a contemporary reader. In any case, to me it’s flimsy evidence.

I far prefer May’s reading of the story in the Introduction to this book, comparing it to the double-layered “parable” of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:

It is not a simple story from which a moral lesson can be drawn, but rather a verbal construct that presents basic Enigma, essential Mystery. The minister puts on the black veil that shuts him off from the rest of the world as a symbolic objectification of what he has realized to be implicitly true. It is the townspeople’s intuitive awareness of that reality that strikes fear into their hearts when they see the veil.

~~Charles E. May, “I Am Your Brother”: Short Story Studies (2013)

There is no mention of a specific sin that drove him to don the veil, though it may be inferred anyway. I had thought of it more as Original Sin, the minister being a minister and all. It is a core tenet of most Christian sects that “sin” is “separation from God,” and some see the terrors of Hell not as fire and brimstone, but as that separation made manifest and eternal, generating a suffering of the soul that is equated with fire and brimstone. A veil would do the trick on this mortal plane, as it physically separates the Minister in a rather trivial way, but goes on to separate him in a more fundamental, human sense, from his fiancée, from friendships and relationships – from the community at large. And yes, I can see May’s interpretation that, like the Mariner, the Minister is a walking reminder of the existential isolation we all experience.

The next chapter broadens the question of genre when it looks at the historical development of the Short Story. Be back soon.

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2 responses to “Charles May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 1 – Genre and the Short Story

  1. Pingback: Charles May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 2 – History and the Short Story | A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: Charles May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 3 – The Novel and the Short Story | A Just Recompense

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