Charles May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 3 – The Novel and the Short Story

Sharon Burgmayer, "Interface"

Sharon Burgmayer, “Interface”

My assumption is that when we discuss the differences between long fiction and short fiction, we must discuss basic differences in the epistemology of the two forms, that is, the way they attempt to “know” reality. The short story is short first of all because of the kind of experience or reality embodied in it. And the kind of experience we find in the short story reflects a mode of knowing that differs essentially from the mode of knowing we find in the novel. My thesis is that long fiction, by its very length, demands both a subject matter and a set of artistic conventions that primarily derive from, and in turn establish, the primacy of “experience” conceptually created and considered; whereas short fiction, by its length and tradition, demands both a subject matter and a set of artistic conventions that derive from and establish the primacy of “an experience,” as John Dewey has distinguished these terms, directly and emotionally created and encountered.
 

~~Charles May, “The Novel and the Short Story”, I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 3

I’ll admit up front that I’ve never understood the distinction between short story and novel as do those who have a more thorough grasp of the theoretical underpinnings of both. I think this chapter of May’s book – with a little help from John Dewey and Isak Dinesen – has helped close that gap a bit.

Start with Dewey. I’ve always thought of him in terms of educational theory, but here, Art as Experience is the focal point particularly Chapter III, Having An Experience. May applies Dewey’s separation of “experience” and “an experience” to the novel and short story, respectively. Dewey’s distinction:

Experience occurs continuously, because the interaction of live creature and environing conditions is involved in the very process of living…. Oftentimes, however, the experience had is inchoate. Things are experienced but not in such a way that they are composed into an experience.…
             In contrast with such experience, we have an experience when the material experienced runs its course to fulfillment. Then and then only is it integrated within and demarcated in the general stream of experience from other experiences. A piece of work is finished in a way that is satisfactory; a problem receives solutions; the game is played through…. Such an experience is a whole and carries with it its own individualizing quality and self-sufficiency. It is an experience….
              An experience has a unity that gives it its name, that meal, that storm, that rupture of friendship. The existence of this unity is constituted by a single quality that pervades the entire experience…
 

~~ John Dewey, Art as Experience

As I read it (and, always keep in mind, I’ve been known to head off my own track from time to time), May sees the territory the novel covers as experience, whereas the short story focuses on an experience. Much of that seems to be a by-product of length. A novel, which might be read over the course of days (or weeks, or who knows, months), has as its foundation experience. Theoretically, there is a force of unity, but there are sub-plots, character-defining scenes, backstories and expositions to cover before the central thrust of that unity can be delivered. A story, on the other hand, is intended to be read in one sitting; the experience of reading is itself an experience, and the story recounts an experience. A great deal of experience might be omitted – we don’t know the heroine’s relationship with her mother or the hero’s favorite childhood toy, no matter how character-revealing it is, unless it is central to the “an experience being recounted. It’s a slightly different angle on the “unity” required of the short story, as described in May’s Chapter 1 on genre.

As I was paging through Stanford’s Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy (often referred to as “Plato”) to make sure I was understanding Dewey correctly, I stumbled over an idea I’d overlooked in the original chapter:

Dewey believed it unfortunate that no term covers the act of production and the act of appreciation combined as one thing…. production and consumption should not be seen as separate….
                Dewey believed that art brings together the same doing/undergoing relation that makes an experience what it is. Something is artistic when the qualities of the result control the process of production. ….Aesthetic satisfaction must be linked to the activity that gave rise to it. For example the taste of the epicure includes qualities that depend on reference to the manner of production of the thing enjoyed.
 

~~Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy (“Plato”), “Dewey’s Aesthetics

This brought me to Isak Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen. Though I suppose it’s the other way around; Dinesen is the pseudonym, but the name by which I always think of her.

Dinesen’s “The Cardinal’s First Tale” is used as a reference point in this chapter (and in a future chapter); I’d already read it in preparation, and I’ll discuss it presently. Part of that story, indeed, is a clear explanation of the difference between novel and story by one of the characters, making it self-referential in a way I adore. But the above exegesis on Dewey brought to mind another wonderful Dinesen work, my first encounter with her, in fact, though originally through film rather than through text: “Babette’s Feast.” I haven’t read it in quite some time, so I’m a little hazy on the details, but what remains is this: Everything in that story comes down to a magical meal that redeems lives and talents tragically wasted by circumstance; and the line, “Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist, ‘Give me the chance to do my very best.'” The meal is an experience, rising far above culinary delight; in fact, at first the sisters are determined to stoically reject any pleasure it might bring, out of some notion of Christian asceticism, but it is the “an experience” that triumphs, lifting all to that encounter with the sacred. Reading the story is, likewise, anan experience.

“The Cardinal’s First Tale” is also an experience for the reader, and for the characters in the story. The Cardinal of the story must answer a penitent’s question: “Who are you?” The story is wonderful; I found a chapter from Susan Brantly’s book Understanding Isak Dinesen to be helpful along with May’s notes.

The Cardinal of the title tells a self-referential story to answer the question, “Who am I?” The story-within-the-story itself is great, a tale of an overwhelmed teenage princess impregnated both physically and spiritually (the latter being an idea I discovered in, and have enthusiastically embraced from, Brantly’s analysis) to the point where she delivers twins. The twins are regarded in classic opposition: a studious Priest-to-be for the Prince, an artistic sensualist for the Princess. There’s a bit of a mystery which leads to the revelation of the artistic unity of sacred and profane.

When the Cardinal has finished relating his tale of the twins, he talks to his penitent at length about story versus novel, using the very tale he’s just told as an example of the centrality of plot. She’s a little dismayed by the way “story” knocks people – characters – around, separates lovers, puts enemies together, and so forth (this reminds me of Steve Almond’s prescription in his teeny-tiny self-published book of flash and writing advice, This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey: “[I]t is your sworn duty to send your characters barreling into the danger of their own desires”), but he assures her, that the story will provide (“Love your characters” means to give them a story to inhabit) and that it is story, first, last, and always, that makes us human:
 

“Mistake me not,” said the cardinal, “the literature of which we are speaking [the novel]– the literature of individuals, if we may call it so – is a noble art, a great, earnest and ambitious human product. But it is a human product. The divine art is the story. In the beginning was the story. At the end we shall be privileged to view, and review, it – and that is what his named the day of judgment….
              “Hard and cruel as it may seem,” said the cardinal, “yet we, who hold of our high office as keepers and watchmen to the story, may tell you, fairly, that to its human characters there is salvation in nothing else in the universe. If you tell them – you compassionate and accommodating human readers – that they may bring their distress and anguish before any other authority, you will be cruelly deceiving and mocking them. For within our whole universe the story only has authority to answer that cry of heart of its characters, that’s one cry of heart of each of them: “Who am I?’
 

~~Isak Dinesen, “The Cardinal’s First Tale” from Last Tales, 1957

As I read that last line, I felt a great deal of similarity, in tone, to a line from “Babette’s Feast”: “Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me a chance to do my best.” But even more, this harks back to May’s “Introduction” chapter, in reference to C.S. Lewis’ ideas on the basic human conflict, “which is the battle between the sacred and the profane, between union and separation.” In this story, the sacred and profane are literally embodied in the Dionysian/Apollonian twins, their union unintentional but nonetheless profound, surviving even the physical destruction of one.

An experience. I love that phrase, as I understand it. We all have many moment like that, of course; a conversation that resonates for decades, a magical night when the stars seem aligned. They don’t have to be universally pleasant, I don’t think. I can remember, as a teenager under the spell of an absurd crush, seeing the object of my feelings with another girl, and realizing they looked right together, in a way he and I would never look right. As devastating as it was, it was also highly instructive; forty years later, I still remember the color of the sky and the feel of the grass. During each of my once-a-decade experiments to see if I still suck at writing fiction, I try to capture it in prose, and fail each time. But at least now I know what to call it, and that, with a plot that makes the moment surprising yet inevitable, it belongs in a short story.

I’m not sure why I never read more of Dinesen’s stories; I quite enjoyed this story. With so much to read, a lot ends up deferred, but I’d like to revisit her at a later time. And, of course, I’ll keep reading Prof. May’s book; I’m quite enjoying it as well, and encountering numerous wonderful treasures in its pages.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s