Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Friday, 2 October 2009

"The Short Story: An Introduction" by Paul March-Russell (Edinburgh UP, 2009)

Each of the 20 sections addresses an issue ("Short story cycle", "Modernism and the Short Story", etc) in a chronological or thematic way, ending with a list of further reading. The book ends with a 23-page bibliography, so it's a useful sourcebook and well as introduction.

"The Short Story in England" section told me much about the history of publishing that I was unaware of -

  • "as Wendell Harris has argued, the growth of the English short story was impeded by the pre-eminence of the realist novel, in particular its capacity to show the inter-relatedness between events, people, regions, classes and economics ... Underpinning this aesthetic prejudice were legal, economic and technological factors ... Between 1853 and 1861, though, advertising duties, Stamp Duty and Paper Duty were repealed" and in 1842 copyright law was extended. (p.45)
  • "The model for the 'three-decker' novel ... had been maintained ... by circulating libraries such as Mudie's and W.H.Smith" (p.46).
  • "when in 1891 the new art journal, Black and White, declared that it would only feature short stories, its decision was regarded as a novelty" (p.46)

The trajectory of US story writers in the last few decades (Barthelme vs Carver, The New Yorker, etc) are more clearly delineated than those of UK writers, though market trends get a mention.

I didn't feel that anything too important was left out. Though recent popular fiction (e.g. the last 50 years of US SF) was glossed over, and the Web's barely mentioned. Beckett gets twice as much space as Kafka (fair enough in a way - Beckett marks an end-point of a track of development). Poe and (more surprisingly) Ballard each get several mentions.

He thinks that "the making of the short story is central to an understanding of modern literature and that the short story can be best understood as a type of fragment." (p. viii) which is fair enough, though I think both the idea of a story being a fragment and a story being fragmented are overplayed

  • "The fragment is at once the masterstroke that completes the text while remaining the most memorable and self-sufficient part" (p.166)
  • "The fragment['s] ... lack of completion captures the movement of thought; its incompleteness seems to crystallise and distil the writer's imagination. The fragment is at once broken and static, complete and dynamic" (p.168)
  • "The fragmentation of the short story ... places an additional responsibility upon the reader: an ethical imperative that underwrites the activity of reading" (p.177)
  • "The short story's propensity for fragmentation and for haunting reminds us that writing, like a séance, is always conducted through a medium of words, in which meanings can slip and slide" (p.190)

I was drawn to this book by a review in the Times Higher Education (17th Sept) where Hayley Francis wrote

  • "There is a myth that short stories are harder to read than novels"
  • "the current mini-renaissance [the short story] is enjoying thanks to the internet"
  • "It would be logical to assume that since the short story is such a concise form it would be ideally suited to study on an undergraduate course. ... Unfortunately ... the brevity of short stories often means they offer few answers to the questions they pose."

but the book doesn't really cover these points.

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