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.

Monday, 5 October 2009

"Towards the End" by John Gerlach (Univ of Alabama Press, 1985)

The author thinks that "closure is essential to the short story" (p.168) and writes "My goal throughout this study has been to make readers more conscious of one aspect of reading: how the anticipation of completion in all of its various forms, in space, in time, and at the level of theme and idea, structure the story and the reader's experience of it", p.160.

The treatment is mostly historical, starting with Poe. "The closed, single form that Poe advocated is the product of the initial discovery of form within the genre; once that pattern was established, subsequent writers have been free to use the anticipation of closural patterns in more varied ways" (p.159). For a while, Poe's formal lessons were misunderstood even if his themes were imitated. Surprize endings became popular,

  • "If tales written as condensed novels rely too little on endings, stories with surprise endings rely on them too much. Though surprise endings as not ... numerically dominant in the whole of any writer's work until O.Henry, the effect of the surprise endings on short-story structure and on the popularity of the form extended beyond the actual number of examples", p.53-54
  • "The facts that customarily constitute the revelation of a surprise story ... are invariably out of proportion to the stir they create. Presumably the shock of the ending is intensified by the gap between what the reader has expected and what he finds, but such a device exposes the writer to "reader backlash", resentment at having been taken in", p.55

Even authors who don't exclusively use twist-endings may be very end-oriented in their writing procedures - "If I didn't know the ending of a story, I wouldn't begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, my last page first, and then I go back and work towards it" Katherine Anne Porter (in Writers at Work: "The Paris Review Interviews", p.151)

But stories that sacrifice character or plot for the sake of the ending weren't what Poe meant
  • "Singleness for Poe meant unity, wholeness, and interrelation of all the parts, not one effect exalted above all others", p.56

Then Henry James appeared. "James fashioned his stories with the end in mind much as Poe had ... commonly he specifically supplied the ending in his notebook while he began to alter and shape the original anecdotes". His short stories weren't formally original though - he had similar theories for short and long pieces. Character and plot need to work together. His short stories are scaled-down novellas whereas Hemingway selectively scaled or - more often - worked by "starting the story closer to the end". Some fragments encourage gestalt completion, some don't.

Imagistic unifying was tried (Sherwood Anderson, etc)
  • "By using the small action, the illuminating episode, as a unifying principle, the writers of the twenties reduced the amount of activity of incident necessary to bring their stories to completion. Thus they had more scope for the development of character and thought ... In the course of this attempt they bought the short story much closer to the nature of the lyric poem", Austin Wright, "American Short Story", p.266

Later Gerlach deals with stories (by Barthelme, Coover, etc) that don't have conventional closure (he mentions spatial form in the notes). Even these stories exploit closure signals to prepare the reader for the end. We're familiar with such signals - if you're on the phone and want to finish the call you might say "Thanks for calling". The person might not understand the hint and continue talking. You might say "Thanks for calling" again, because the act of repetition signals closure too.

Readers have become more skilled at detecting clues and are less intolerant of open endings.

  • "The expectation of closure is a communal literary tradition, one that has developed over time and one which the writer assumes his readers share", p.162
  • "Each of these developments demand more of the reader. Short stories have in a sense become shorter or at least denser, and seem complete in their often fractured forms, because writers have entrusted more to the reader", p.162
  • "The reader's perception that a theme has emerged can give a short story a sense of having closed", p.12

Throughout the book, endings of some well-known US stories are studied as representative examples of their type. He deliberately avoids using too many technical terms. Here's what he uses

  • Closure - several types
    • solution (solves the problem, relieves the tension)
    • natural (people die, journeys end)
    • antithesis (circular, irony, boundary identification, an earlier simile/symbol becomes real or vice-versa)
    • moral
    • encapsulation (coda, framing device)
  • Direct/indirect - "The direct form is inherently mechanical and seems best fitted for heightened psychic experiences, not for everyday reality, for reality that is not inherently end-oriented", p.69. Direct stories are linear; the reader can see where they're aiming. Indirect stories are more baggy.
  • Condensed - "In compressed form the slow revelation of theme is almost an identifying characteristic. The forward pressure that normally drives the reader to seek a resolution to the problem presented in the opening is replaced by the drive to find the problem, the thematic center", p.112
  • Open/Closed - In open stories, part of the story is beyond the frame. Some stories have an illusion of openness - no ambiguity, and the reader isn't impelled to imagine what's beyond the frame. He's prepared to admit that some famous stories with open endings might fail - "Stories of this sort, I would argue, are not so much open-ended as badly constructed", p.118 (of a Hemingway story)

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