Brevity’s Pull: In Praise of the American Short Story
By A. O. SCOTT
The New York Times
To call an American writer a master of the short story can be taken at best as faint praise, or at worst as an insult, akin to singling out an ambitious novelist’s journalism — or, God forbid, criticism — as her most notable accomplishment. The short story often looks like a minor or even vestigial literary form, redolent of M.F.A.-mill make-work and artistic caution. A good story may survive as classroom fodder or be appreciated as an interesting exercise, an étude rather than a sonata or a symphony.
A young writer who turns up at the office of an editor or literary agent with a volume of stories is all but guaranteed a chilly, pitying welcome. That kind of thing is just not commercial. Contrary examples like Raymond Carver, who wrote almost no piece of fiction longer than a dozen pages, tend to confirm the rule. Carver, who died too young in 1988, was praised for his reticence and verbal thrift. He was a great miniaturist whose work grew in an anxious, straitened era, whose virtues lay in going small and staying home. But the conventional wisdom in American letters has always been that size matters, that the big-game hunters and heavyweight fighters — take your pick of Hemingway-Mailer macho sports metaphors — go after the Great American Novel.
But this maximalist ideology may be completely wrong, or at least in serious need of revision. The great American writers of the 19th century, whose novels are now staples of the syllabus, all excelled in the short form. Herman Melville’s “Piazza Tales” are as lively and strange as “Moby-Dick”; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales and sketches are pithier than “The Scarlet Letter”; Henry James’s stories, supernatural and otherwise, show a gift for concision along with the master’s expected psychological acuity. And the first great American fiction writer, Edgar Allan Poe, secured his immortality by packing more sensation into a few pages than most of his contemporaries could manage in a volume.
The near-simultaneous appearance of three new literary biographies offers a powerful and concentrated challenge to the habit of undervaluing the short story. The subjects of these lives — Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever and Donald Barthelme — all produced longer work as well, but their reputations rest on shorter work. And this work, far from being minor, is among the most powerfully original American fiction produced in the second half of the 20th century.
Much of it, indeed, makes the novel look superfluous. The literary landscape of the 1950s and early ’60s was thick with Southern writers, Roman Catholic writers, writers who dabbled in the gothic and the absurd, but none came close to the blend of grotesque comedy, moral seriousness and steel-trap intellectual rigor that courses through O’Connor’s tales of wayward Southerners. And no sprawling, anguished epic of marital unhappiness or suburban malaise can match the insight and elegance of, say, “The Swimmer,” Cheever’s perfect parable of affluent anomie.
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