The American Short Story


SOMETHING has gone wrong of late with short-story writers. Something has happened to them; and what that something is, still more why it is, are worth considering, short stories being now, as they have long been, the most widely consumed single item on the American literary menu.

To measure the extent of the decline, a reader has only to check back on his fingers to the great names of the great days of story writing. Never mind the early nineteenth-century pillars; those may be taken for granted. So may their immediate successors. But within the memory of readers now reading are Margaret Deland, Edith Wharton, Sherwood Anderson, Harry Leon Wilson, Elsie Singmaster, Ring Lardner, Thomas Beer, Montague Glass, Wilbur Daniel Steele, no one of them remembered for a single story or pair of stories, but each for free and fine production over a stretch of years.

Made up from names which became known in the first decade of the century or in the second, the list could be all but indefinitely prolonged. Writers who began then are frequently still writing, and writing well. But to compile a similar list from names introduced since, say, 1920 is a task beyond achievement. Notable single stories appear, — appear and are received with anticipatory fervor, — but one story does not make a story writer any more than one couplet makes a poet. Two stories do not do it, nor three. The very point of the present plaint is that the story writer who began prior to the twenties tended to nourish his talent, to stick to his craft, and that today he does not. It is not, seemingly, talent itself that is lacking; individual stories go far to prove that. What is lacking is the conserving of that talent. And in view of the multiplication of magazines, the blandishments of editors, the material rewards of writing, greater in these last years than ever before, a reader may well ask why.

That ‘why’ does not, of course, pertain to the silencing of any one voice. Any one writer may have turned toward novels, toward Hollywood, may have died in Spain or Poland. He may, as has been true of several promising beginners, have found after a few ventures that he had no more to say — and medals to him for not saying it. But silence is the exception, deterioration is the rule. It requires no Cassandra to prophesy that of half a dozen writers within the allotted period whose first discovered story made your breath catch in your throat, and your mind record the writer’s name, five certainly and probably all six are now appearing with replicas — let us keep to the safety of understatement — with replicas which cause no breathcatching.

For this falling off, the most convenient scapegoat is, of course, the time. Given the confusions of the hour, the daily nervous torment of the sensitive, how can any writer hold his soul together, convince himself of the worth of his effort? . . . Well, the novelist, can. Not many would contend that the later American novelists within the present century are less satisfying, book by book, than their immediate predecessors. Plays continue. Poetry travels a rising road. Only stories, earliest and greatest of American contributions, shrivel down from little to still less. If explanations for the shriveling are to be found, they must be explanations applicable not to all writing but peculiarly to that one group afflicted, whatever it is that afflicts them, out of all proportion to their writing mates.


There is not, of course, an entire dearth of recurrent excellence. To assert that would be ungrateful. If William Saroyan flings off, as he has seemed to do, a story every fifteen minutes and seven cut of eight of them bad, the eighth is still a thing to thank God for. John Steinbeck is momentarily submerged beneath the waves of praise and blame whipped up by his novels, but The Long Valley proved a worthy successor to The Pastures of Heaven, and Tortilla Flat, announced as a novel, was as surely and as rewardingly short stories as were ever the exploits of Paul Bunyan. Ernest Hemingway’s short fiction stands on an even footing with The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls; his power to hold a reader breathless till the last word is reached has been exerted over twenty years and shows no sign of diminution. Katharine Brush has written notably, though not of late. Katherine Anne Porter’s Flowering Judas made Pale Horse, Pale Rider long to wait for — and, to speak truth, not quite worth the waiting. Benedict Thielen’s output comes scatteringly but not thinly. So does Kay Boyle’s. There are others to be added — Walter D. Edmonds, James Thurber, William Hazlett Upson, Dorothy Parker, each so evidently the leader in his special field that any reader can make the addition for himself.

But even with all additions made the record still is not encouraging. Save for the few, and some of those too recent to give assurance, the choice appears to lie between deterioration and sterility.

That this appearance is more than merely the clouded reflection in one reader’s eyes is evidenced by a sign scarcely to be disregarded. Book publishers are the final arbiters not of what we read but of what we are permitted to reread. And among publishers volumes of short stories are now generally considered bad risks. Collections are undertaken, partly because they are used in schools, partly perhaps in the expectation that each friend of each author represented will buy a copy or two, but one-man volumes, unless by writers already distinguished or notorious, are in general out of favor.

The time when they were less so is easily remembered. Jack London’s collected stories were the pleasure of the discriminating long before The Call of the Wild added impetus to their sale. It was Plain Tales and its successors that beat out a path for Kim, not the other way round. Katherine Mansfield — but why multiply examples? Shifts in the relative accessibility of books and magazines explain in part the present attitude, but only in part. An explanation more comprehensive even if also more dismal is provided by the perusal of a halfdozen stories from The Day’s Work or Xingu or Tower of Sand or The Casuarina Tree, and then of some successive half-dozen from the pen of almost any popular writer of the moment. What constitutes a publisher’s risk, the perusal would seem to show, is not volumes of stories all by one author but volumes of bad stories all by one author; by an author more often than not with but a single string to his bow, and that the string of a particular occupation or preoccupation — baseball or incest, antiques or sharecropping. A reviewer of Meridel Le Sueur’s recent offering, a friendly reviewer emphasizing her merits, yet cannot avoid at last a blunt admission: ‘One lethal weakness. Her stories are so identical in pitch, structure, emotion and diction that I find it impossible to remember one story as against another. . . . The same tone held too long can sound toneless.’ The same tone held too long must sound toneless. It has no recourse till ears shall have changed their structure.

But to say that stories fall off in merit because their writers, intrinsically able, play only on one string is to state an effect as though it were a cause. That playing on one string, or rather that all too frequent reduction to one string of what at first sounded orchestral tones, has somewhere causes of its own. In seeking them we are not, remember, accounting for born mediocrity. That we have always with us, and always there is a place for it, a useful place. What we are examining here is neither mediocrity nor genius; it is instead the present Gadarene rush of talent down the slope to unimportance or extinguishment. Why, for example, did the fine clarity of Edith Wharton’s short fiction continue till age gave ample reason for cessation, and why is Katharine Brush, unquestionably gifted, already all but silent in the form which has contained her loveliest work? ‘ Fox Hunt ‘ sticks to memory like a burr — why, then, should ‘Pantaloon in Black,’ chock-full of Faulkner’s accustomed violences, so soon go dim? Who is doing what to our present generation of talented story writers?

The first suspects, of course, are editors. Given the opportunity, plenty of would-be contributors could point out to them where and how they stifle talent and in particular one talent, and where stories are to be found better than those they publish. Once in some thousands of times, too, the point-outer might be right, but hardly more than once. Unrecognized talent, if it exists in the United States today, must be rarer than dinosaur tracks. That it is searched for as if by divining rod is evidenced by the inducements pouring out from editorial offices. Special mention of ‘first’ stories, special offers to new writers, prizes for given word lengths, age groups, occupations — in all these fashions, and in others, the still unpublished are coaxed toward publication. Editors may be called on to answer for other crimes, but not for slothfulness in the pursuit of talent.

Whether the methods of that pursuit are those best fitted to the end in view is, of course, another question. Up to a point, undoubtedly they are. The novice receiving payment and publicity for one story will hurry on to another. That he will hurry on to a better is less sure. Relation between the early unhusking of writing ability and its final ripening has had as yet no measure, but the graph which will some day show that relation must be already a subject, of editorial nightmares. For while it is true that now and then a fine story is sparked off from inexperience, it is still truer that lasting merit serves usually a long apprenticeship — so much truer that, were any magazine to display on its masthead the legend ‘We publish no stories by writers of less than five years’ proved practice,’ it would be assured of at least one standing subscription.

But if pressure on beginners is overheavy, it is not so through editorial caprice or even through misjudgment. Editors themselves are facing an unprecedented dilemma which they must meet as best they can. The nature of it is set forth — though, strangely enough, in terms of gratulation — in a recent, article by Mr. Frederick Lewis Allen: ‘Fifty years ago there was not a single magazine in the United States with a circulation of a million. Now there are twenty-six. . . . European magazines famous for their high quality have had tiny audiences.’

From zero to twenty-six inside of fifty years — in any field it would be a staggering growth. It is the more staggering in this one when we recall that the greater part of the growth belongs to the later half of the period, that magazines have increased in bulk as well as in subscription lists, and that the number of magazines printed calls for multiplication by two or three to approximate the number of readers. Even allowing for three times as many readers per copy for an old-time Scribner’s or Century, still the enlargement of the reading group has been dizzyingly rapid. That its taste, its standards, can have grown as fast is a utopian dream.

Utopian too is the expectation that talent may somehow have been multiplied to meet the call of opportunity. Whether there are twenty-six or twenty or fifteen times more stories required now than in 1900, it is obvious that, no miracle intervening, increase in chance to publish has far outrun any probable increase in writing ability. Editors, then, not only must seek as they do now with zeal, almost with frenzy, after every appearance of talent, but, when talent is not to be found, must provide simulations of it. There are months, doubtless, — there must be, — when lean kine only come to the editorial desk. Lean kine, then, must march across the magazine’s pages, for somehow, and for an audience little trained in discrimination, those pages are to be filled.

If keeping them filled meant no more than that worthless stories appeared along with worthier ones, complaint would be nullified. Since fiction first was paid for, there has been a Grub Street, and also there have been writers who had no dealings with Grub Street. But the present pressures mean a little more than merely bad stories and better ones standing on adjacent pages. Lean kine — we have the Scriptural warrant for it — not only are themselves lean incurably; they also swallow up their fatter mates. The Grub Street of 1941 is no longer the shabby thoroughfare of an earlier century. Highly paid and highly touted, grown rich, grown oracular, its residents are everywhere in evidence. Everywhere the journeymen of writing not only outnumber the talented — that they have always done — but also outface them, outshout them: by sheer force of numbers and of noise urge on them their own pedestrian certitudes.

Of all the changes brought about by rapid growth, this omnipresence of the mediocre, swift to deny even the existence of any standard but their own, is now the most instantly obvious among the reasons for the story’s decay, the most portentous for its future.


Practitioners of fiction draw themselves habitually into two camps. The promising beginners of fifteen or twenty years ago — beginners who, like O. Henry’s dwindling town, have now for the most part a great future behind them — are of necessity in the one camp or the other. So too, in their overwhelming numbers, are the unpromising beginners, the foreordained mediocrities. Between these camps, differences in ideology and practice are usually about the same. The one, a majority in any age, accepts on the whole the established social order, keeps in the main to the traditional story form. The other, the minority, rejects the established order and denies the validity of form, holding artistic expression to be a cry of nature — too often, unfortunately, a cry of ill nature. There are exceptions, but in general the placing holds: acceptances paired, rejections paired, and this whether for genius, talent, or ineptitude.

The so-called ‘ slicks ‘ — graceless word which has as yet no synonym — are an immediate goal for the larger group. For the smaller, the Little Magazines furnish steppings tones by way of which the ‘slicks’ may ultimately be reached. In either, however, are to be found at present the same vitiating atmosphere, the same destructive downpulls which result in any profession from a low level of aim and achievement among its recognizedly successful members.

What these downpulls are is perhaps best shown by calling back to mind a typical story or two. Each of those to be recalled has been slightly changed either in locale or in hero’s name or occupation — this in order that no author, happening on the summaries, shall have cause for grievance. The paragraph toward which he turns an offended eye may relate not to his story at all, only to one cut from the same bolt.

A bride, brought to a North Dakota wheat ranch, proves impractical. Her housework goes from bad to worse, she is useless at sewing. To the exasperation of her husband, she roves the fields when she should be washing the dishes, pores over seed catalogues, putters in her garden. With crops perishing of drought and foreclosure looming, she persuades an obliging neighbor to take her to the county fair, where she exhibits to the visiting expert varieties of a hardy grain she has developed, is awarded a prize, and regains the admiration of her husband.

A lawyer, summoned by his sister to help quell their elderly mother’s determination to return to her solitary farm, finds the mother, as she has been for a year past, lapped in cloying comfort at the sister’s home — feet bundled in afghan, hands idle. Mother and son spend a day together on the home farm, the mother outwearying the son in tramping fields, exploring closed rooms. Aboard the train on his way home, the son finds the seat next his occupied by an elderly woman who, learning his errand, denounces him roundly, pointing out that she is herself older than the mother he describes but has had no children to harry her into senility. At home, a letter is waiting announcing the mother’s return not to her daughter’s house but to the farm, where she purposes to stay. Thanks to his train companion’s disquisition, the son acquiesces in the decision, takes credit with his wife for its having been made.

A mulatto, the only colored or particolored person in the small suburb where he has been born and bred, has made himself so secure a place among his white neighbors that the fact of his difference, disregarded by all of them, disappears from his own mind, and he asks a white father for his daughter’s hand. Refused, and pressing for and finally getting the reason for the refusal, he goes suddenly berserk. Up from ancestral memories wells a never-heard jungle cry; he rushes into the street, strikes down chance passersby, shatters shop windows, and, whirling a meat axe, does dances on their scattered contents. A policeman makes ready to shoot, is prevented by the father responsible for the outbreak, whose youngest child is toddling toward the madman. ‘Don’t interfere! He knows my boy. . . . It’s the only chance, and I’ll take it.’ The child, approaching within axe’s reach, speaks in bell-like treble. ‘Blacky-man . . .’ Blood, brains, and flaxen hair are mingled on the pavement.

There are other varieties no less familiar; (1) the story of the discharged accountant who, without being aware of it, engages a bank president at golf; (2) the proletarian story, the author of which recognizes more clearly than did even Bret Harte what manner of soul lives under a custom-made coat and what under denim; (3) the step-by-step story, not quite so frequent now as in the early thirties: —

Harlan closed his dripping umbrella, felt for his latchkey, and let himself into the dreary, half-lighted hall. Hanging his umbrella on the dusty rack, the hall’s only furniture, he pulled out his handkerchief, wiped his moist palms, then turned . . .

(4) the process story, first cousin to the step-by-step but from the other camp: —

. . . rifled the barrel the next, day, running the rifling head back and forth by hand . . . and making a mark with chalk for each pass, and indexing the head for the next cut. It took forty passes of the rifling head. . . .

Every short-story addict has read all of these, read them by the dozen and forgotten them in equal number. Nothing is to be said against any of them. They fill time. They briefly soothe or briefly titillate. They are harmless as caramels before dinner. But when, as now, their writers are taken seriously by critics; when they sit above the salt, and, by example verbal and fiscal, help to move the talented beginner from living stories to such fustian stuff, then the harmlessness of both product and producer is open to question. Then I, who have followed that beginner from his first exciting ventures, follow to my loss. I, the reader, am cheated.

Part of what cheats me lies open on the face of any of the summaries given, but one cause of complaint summaries cannot show. This is the wording of the story. Considered not as stories at all but merely as exercises in composition, the compositions now spread on the pages of American magazines are all too often such as set the teeth on edge.

When a writer as gifted and as influential as William Faulkner can put into the mouth of one of his characters the sentence, ‘They never saw him again for some time,’ followed from the same speaker and within the column by the Cabellian ‘slept on a pallet in the back room, what time the pallet was not occupied,’ it is to be expected that the tortured romanticism of his followers will display itself in incongruities grosser still.

The minor refinements of language are, of course, not in question here. Nobody cringes any longer at ‘I will enjoy.’ ‘Were it to be done’ is as archaic as the ‘what time’ just quoted. As for that unhappy unit, the sentence, let Mr. Faulkner again lead off.

But he did not deny it, even though he was never able to tell what happened, what the quarrel was about, nor (as I said) later, even where it had occurred and who it was that he had killed, stating once (as I also said) . . .

Or from the majority camp (Paul Gallico speaking): —

He would sail the tidal creeks and estuaries and out to sea, and would be gone for days at a time, looking for new species of birds to photograph or sketch, and he became an adept . . .

Length, naturally, is not what is complained of in either of these sentences. Length in a sentence is no more a drawback than tallness in a man; rickets is unsightly in either. And though some writers can surmount unsightliness, transform it even into virtue of a sort, yet slatternliness in the use of words, slapdashness in the shaping of sentences, remain evil omens. They make it no surprise when the same slatternliness appears in the story’s conception. In those just summarized — or, for that matter, in the replicas they bring to mind — the story structures, not the sentences alone, are likely to stand topplingly, their weight supported by chance happenings. If the child, for example, had failed to enunciate that neverbefore-spoken, provocative word; if the traveling septuagenarian had taken some other train . . .

Now chance, as everybody knows, cannot be ruled out of stories any more than it can be ruled out of life. Conrad raises it more than once to the dignity of fate. Scott Fitzgerald has suspended two lives from the edges of a nickel. But, with both these writers in their vastly different writings, chance — if I may be permitted a seeming paradox — does not arrive by chance. Either it enters in the form of immutable circumstance, one of those ‘acts of God’ against which there is no insurance; or it is circumstance created or directed by the characters’ being what they are. When it is to affect a story at its very centre and turning point, it cannot successfully be dragged in by the hair to solve a plot dilemma — not in stories for grown-up readers. (Fatima’s brothers, of course, arrive to the minute.)

And when the forward movement of the narrative is promoted not by chance alone but by sheer contradiction of common knowledge, the case is still worse. That father, watching his infant move toward the maniac — ‘It’s the only chance and I’ll take it.’ Fathers I have known have been more squeamish. That mother, victim of consecutive months of enforced inaction — give her a day at the farm and ofF she marches, brisk as a top sergeant. Souls may be capable of sudden conversion; I find it hard to believe the same of leg muscles.

Not, of course, that either of the incidents cited might not happen. Anything may; a parallel for ‘A Rose for Emily’ is said to have turned up in the police court, though whether antedating that ingenious tale or inspired by it is not of record. The boy hero of a 1941 magazine story who, equipped with airgun and audacity, put to rout four adult armed Germans of military training; the FBI agent tender-heartedly setting free the gangster’s repentant accomplice — either of these, too, is possible, even if only remotely so. But, possible or impossible, the placing given these Active beings as contrasted with their actions brings to the reader’s mind conflicting concepts, and in the conflict the story is lost. The loss does not take place — let us say it again — because the story’s happenings are impossible. The impossible alone never yet made a story hard to swallow. It is ihe implausible, the unprepared-for, the contradictory, which will not down, and that irrespective of whether it be floated in syrup or in vinegar.

Writers who deal in humor seem, on the whole, to have retained better than others their grasp on the pair of truths just stated, but humorists unfortunately are scarce as hen’s teeth in this present era. Denouncers of social injustice on the one hand, purveyors of violence on the other — between them, laughter has been elbowed off the page. With two or three blessed exceptions, it is either not found at all in these sombre years or found transformed into that ‘cry of pain of a well-bred man’ which is extorted by the satirist.

And it is no mere coincidence that, as the humorists disappear, the raw-meat writers, just now moving in their battalions from the Little Magazines over into the ‘slicks,’ should show themselves far and away the least sensitive among the makers of stories to the demands of plausibility. Their middle-aged gentlewomen expert at murder, their landlords busy from breakfast to sundown tormenting sharecroppers into incapacity, have, however, this to be said for them — for them and for their creators: shock, whatever its other values in a story, does temporarily paralyze the faculty of discrimination. Wire-jerked mannikins, so the jerks be fierce enough, can for a while command an acceptance as complete as that which earlier greeted the horrendous ‘Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum.’ That they cannot command it long is not because any particular one of the violences presented is incapable of being true or of being received as true, — violence enough and horror enough are daily true, — but only because successive horrors, one crowding on the next, are presently horrors no longer. Whole fictional communities made up of degenerates and half-wits, made up of sadists and the victims of sadists — no adult reader can long exclude the thought that if many people anywhere were thus resident on God’s Little Acre the population would swiftly dwindle to one.

This is to say no more than that the horror string, resounding as it does to abnormalities, goes toneless even sooner than ot hers. If only it went soundless as well, if any overused string did, then overuse would furnish its own remedy. Unhappily, though, tonelessness, whether of the horror string or the success string, offers no present probability of a cessation of twanging. Given the necessities of editors, given the bandarlog propensities of some millions of untrained readers, and from a writer’s early excellence to his final silencing is a long, long slide. A name once justly honored appearing in letters ever larger on the covers of periodicals ever less reputable — it is a gloomy sight for any lover of fiction. It is, indeed, the very substance of the present lamentation.


What a reader laments, however, and what he hopes to have changed are quite different matters. There are several things I should like to find both in stories and around them which yet for one reason or another it is useless to ask of their writers.

To begin with the least and smallest of these, I should enjoy meetings more frequent than are now afforded me with stories which fill their pages instead of trickling thinly through dispersed columns. Fumbling to find whether John’s kiss, delivered on page 12, is returned or rejected on page 57 is no great help in any reading. A good enough story, though, can make its way even against fumbling. ‘Child by Tiger’ carried one reader safe past toothpastes and with only the smallest diversion in favor of Sunny California. Other contemporary stories have done the same or could have done it. ‘The Red Pony,’ ‘The Mouse,’ ‘Peacock in the Snow,’ ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster ‘ — any of these, had it been required of them, could have rendered advertising momentarily profit less. I do not, therefore, ask for changes here; I merely bring an added grain of patience to my reading.

Neither, beyond the decencies of composition, are particular stylistic beauties to be demanded. In style, what is one man’s meat is to another mere bone and gristle. Katharine Fullerton Gerould tells us she cannot read Cabell; Cabell perhaps cannot read Katharine Fullerton Gerould. Dreiser sends his short-story wares to market in lumber wagons, and yet the wares find takers. Even those special excellences of writing which I, the complainant, most enjoy — a care for the ring of successive sentences, a strong hand in compression — my fondness for them may be no more than an individual preference.

There are qualities within the story too which, when they appear, are cause for rejoicing, but which no reasonable reader demands to find. Gusto is one. It is irreplaceable; it covers a story all over, faults and all, as readers of the early Kipling may well remember. But gusto is not to be attained by taking pains. The age lacks it; so will its writers. When, in successive stories, there emerge the relish of existence, the deep mirth, of a Geoffrey Household, it. is from a stock less febrile than our own.

But style counted out, gusto left to God, what is there an adult reader is entitled to expect from story writers? From the t rivial writer no more than he is getting now. Its horrid verbiage aside, never probably has the trivial story been better in its triviality than it is today. But if a writer has once shown himself other than trivial, then it is surely not outside of reason to anticipate that, in his later stories — not in every story but in a number of them — he will preserve some few of those substantial virtues which first drew readers to him.

Memorability is likely to be one of those first named. Many a reviewer has based his praise upon the doubtful foundation of the fact that So-and-So or such-and-such is unforgettable — at least for him. But memorability alone, as any reader can verify from his own reading, is no more than a corollary. Esquire published a story a while back, the account of a dead criminal revivified, scraps of which stay in mind as unforgettable as the sight of boys torturing a dog. Anything — a bizarre situation, a grotesque figure, a pat phrase or a vulgar one — may keep a piece of fiction from oblivion as long as ‘Peter Piper picked a peck . . .’ and to no greater satisfaction. Not in memorability but in the sources of it lies a story’s importance.

Searching for these sources, whether we look to stories that have stood the test of much rereading (‘A Lodging for the Night,’ ‘Rip Van Winkle,’ ‘Ethan Frome,’ ‘Without Benefit of Clergy’) or to later ones giving promise of a like vitality, we find first that all of them, however different otherwise, stand firmly on premises early established, never contradicted. The premises in turn provide causes for action equal to the effects produced — equal, not less, not greater; no mountains are moved with teaspoons, no pile drivers set in motion to crush a beetle. Chance, when it plays a part, plays it in the timing of happenings oftener than in their shaping. ‘Ethan Frome,’ for example: chance makes it today and not tomorrow that Ethan’s wife issues her ultimatum against Mattie. With no chance to hasten it, the ultimatum must still have come. In ‘Without Benefit of Clergy,’ it is not the sweep of a seasonal fever which brings about Holden’s desolation. With no sweep of fever, the desolation would only have changed its outer form.

But a story may be decently written — it may stand firmly on its premises, provide causes equal and not more than equal to the effects produced — and yet remain unimportant. Mary Roberts Rinehart’s ‘Lightning Never Strikes Twice’ is good writing and good reading, competent, convincing; yet nobody — least of all its able author — would expect for it a long survival. Beyond competence, beyond honesty in dealing with the story’s substance, there is still that added bit, that makeweight, which talent shows early and which in these later decades it also loses early — loses or squanders, it makes no difference which.

This is the capacity — and it deserves its separate paragraph — for making the story’s figures stand clear as individuals and yet cast shadows larger than the individual. A third mate humoring his cranky ship toward Bankok — he is one man, but also he is all youth, its delight in test of strength, its reasonless exaltations. Jody sick with pity for his pony, Miss Brill buying her Sunday slice of baker’s cake — each is poignantly a person, yet also, and as intensely, each is the reader as well. ‘Save for the grace of God . . .’ The comment is too widely known to need completion. It is this — this clustering of lives within the individual life — which talent has it in its power to give in proportion as it is talent, and which mediocrity can never have.

To make the gift, though, has its price. An imagined being whole and alive and actual in himself is slow of growth, may not. be cut to pattern. If that imagined being is to be more than himself, he must, unless under the hand of genius, grow more slowly still. Slow growth reflects itself in lessened production, and that in turn in smaller audience, smaller income, loss too of many of the pleasant perquisites of authorship — the authoritative pronouncements on subjects remote from writing, the leadership of coteries, the reception of those waves of personal admiration on which the lecture tour is floated.

To ask a writer to surrender all these in support of some tacit promise in his earlier work; to ask him to make that surrender while still unbulwarked by any professional standard upheld and honored among his writing mates — it is asking much. It has not been too much to ask from members of some other professions, but so far within the twentieth century it is evidently too much to ask of story writers. The signs point all the other way. A reader may indulge in the luxury of complaint more readily than in that of expectation.