What Happened to the Short Story
Each year the hast American short stories are hand-picked by a distinguished jury. The O. Henry Memorial Awards are conferred on the best. and the finalists, a group of some twenty, are then published in a Memorial Volume. HERSCHEL BRICKELL, author, editor, and critic, has been a judge of the O. Henry Awards for the past eleven years, He has had an exceptional opportunity to reflect on the changes which have occurred in the short story — changes which he describes in the essay which follows.
by HERSCHEL BRICKELL
THOSE of us who keep a watchful eye on the short story — as I must, since I am charged with the responsibility of choosing some twenty stories each year for the O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories — have been aware that important things were happening to this form of literary expression in which American writers stand supreme.
At exactly what moment these things began to happen is not easy to say. Putting down pegs in literary matters is risky business at best, and if put down, they had better beplaced loosely. It is possible to say, however, that the contemporary short story owes more to Hawthorne than to any other one person, and Hawthorne’s first volume of TwiceTold Tales, most of which had been published in the popular Annuals of the period, was published in 1837.
Then Poe, ever the acute critic, in reviewing the Hawthorne collection, first formulated the rules for the short story, which still stand as a statement of fundamental principles. But Poe had still another important influence because of his effect on the symbolist poets of France, and the present-day short story owes much to symbolism.
As for foreign influences, there have been two — Chekhov and his New Zealand-born disciple, Katherine Mansfield, it was these two who disregarded most of the rules and made the short narralive take on new life, giving it depth and penetration. Our own Sherwood Anderson found a way further to relax the short story, to give it greater freedom.
And from Anderson’s time on, we have seen writers of talent engaged in one of art’s oldesl battles, the attempt to break the picture free from the frame, to pour more water — or wine — into the bottle than it would seem to be able to hold. This they have been accomplishing with greater or less success for a matter of twenty-five years, but the trick has only just now been mastered to a degree where many writers with many points of view can work it effectively.
The way it is done is to draw the short story ever nearer to poetry, in the precise and beautiful use of language, so that no story of the present worth a second glance is without its overtones. In the main, the topics are subjective — one speaks here, of course, not at all of the commercial short story, which adheres pretty rigidly to formulae or it does not sell, but of the serious, or artistic, story.
To put it as simply as possible, the short story of the middle period was a story of doing, with action as its theme. Then it gradually moved inward, and in the hands of many people, almost all of whom had lirst written poetry — and this includes both Hemingway and Faulkner — it became “a slice of life,”as wo used to say of Maupassant, but a slice of the mind and the spirit rather than the body.
There are Chekhov and Mansfield tales that do not escape by much the designation “sketches,”rather than stories. The distinction is not at all difficult to make, since the sketch is static and the story dynamic. But what has happened now’ to a striking degree is that the work of these masters has been improved upon, since the current story has dramatic conflict as well as form.
It does not wander so much as a millimeter from its objective. Anyone fond of making diagrams will find the material ready to band in any good short story he cares to examine. ‘There is a straight line from the opening to the closing sentence, and one may change the old saying “In my end was my beginning" to the precept “In my beginning must be my end.”’This does not mean that in the hands of such experts as Slephen Vincent Benét, William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty there may not be found a sensation of relaxation, as if there were plenty of time to talk and be listened lo, which is a very old trick with the oral storyteller. Probably one of the oldest, since it involves the important element of suspense.
But in Faulkner’s legends and in Miss Welly’s curious style — a fascinating blend of the colloquial and the classical — there is no departure from the rule that the short story writer must proceed directly to where he says he is going. He wastes no words, because he has none to waste, but he does not mind letting the reader think that nobody is really in a hurry. It is pleasant not to feel hurried when listening to a good yarn, and the pleasure principle is just as important in the short story as it is in any other kind of writing.
This business about the relationship of the short story and poetry needs careful examination. It does not mean at all that good stories of the present are written in a “poetical” manner, because if they were, they would not really be any good. It was Goethe who said that in writing prose one must have something to say, but in writing lyric poetry it did not really matter. (A poem should not mean But be, said Archibald MacLeish.) I am sure Goethe smiled when he made the remark to Eckermann I have quoted, but whether he was in dead earnest or not, it is certain that there is no relationship at all between the short story and the lyric which does no more than sing.
In fact, the safest comparison is, perhaps, between the ballad and the short story, where one is on unimpeachable ground, since the ballad must tell a story, too. But the truth is that no matter how ontological Messrs. Goethe and MacLeish might wish poetry to be, good lyrics have always said something, too. When a poet like Robert frost sings — and make no mistake about it, he sings most beautifully — he is not just making agreeable sounds.
It would be difficult to insult Robert more thoroughly and completely than by intimating that he was not always at least trying to say something, even in a couplet. This year, with Mark Van Doren as one of the three judges for the O. Henry, I asked him, as both poet and short story writer, what he thought about the relationship we are discussing, and he answered sagely: —
“The short story should be a little epic, or possibly a little drama, but never a lyric, if lyric suggests the static or merely stated. At its highest, lyric means something narrative or dramatic too: but we don’t always find it at its highest. In verse as well as prose it too often degenerates into mere writing and attitudinizing. . . . A great short story is exactly what the name implies: a great little story. But it had better be a story, just as a lyric poem had better be something like a story, too, in the last analysis.”
JUST why have we reached what seems to me a very high plateau — please, not a peak — in the development of the American short story? I am firmly convinced that the situation cannot he fully explained by the activities of a few highly talented people. If I did not feel a great fear of using the word genius about a contemporary, I should apply it to Faulkner, Welty, Capote, Boyle, Bowles, and maybe one or two others, who write stories such as nobody else has ever written, or ever will. (Hemingway is not in the list because he long ago abandoned the story for the novel, which seems to me a serious mistake on his part.)
Joseph Henry Jackson, another of this year’s O. Henry judges, and a veteran at the job besides being one ot the most perceptive reviewers we have, said he thought the explanation lay in the quality of present-day editors — a happy thought indeed. I wish I could agree, hut I do not, save lor certain exceptions. A little handful of relatively popular magazines publish all the good stories I find oulside the literan quarterlies, and some of the very best of these do not at the moment know where next quarter’s ink and paper are coming from.
A much more likely explanation, I think, is that there are now actively teaching in all parts of the country some of the best short story writers we have. There is Wallace Stegner, for example, Ray B. West, Jr., and Robert Penn Warren, to mention only three of a considerable number of people who can do and who also leach. An even larger number of the up-and-coming younger writers are also teaching creative writing or have had courses under men and women who know what they arc talking about, because they have had success with their own stories.
Not all the first-rale teachers of short story writing write stories, too, because some of them are busy running English faculties and taking part in many other campus activities instead of showing that they, too, can do the trick. I think of people like Carroll Towle at the Fniversity of New Hampshire, who has had remarkable success with young people; of Hudson Strode at the Universitv of Alabama, whose record is little short of phenomenal as a teacher, but who writes excellent travel books, not fiction.
As a teacher of considerable experience in writers’ conferences, I should not be willing to leave these meetings out of consideration, either, in trying to find the explanation for the current spate of good stories. In most cases, short story courses at conferences are taught by people who have written and sold stories themselves. I once saw at a chemical show in New York a silk purse which had actually been made from a sow’s ear: but let me pose and then withdraw the question of whether this is easier than trying to leach most people who come to writers’ conferences to write anything, including English.
It is unquestionably true, however, that the general improvement in quality in the American short story has been concurrent with the widespread establishment of courses in creative writing and the mushroomlike growth of writers’ conferences. I think Rolfe Humphries summed up the matter for all time when he said: “It is foolish to suppose that you can teach anybody to write, but it is equally foolish to suppose that you cannot leach people a great deal about writing.” I have known good teachers at writers’ conferences, themselves successful writers, to say that they would have been saved years of trial-and-error by listening to the words of someone who had traveled the path and knew its pitfalls as well as its delights.
I believe I have made it clear that the short story is now in as flourishing a condition artistically as it has ever been, in this country or anywhere else. Perhaps it is safe to say that there are more first-rate and good second-rate stories being written and published right now than at any other time in our history. I wish for everybody’s sake one might say with equal veracity that the short story market was as good as the short story quality.
The other side of the coin does not wear a happy expression. A number of the best magazines of the past are dead and buried, the picture books now fill the stands, so that nobody in his right mind would try to start a quality magazine; the quarterlies can at best publish only a handful of stories a year. And the independent “littles” which have always been so useful in this field are hit right where they live during such a period of inflation as we are now in.
Even the quarterlies which enjoy subsidies from universities and colleges are feeling the pinch, since their patrons are also suffering financially; and as such magazines are often regarded as more or less useless trimmings by what are called “practicalminded” trustees, some of the best and wisest editors in the country are now in for long headaches and heartaches. The quarterlies pay from nothing up to the price of a few porterhouse steaks for a story, and they plainly cannot pay more.
The lesson of this is simple: people write quality stories because they must, not because they hope to get rich, or even to make a living, from writing them. The “big slicks” talk glibly about printing the best stories they can, and I have heard some of their editors say they avoided formula stories when possible, but patient reading of what they print convinces me that most of them are kidding themselves. It is true that a magazine like Collier’s does print a good many borderline stories, but that is the exception. Mass audiences are looking for entertainment, and they must get it from what is printed, if one accepts circulation figures as evidence.
When the short story began to appear in the Annuals, so popular during the thirties and forties of the last century, nobody bothered about mass appeal, because an Annual was something to use for parlor-table decoration, or a culture-symbol, not to be read — except, perhaps, while wailing for Susan to finish lacing up Old Ironsides and dusting her face with Hour for her date.
My optimism about the current short story stems from the specimens that are included in the 1951 O. Henry, three of thorn from this magazine, which has the highest rating in the anthology’s records from its inception in 1918, and three of the best, in my judgment. There are two dozen stories in the book, and Mark Van Doren said twelve wore absolutely first-rate, while Nancy Hale, the third judge, set the figure at fourteen. Of course, I should say twenty-four. . . .
Both Mr. Jackson and Miss Hale, who follow the short story closely, said it was the best collection in the thirty-three-year history of the O. Henry Memorial, and as its editor for eleven years now, I agree with my eminent colleagues, not even pausing to blush. I ought to say that my wife, who assists me in getting the collection together and who is a far tougher critic than I. casts her ballot with the rest of us. That is why I said plateau, not peak. How long we shall write as we do and what the next phase will be, I do not care to prophesy, but we have now accomplished something of real moment, in a form peculiarly American — of this I am very certain.