The Short Story Then & Now (by Tom Tolnay)

Tom Tolnay is the author of dozens of published short stories, both literary and genre. He’s had two dozen stories published in EQMM over the years. One of his literary stories, “The Ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” was a winner of the Literal Latte short story contest and was later made into a film that was shown at festivals in Hollywood, Toronto, Savannah, and Woodstock. He’s in a good position, since he straddles the literary-genre divide, to make some observations regarding it. His latest short story collection is the just-published Reading Old Books: A Farce in Two Novellas (from Atmosphere Press—Austin, Texas).  —Janet Hutchings

In his renowned 1846 essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe declared: “There is a distinct limit . . . to all works of literary art—the limit of a single sitting.” If any written work is too long to be read at one sitting, he wrote, “we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression. . . . If two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and every thing like totality is at once destroyed. . . .” Poe went on to say he could find no advantage counterbalancing the loss of unity of impression.

Even before beginning to write a short story, Poe said, he knew the general route he would follow in its development, and even how the story would end. Many writers today might eschew such an operating principle. Thomas McGuane referred to how he gets to where he’s going in a story as his “long-way-around-the horn” approach. Louise Erdrich said her story “Shamengwa” circulated in her mind over several years, and that she’d lived with it so long that by the time it was published in The New Yorker she’d begun to believe it had actually happened. Regardless of how a writer gets to where she’s going in a story, not knowing initially how she will get there might be counted as one of the satisfactions of writing and reading a short story: the gradual discovery of where you’re being led as the words, like clusters of grapes, ferment and transform into wine. 

A short story defines itself anew each time one is written, even though it will share elements and attitudes with many other published stories, and even though each story is being funneled through the precincts of one class of story or another. In all genres of fiction, the opening paragraphs are merely the first steps in the writer’s journey to somewhere or other in the ever-expanding spectrum of experience, with various approaches to craft and artistic strategy employed along the way. Of course each of these environments—each genre of fiction—is capable of shaping, narrowing, broadening, or layering the experience of the story by surrounding it with the traditions, as well as the limitations, of the genre in which the writer happens to be working. 

In a mystery story, the reader can expect a crime to be committed, often but not always (some would say preferably) murder, frequently (though not always) with the official involvement of a police detective, private eye, insurance investigator, or talented amateur sleuth in pursuit of an erratic sociopath, a career criminal, or an ordinary citizen who, beneath a law-abiding facade, is capable of the most heinous atrocities. Of course there are numerous sub-genres in the mystery/crime realm and collectively these offshoots help to broaden this genre’s terrain while continuing to respect its fundamental attributes and satisfy readers’ expectations. This “comfort zone” that the roughly defined rules of each genre create might explain in part why some readers become fiercely loyal fans of a particular genre. 

Whether or not we are willing to accept the idea, the literary short story is yet another genre with its own particular dictates. But its abiding principles don’t seem to remain quite as locked in as some would say they are in other genres. In part that may be because literary stories are subject to academic fashions more than genre stories are. There are trends in the literary field that by all appearances are set in motion not by the tastes of the reading public so much as by the editors, critics, and scholars who shepherd this more rarified realm of fiction. Because of changes in attitudes over the decades, one suspects that some “serious” stories published in the last century would not be considered “literary” by today’s arbiters: They are silently accepted as such primarily because of their place in the history of literature.

Many editors of university literary periodicals state unequivocally in their calls for submissions that they do not want to see “genre fiction” surfacing in their submission systems. Few seem willing to accommodate the idea that literary fiction is a genre in its own right, and that it often intermingles with other styles of fiction. The fact is, though, that many of the world’s greatest literary figures—Jorges Luis Borges and William Faulkner among them—successfully wrote engagingly, and seriously, in genres other than literary. And of course, while Poe is revered as a world literary figure, he is credited with having invented the detective story via stories like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

Because fashions in literary stories seem to fluctuate more over time than those within other genres, the components of their inner machinery are more difficult to nail down. Or so one might conclude from stories appearing in today’s literary magazines and the few mass-circulation magazines still publishing “serious” fiction. In his blog on writing, author Nathan Bransford asked this question: “What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?” The answer to that question seems to alter periodically, and often depends upon who is answering it. Bransford approached this conundrum by separating fiction into commercial and literary and focusing on “plot.” Notwithstanding the bias against plot among some editors in the realms of academically approved fiction these days, Bransford wrote that plot exists in literary as well as commercial fiction; the difference, he said, is that plot is more difficult to detect in “serious” fiction. In commercial fiction, he continued, plot tends to lie on the surface—how a character interacts with the world around him—while in literary fiction the plot tends to unfold beneath the surface and is often more concerned with what goes on in the minds of characters than in their observable actions. 

Late in the last century a host of literary editors championed a trend wherein stories which presented a clear ending were summarily rejected; their printed fictions were much more likely to trail off into a vaguely suggestive, sometimes baffling oblivion. Randall Jarrell notoriously observed that the short stories published in The New Yorker at that time didn’t end so much as stop. While some modern literary stories do end in a straightforward manner, others seem to avoid the taint of resolution as if it were a communicable disease. Why? To some degree, one suspects, it’s because resolution simply isn’t fashionable in literary short fiction even now. Of course in some way this is a reflection of every day in life—events occur and involve us without it ever being possible to tie a conclusive knot. Occasionally years may pass before we understand, if we ever do, the true “ending” of a particular experience we have lived through. So why not in fiction as well? Besides, a brush stroke of ambiguity toward the conclusion can certainly add energy and depth to a story. 

More than a few editors in the present literary realm also appear to admire stories in which time sequences are interrupted, where flashbacks are shuffled like a deck of cards, and multiple motivations are layered on top of existential debris. Protagonists surface at different ages, disappear for a time, and reappear at other points on the psychological as well as geographical map. This predisposition for the juggling of time, location, and situation—often irregardless of whether the majority of readers will be up to the task of making sense of these shifting elements—may be the result of the contemporary literary no-no of linear fiction. But surely there should remain sufficient elbow room in the broad spectrum of respectable, serious fiction to accept writers who relate stories that are insightful and beautiful in a sequential manner. After all, don’t human beings continue to live out their lives straight ahead, one incident after another, with a beginning, a middle, and an end?

What we call “short stories” today began in an oral tradition, of course, and it’s reasonable to believe that for the most part such storytellers told their tales in a sequential manner. Raymond Carver remains high on the list of modernist short fiction writers, with his minimalist approach to tale-telling. Nevertheless, Carver confessed he was drawn toward traditional methods of storytelling: “one layer of reality unfolding and giving way to another, perhaps even richer layer; the gradual accretion of meaningful detail; dialogue that not only reveals something about character but advances the story.” While Carver avoided making all of what was going on in his own stories observable on the surface—the Iceberg Theory of fiction, where ninety percent of the substance remains underwater—he professed an affinity for the straightforward narrative in short fiction: “If the reader loses his way and his interest, for whatever reason, the story suffers and usually dies . . .” 

Another pattern that continues to surface in some literary magazines is a preference for stories in which nothing much actually happens, in which there is little in the way of action or interaction between characters outside the mind and in which the introspective narrator squats within a psychological enclosure of his own construction. And then there is “experimental” writing—a barrier that sometimes seems to be have been consciously erected against readers not willing to work hard at deciphering a story. To certain editors, it appears that the more convoluted the sentences, the more arcane the word choices, the more worthy the story. To quote Carver again, these are the kinds of stories in which “method or technique is all.” Admittedly some of these experimentalists are capable of performing remarkable linguistic acrobatics, but too often the performance ultimately lies still-born on the page. “I believe in the efficacy of the concrete word, be it noun or verb, as opposed to the abstract or arbitrary or slippery word—or phrase, or sentence . . . words that seem to slide into one another and blur the meaning.” This again from Carver who, like Hemingway, revealed much of what was going on in his fiction through omission rather than the piling on of language. 

A variety of literary fashions have come and gone since the days when fiction writers were expected to create characters who come alive on the page. That paradigm went hand-in-hand with credibility: characters who readers believe (through an author’s creative artifice) are actually living the drama within a story. Too many of the characters on the page today—from the smallest literary magazines to the most widely circulated—come across as bloodless. Could this be one of the reasons the vast majority of literary short stories today are published in periodicals that have no more than a handful of readers? Duotrope, an online database of small literary publications, estimates at least 4,700 presses are bringing out digital and/or print periodicals, many of which include short fiction in annuals, semi-annuals, tri-quarterlies, quarterlies, and “occasional periodicals.” Selling so few copies, non-funded journals often don’t make it past the first couple of published issues. By contrast, some of the longest surviving magazines publishing short fiction (EQMM, AHMM, Analog, Asimov’s, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Weird Tales, for example) are those classed as “genre”—as opposed to “literary.”

That brings us back to Poe, who was not only the father of the mystery story but one of the most famous literary writers of his time. Could part of the reason that a number of the so-called genre magazines have survived while all but the most illustrious of the literary magazines continue to go under be that genre stories have retained their focus on the reader and on leaving the reader with the kind of “unity of impression” Poe thought so important?

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