by Meyer Liben
Dial Press, 259 pp., $4.50
A Story that Ends with a Scream and Eight Others
by James Leo Herlihy
Simon & Schuster, 214 pp., $4.95
The Touching Hand
by Sallie Bingham
Houghton Mifflin, 213 pp., $4.50
The Time of Friendship
by Paul Bowles
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 215 pp., $4.95
These four collections of short stories or novellas provide an instructively large dose of a kind of literary experience I usually avoid, since I tend to skip such pieces when I come across them in the pages of magazines. The short story is a paradoxical form in that it is both common and neglected: one or two specimens, at least, are to be found in any self-respecting intellectual quarterly or glossy monthly—see the recent exchange in these columns between Nigel Dennis and Anthony West about the propriety of writing for Mademoiselle—yet no one seems very interested in the theoretical justification and possibilities of the short story, a situation that contrasts with recent strenuous attempts to erect a poetics of the novel. It is true that collections of short stories, overlaid with commentary and annotation, are popular as college textbooks: the New Critical assumption that all literature is really poetry, or at least can be read as poetry, is difficult to apply to the novel, but can serve very well with a few pages of self-contained fiction that can be gone over in class and given the theme-symbol-image treatment just as though it were a poem. Yet this approach, illuminating though it may be, and pedagogically useful, is surely remote from the way most readers receive the short story, and, for that matter, how most writers conceive of it.
The short story—as opposed to the traditional tale or anecdote—is, after all, a remarkably young form, which only came into its own with the development of the popular magazine in the final decades of the last century. It was at this period that the acknowledged masters of the form arose: Maupassant, Chekhov, Kipling. About the same time, and early in this century, there was also a brilliant use made of the short story form by men who were essentially novelists: James, Lawrence, Joyce. At this point, one may say, there was a fortunate coincidence of individual genius, intellectual climate, and the state of development of a genre: but since then, few writers have been equally accomplished in both long and short fiction. One of the few useful critical studies of the short story that I have come across is an unpretentious book by Frank O’Connor published a few years ago, in which he remarks that in its essence the short story deals with life’s victims, the insulted and injured, the forlorn and alienated. This seems to me a shrewd remark, and one very much borne out by the present batch of books, which contains uniformly accomplished renderings of the defeat of human aspiration by brutish circumstance, whether the victims are Moroccan peasants, as with Mr. Bowles, or American middle-class housewives, as with Mr. Herlihy. No one would want to deny that such defeats, whether violent or mild, are a perennial part of the human condition, providing the kind of drama that the fiction writer is always looking for.
NEVERTHELESS, there is, I think, a small but …