Never a Dull Moment

Joy Williams, 1990
Reg Innell/Toronto Star/Getty Images
Joy Williams, 1990

What kinds of narratives fit comfortably into the short-story form? An impossible question: at no time has there been any general consensus about how to answer it, and anyone who tries to formulate such an answer usually becomes the victim of critical potshots. But the issue is worth raising, because even a partial explanation might tell us what short stories actually do, what part they play in our culture, and why writers go on stubbornly committing them to print.

Sonnets are better at describing matters of the heart than at depicting, say, the Battle of Austerlitz. Short stories, given their form, are probably better at dramatizing certain subjects rather than others. But which ones? Probably the most notorious response to this question has been Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story, which started as a series of lectures at Stanford and was first published in 1963. Its arguments are exciting, mind-haunting, and occasionally, thanks to its wild claims, “far from wise,” as Russell Banks writes in his otherwise laudatory introduction to the 1985 reissue.

O’Connor’s central idea is that the short story is a more private art than that of the novel. And its dramatis personae are of a different order: more solitary, isolated, and uncommunicative. Going out on one of several limbs, O’Connor claims that we do not identify with most short-story characters. Instead, we find in stories “a submerged population group” made up of lonely outcasts, “outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society, superimposed sometimes on symbolic figures whom they caricature and echo….” He is thinking here of Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and its central character, Akaky Akakievich, and Akaky’s distant, echoing similarity to Christ:

What Gogol has done so boldly and brilliantly is to take the mock-heroic character, the absurd little copying clerk, and impose his image over that of the crucified Jesus, so that even while we laugh we are filled with horror at the resemblance.

Allied to romance rather than realism, the short-story form, O’Connor suggests, does not provide the kind of necessary space for a writer to build up a worthy and heroic individual as novels do. Remembering an author’s stories, we therefore recall a population group and not an individual. As a consequence, what we encounter in short stories are these exemplars of various subcultures, “remote from the community—romantic, individualistic, and intransigent,” a class of people who were largely invisible to us before our reading. Accordingly, the central feeling of short stories, O’Connor asserts, is that of the loneliness associated with that particular group.

O’Connor’s list of these submerged population groups includes “Gogol’s officials, Turgenev’s serfs, Maupassant’s prostitutes, Chekhov’s doctors and teachers, Sherwood Anderson’s provincials,” to which, in the spirit of things, one might add Poe’s madmen, Cheever’s suburban commuters, Welty’s genteel southerners, Alice Munro’s small-town Canadians, Salinger’s adolescents and children, Edward P. Jones’s African-American inhabitants of Washington,…

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