Adventures in Reading

Henry James on the short story

What is the short story? includes a notebook entry from Henry James’ private journal. In this journal he has written down the main ideas of his story but is grappling with the idea of keeping the story under 7,000 words. Part of this struggle develops from his idea seemingly having too much to say, but the notebook entry also leans towards the difficulty of being able to create a diverse enough idea to actually have a story within this space. If nothing else, this notebook entry is fascinating after reading such short flash and “micro” fiction.

James seems to be attempting to begin answering what is the short story: “…but to do anything worth while with it I must … be very clear as to what it is in it and what I wish to get out of it. … It must be a picture; it must illustrate something.” This also refers back to the Flash Fiction Forward introduction that the writer needs to avoid a simple summary of events and the reader must encounter a story within the sketch structure.

Ultimately James concludes “…Make it tremendously succinct–with a very short pulse or rhythm–and the closest selection of detail–in other words summarize intensely and keep down the lateral development. It should be a little gem of bright, quick, vivid form. I shall get every grain of ‘action’ that the space admits…” While I just questioned summarizing, James says this is exactly what he intends on doing; however, James summary is to inhibit lateral development to allow the room for linear development.

Within James’ description of the story he intends to work on, he places a great deal of emphasis on contrast to relay his story. His contrast is between a newly poor, middle class, English couple attempting to get work as models versus two lower class and less attractive people who have practice and talent at modeling. There is so much that one could say about this couple and this is exactly what James chews over within his notebook.

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