Adventures in Reading

Frederick B. Perkins on the Short Story

“My idea is, that a good short story possesses all the merits of a long one, and others of its own besides. A short story, in short, is to a long one what a diamond is to a mountain,” says Frederick B. Perkins in the author’s preface to Devil-Puzzlers and Other Studies from 1877. This excerpt from What is the short story? by Current-García and Patrick provides interesting comments on the short story as well as a response, even disagreement, to Poe’s earlier statements.

I love this description of the short story: “what a diamond is to a mountain” — it is very suitable. I believe Perkins is attempting to move away from the hierarchy and instead is drawing the conclusion that both the long and short story are unique in their own rights. A diamond in particular is “the hardest naturally occurring substance” and can be “cut in many ways to enhance the internal reflection and refraction of light, producing jewels of sparkling brilliance” (Oxford Dictionary).

Short stories are often dense and multi-layered works. A reader may dig and dig through a short tale and almost continually find new deposits of information. Simultaneously, the edited and final version of a work often “enhance the internal reflection and refraction” of the story “producing jewels of sparking brilliance.” If nothing else, the short story is a concentrated and filtered piece.

Perkins goes on to say “Like a lyric song, or a single melody, a really fine short story … is the production of a faculty lofty, unique and rare. It is a thing of power or beauty or fantastic pleasure, as truly and as fully as an oration, a melody, a picture, a statue, an edifice. It is at least, as much as any of them the visible appreciable embodiment of the knowledge, wisdom, brightness and love which are in the writer’s soul. It is intrinsically as valuable, and as much contains the seeds of usefulness and power, and has the signs and certificates of immortality and fame, as any other thing that is made.”

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Edgar Allan Poe on the Short Story

The second selection from What is the short story? by Eugene Current-García and Walton R. Patrick are two pieces from Edgar Allan Poe. The first is Poe’s original review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales and the second is an excerpt from Poe’s later revised review. Interesting enough, roughly half of the original review leads up to Hawthorne’s review but doesn’t actually pertain to it. (Perhaps something to consider in my own reviews! – watch out for future ramblings.) Poe, however, has a lot to say about the short story.

Poe addresses a hierarchy of writing that “fulfill[s] the demands of high genius” with lyric poetry as he describes “a rhymed poem, not to exceed in length what might be perused in an hour” at the top and the short story coming in second. Poe does not directly mention the novel (Poe undoubtedly was somewhat biased too) but he states “the sin of extreme length is even more unpardonable” as it doesn’t “satisfy the Poetic Sentiment.”

What really caught my attention in this review is Poe’s comments on what he refers to as “the immense force derivable from totalism,” which demands that a written work is no longer than 30 minutes to an hour or two at most allowing it to be read in entirety in one sitting. Poe expands that “We need only here say, upon this topic, that, in almost all classes of composition, the unity of effect or impression is a point of the greatest importance. It is clear, moreover, that this unity cannot be thoroughly preserved in productions whose perusal cannot be completed at one sitting.”

While I would never dare to establish my own hierarchy for “class of composition” (I love haikus to novels-in-installments equally) I was fascinated by the idea of totalism. This concept is by no way new but I had neither given it great consideration nor ever fully expressed it. But when you think about it, almost all forms of printed art can be perused in one sitting excepting the novel [1]. Keeping this in mind, perhaps it is more plausible to compare a poem and a prose tale than a novel with the latter.

One benefit of short prose is reading it in one go. This allows the reader the advantage of experiencing a work in its entirety. The novel (mostly) does not offer a similar experience. I wonder if totalism is often too overwhelming particularly as the novel reigns supreme in popularity for much of the western world at least. A novel is experienced in fragments but a short story demands to be swallowed in one dose.

[1] Yes, yes, many people have experienced a novel that has been so gripping, so filled with promise we have hung on to it without rest from beginning to end. However, for most people as a result of the demands of daily life and/or the demands of the written word it is impractical if not impossible to read (and specifically to peruse [2]) a novel in one go.

[2] Thank you June Casagrande for this one!