Adventures in Reading

Defining the short story

On my post for Washington Irving’s “The Voyage” I received a thought provoking comment from Amateur Reader:

This is tricky. One point of the sketch or essay (it’s not really a story, is it?) is simply to move the American narrator to England, which is the setting for the subsequent pieces in “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon”.

Are you reading a story anthology, or the “Sketchbook”? Very few of the pieces in the latter are real narrative stories. “Rip van Winkle” and “Sleepy Hollow” being the big exceptions.

I have definitely been rolling this one over my tongue and savoring it if you will. I really am fascinated by the terminology of a sketch story or sketch book to define the short story. But I’ve been wondering about whether or not it’s a story. When I started my expedition into short stories I was not expecting the demand on my own idea of the short story and if anything I’ve found my interpretation has broadened and remains without any true conclusion for a hardened definition. But is “The Voyage” a short narrative piece, or is it an essay that moves the narrator? I suppose I believe it’s simply both.

“The Voyage” does deliver the story of our American narrator traveling from America to England. In that sense it is purely a story of movement, but then there’s also that quote that The Odyssey is nothing more than a man coming home from work. Or more recently as Terry Pratchett reflected on the combining of his two novels The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic into one film adaptation said of The Colour of Magic that it “had no perceptible plot whatsoever other than people kept moving,” but I don’t think anyone would read these pieces and doubt that they are indeed novels. Whether or not we describe something as a story very much depends on how the describer interprets a story, and I have only just begun realizing the plethora of interpretations available.

In my current quest of attempting to have a fuller grasp of the story I have found my greatest friend and greatest challenge has been the dictionary. You’d think it would be terribly easy to look up words like “story” and “narrative” but the dictionary can only provide a denotation and it’s left to the reader to find a connotation. Narrative is defined as “a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious” ( And it seems to me that as long as the narrative text avoids mere summarization (another sticky wicket!) that it is indeed a story.

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