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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What Is A Story?

Jerome Stern’s anthology Micro Fiction, providing fiction even shorter than Flash Fiction Forward, has given me a good deal to mull over. In this anthology each story is no more than 300 words long (and in the earlier competitions there was a 250 word maximum) and as the introduction begs the question: “Can a short story be too short to be a short story?” In the introduction, Stern references traditional forms of the very short stories including Aesop’s Fables and the New and Old Testament [1].

I jumped in and read the first three stories — “The Poet’s Husband” by Molly Giles (a poet gives a reading and asks her husband what she thinks of it), “The Cough” by Harry Humes (a coal miner’s relationship with his family as black lung begins to creep upon him), and “Daydream” by Robert Allen (in a car being driven too fast by her brother-in-law a woman daydreams) — and my knee jerk reaction was the first and third stories are not stories though the middle one is. Very quickly I found myself on an adventure attempting to describe exactly what a story is.

As I don’t have a copy of Aesop’s Fables I looked up Stern’s listed Biblical stories and would agree that these are indeed stories, and my New Oxford Annotated Bible specifically refers to these as parables (as does Stern), which my Oxford American College Dictionary describes as “a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson.”

Stern’s traditional and historical examples of short shorts I believe can all be describes as parables: short stories trying to get a message across. Chekhov said of his short tales that “Of course it would be pleasant to combine art with a sermon, but for me personally it is extremely difficult and almost impossible, owing to the conditions of technique.” Rereading the first three micro fictions I’m not sure if any of them are parables in the sense of the fables and sermons, which have front and center the idea of moral development. Part of the reason the fables and sermons can read as stories is this theme of morality seems front and center. Stern also considers the use of anecdote and joke forms.

As the examples did not help me much I turned to the dictionary and looked up short story: “a story with a fully developed theme but significantly shorter and less elaborate than a novel.” And story: “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment, a plot or story line.” Both plot and story line imply a sequence of events and I decided to reconsider the stories from this perspective. In this sense they are all stories. I’m still curious why the second story stuck out at me.

I’m looking forward to reading more selections from Micro Fiction. In the introduction Stern also comments on developing new forms of short story writing and perhaps this has a little more truth to it than the historical comparisons. I don’t believe these three stories are necessarily offering advice or Jungian wisdom, but I do think they’re fascinating and poetical experiments in story writing. Reflecting on James Thomas and Robert Shapard’s introduction to Flash Fiction Forward, I suppose at least one concern does linger at how close some of these stories come to being summaries.

[1] Luke 15:11 -22, Luke 10:30-35, and Matthew 25:1 – 12 are the listed Biblical examples.