Adventures in Reading

Brander Matthews on the short story, ca. 1901

From What is the short story? by Current-Garcia and Patrick, Brander Matthews attempts to explain and explore the short story as a genre in The Philosophy of the Short-story. “A true Short-story is something other and something more than a mere story which is short. A true Short-story differs from the Novel chiefly in its essential unity of impression. In a far more exact and precise use of the word, a Short-story has a unity as a Novel cannot have it.”

As interesting as Matthews’ article is he’s often imprecise as seen in the quote above. What is Matthews really attempting to say by “other” and “more”? “Unity of impression” seems to refer back to Poe’s “totalism” but “unity as a Novel cannot have it”? Matthews never really expands on the notion but expounds vagueness throughout his paper.

Don’t get me wrong. I give Matthews credit though for struggling to answer and define what is a short story, and in my experience this still remains unanswered. However, Matthew does touch on two other areas of interest: love and the sketch.

“…the Novel, nowadays at least, must be a love-tale while the Short-story need not deal with love at all.” I admit I’m fascinated by this statement and am mentally scanning my last few novels to discover any volumes without love. Matthews himself cites Robinson Crusoe as an exception, but there does seem to be some truth in the short story’s exemption from love tales. (My partner and I tossed out The Grapes of Wrath as another possibility.)

Matthews also refers back to the sketch, something that has maintained my interest throughout this collection. “Perhaps the difference between a Short-story and a sketch can best be indicated by saying that, while a Sketch may be still-life, in a Short-story something always happens. A Sketch may be an outline of character, or even a picture of a mood of mind, but in a Short-story there must be something done, there must be an action.”

Recently I posted on the tribulations of defining a tale and specifically looked again at Washington Irving’s “The Voyage.” The sketch as “still-life” is most reminiscent of the idea of an artist’s sketchbook and quickly jotting down an impression possibly to be later developed in the studio. But even this quote by Matthews seems somewhat vague. What’s meant by action? Verb usage? The differences between short story, sketch, and summary seem to be very hazy indeed.

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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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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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