This blog is in danger, I feel, of degenerating into lots of little bits and pieces, referring readers to decent-sized essays, written by other people, to be found elsewhere. So let us start the day, at least, with some modest attempt at original thinking.
Some months ago, I took possession of two volumes of short stories. These prove to have a somewhat bizarre publishing history, but the bibliographical details of the two books that I hold in my hot little hand are as follows:
Title: The Oxford Library of Classic English Short Stories. Vol I: 1900-1956. Vol II: 1956-75.
Introduction to Vol I by Roger Sharrock (codswallop, by the way; ignore).
Publisher: Guild Publishing, by arrangement with Oxford University Press.
These two volumes are marked copyright 1989 by Guild Publishing. In addition, Vol I is copyright the English Association 1939 and 1958, and Vol II is copyright the English Association 1965 and 1976.
Make of that what you can. I have done my best to trace the publishing history through the catalogue of the British Library, which should in theory have a copy of every book ever published in the UK. And it seems, from my researches, that the Guild edition is based upon, but probably not identical with, various collections issued by the English Association from 1939 onwards, under the title English Short Stories of Today -- or To-day, as it was printed in 1939. Some of these collections were published for the English Association by Oxford; and the Association, by the way, is a gathering of those interested in the teaching of the English language and its literature.
Whatever. The point is, we have here two volumes purporting to give us some 'classic' short stories, i.e., in somebody's view, the best. And whatever the damn thing was called, I seem to remember, now that I have read Vol I in 2005, that I probably read the 1958 edition soon after it came out.
'English' by the way, seems to mean almost entirely British authors, and mostly the true English at that, but in Vol II a couple of Americans and a few colonials do get a look in.
Now. Preliminaries are almost out of the way. But I do need to point out that, back in March of this year, I posted two pieces about the history of the short story. The first, on 16 March, was about the 'official' history of the short story, and the second, on 17 March, gave you the true account. These two pieces were designed to act as a background to a discussion of the two volumes which I have finally got around to mentioning today.
If you are interested in reading -- or, better still, writing -- short stories, you would do well to have a look at my two essays from March, but what I argued then was this: I said that, up to about 1950, short stories were widely read by 'ordinary readers', if you will forgive the use of such a loose expression; but I think you will know what I mean. Post 1950, former readers of short stories largely forsook that medium and took up television, CDs, DVDs, cinema, and a hundred and one other alternatives. Thus, post 1950, the short story was captured by the so-called intellectuals -- professors of Eng. Lit. and other forms of folly -- and they twisted and perverted the short story for their own nefarious purposes. The short story, in short, became unreadable by ordinary folk; and the more unreadable it was, the more praise it earned from the intellectuals.
I was prompted to say all that, in March, by reading the two volumes which I have only just got around to describing. Sorry, but I got distracted.
Let's have a look at Vol I. Here we have the work of a great many writers who were not only famous but popular. Here are the first four: M.R. James, Saki, H.G. Wells, John Galsworthy. There are many others: Dorothy L. Sayers, Somerset Maugham, and so forth.
All of these stories can be read today with considerable enjoyment. And one, at least, is now wildly politically incorrect. It is Evelyn Waugh's story Mr Loveday's Little Outing. It concerns an institution known formally as the County Aslyum, but referred to by most of the characters as the loony bin -- the term which was, in my youth, universally employed to indicate a psychiatric hospital (as I believe the approved wording is today).
The story begins with Lady Moping and her daughter Angela visiting Lord Moping, who has regrettably been confined to the bin for some years. During the visit, they encounter another inmate, called Loveday, who, though of lower-class origin, is clearly a chap without much wrong with him.
Angela gets to know Loveday, and he tells her that he still has one ambition left in life, if only he could be released from confinement. Angela, a kindly girl, does what is necessary, and Loveday is released. And he does indeed fulfil his ambition... but it would spoil the story if I told you what it was. Suffice it to say that Waugh might have trouble getting anyone to print his story today.
In short, Vol I is entertaining, eminently readable, and for the most part fun.
With Vol II, however, we enter the realm of Literature. What we have here is serious stuff. Stuff which was written by serious people, and intended to make their name. The stories have been chosen by someone who teaches Eng. Lit., someone acting on behalf of an association of his brethren. You may have more luck with Vol II than I, but in my opinion it epitomises everything that is wrong with the highbrow approach to fiction. Most of it just isn't any goddam fun any more.
In Vol I there is a story by Hugh Walpole. We are not given the date, but I suspect it was written in the 1930s, and it refers to a period before the first world war. In this story, Walpole describes a man who was a voracious reader. This reader had, says Walpole, 'a touching weakness for the piles of fresh and neglected modern novels that lay in their discarded heaps on the dusty floor [of a bookshop]; young though he was, he was old enough to realise the pathos of these so short a time ago fresh from the bursting presses, so eagerly cherished through months of anxious watching by their fond authors, so swiftly forgotten, dead almost before they were born.'
The piles of dead books are now even larger than ever. And if you, dear would-be writer, want to avoid your masterpiece becoming one of them, then you should study the short stories contained in Vol I of the two-volume collection which has been described above, and ignore entirely the contents of Vol II.