Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Classic English short stories

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.


Vince Vawter USA said...

There cannot be any doubt that the short story has been hijacked by intellectuals for the last half century, but it seems to me in recent years that I have seen a shift, however slight, to the more classic style of short-story telling. I have even read a few understandable stories in The New Yorker during the past few years. Perhaps the effetes have moved on to the electronic and digital media, leaving print to be reclaimed by story purists. We can only hope the shift is real and permanent. It would be nice not to have to make my yearly short-story pilgrimage to Hemingway's "In Our Time."

Simon said...

Not dead but dying.
Although the market is shrinking all the time.
There is no doubt that SF&Fantasy writers still know what a short story should be about.
I presume the existence of
Ellery Queen's and Alfred Hitchcock's respective Mystery Magazine's means there is still life in that genre.

Andrew said...

I guess if there were a fate to befall me far worse than not being published, it would be to have a reputation of being "tedious and boring." Perhaps that's a cop-out to destiny for me, but hanging on to a sense of humor probably excludes me from the ranks of litrah-tour.

Norbert Trouser-Quandary said...

As I am currently reading a selection of Balzac's stories, I've been pondering over this puzzle as to why short stories are not so popular these days when it would seem they would fit in quite well with people's... er... 'modern lifestyles'(sorry for that phrase, but I hope you know what I mean).

I think you may have provided the answer I've been looking for. At least it explains why my own stories ( have been rejected by all the 'literary' magazines, yet were 'cherry-picked' etc by the good folk at ABCTales (

I suppose the only answer is to find someway of wresting control of 'literature' away from the academy and back into the hands of the general reader.

Mark A. Rayner said...

I found this quote and thought of your series on the short story:

Those who write clearly have readers, those who write obscurely have commentators.
--Albert Camus

sandra542000 said...

So glad to have made your acquaintance! Yes indeed the short story has been hijacked, whittled, gutted, and generally rendered empty and useless by intellectuals during the last half century. I would like to direct your attention to another grumpy guy who has edited an antidote to the academic short story for the past twenty four years. An annual journal called The Long Story (i.e stories long enough to contain actual content: plot, characters,a point, that kind of old fashioned thing) and each issue is prefaced with an editorial "prelude" which properly lambasts the academy for hijacking, gutting, whittling, etc. the short story form. In fact these grumpy essays have been collected in a publication called The Least Shadow of Public Thought published by Juniper Press in LaCross, Wisconsin. I started submitting stories to TLS back in late eighties after reading one of those grumpy editorials and feeling I'd found a kindred spirit and that I had. Nearly twenty years later we have formed a publishing collective and will be publishing books for and about people in the real world. Check out our website: (remember Thomas Hardy? thus the wessex in the collective).

Iain said...

The sad decline of the short story illustrates an execrable trend in English literature which set in about a century ago.

As John Carey explains in The Intellectuals and the Masses (1996), the spread of literacy, beginning with compulsory schooling in 1870, horrified many in the intellegentsia. (My dear, just look at the sort of people who read books today!)

Desperate to maintain the differential, their response was to make their work either incomprehensible (poets) or impossibly dull (short story writers).

Of course, there are exceptions --look at the verse of Betjeman or Larkin, or the stories of Roald Dahl. And the novel has proved impossible to subdue.

But no one who cares about literature at all should give brain-space to the self-appointed arbiters of letters, whose dearest wish is to imprison 'the best' in an ivory tower where the hoi-polloi can't get at it.

Bring on the battering rams! Man the siege engines! Load the catapults! We'll have them yet.

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