Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The official history of the short story

Later this week – or possibly next week – I want to talk about some short stories that I have been reading. But first, let us devote a little thought to the history of the short story.

(Such thoughts as I have to offer here were written a couple of years ago for a book which I have not yet got around to publishing; but they will, as I say, serve as a useful introduction to some later reviews.)

The short story, it turns out, has two histories, not one. There is the official history, and then there is the true history.

The official history of the short story is written by the professors of English Literature, God bless their little cotton socks.

The Scottish universities were the first in the world to establish literature courses, as early as the eighteenth century, but the business did not really catch on until the twentieth century.

What you need to understand is that the establishment of formal courses in Eng. Lit. is a classic example of people creating a very cushy berth for themselves. Somewhere around the beginning of the twentieth century it suddenly dawned on a few bookish and idle people that, if they were to establish a course in Eng. Lit. at university level, they would enjoy a comfortable salary, long holidays, and would have not much to do even during term-time. True, they would have to give a few lectures; but the lectures could be the same every year.

However, it also dawned on these people – since they weren’t complete fools – that they would not look ‘respectable’ and ‘learned’ and ‘scholarly’ if they went around reading the same books as everyone else, and talking about them in much the same way as people do in pubs.

So – cunning devils that they were – the early professors of Eng. Lit. took two steps.

First, they began to lecture about, and write about, stuff that everyone else found pretty much unreadable and dead boring. And second, they began to write about this ‘literature’ in a language all of their own: its name is EngLitspeak, aka gobbledygook.

What I ask you to remember is that the official history of the short story is written by people of this kind – people whose (very comfortable) living depends on churning out ‘research’. No one, apart from a few bemused students with an essay to finish, ever reads any of this research or takes the slightest notice of it. Its practical value is zero; unlike research in the hard sciences, it does not produce valuable technological spin-offs. But it is the professors who churn out this unreadable material about unreadable source material who have invented the official history of the short story (and the novel too, of course) for their own purposes.

Their own purposes, I repeat, are principally the need to look knowledgeable and important when they come to teach Eng. Lit. to all those attractive young ladies who flock to the liberal arts colleges and universities which are so dear to us all. The professors are ever conscious of the fact that Eng. Lit. has to look serious. It cannot possibly be allowed to be fun. If it did look like fun, how could the parents be persuaded to pay little Deirdre’s college fees? And if there were no students then the professors would actually have to work for a living, which would be a catastrophe.

The Eng. Lit. industry did not really get under way until perhaps the 1930s, and it began to gather pace from about 1950 onwards. What this means is that even the official historians of the short story are stuck with the fact that, prior to about 1950, the short stories which are famous and readily available in print are the short stories which people actually read and enjoyed. Post about 1950, however, the Eng. Lit. guys were able to make their own rules; and, true to form, and consistent with their own devious ends, they saw to it that the short stories which were then held up as models, lectured about, and generally praised to the skies, were stories which were obscure, tedious, boring, dull, pretentious, and generally tiresome. You have been warned.

Here, however, is a brief summary of the history of the short story as conceived by our literary masters. The early stories that I mention are, of course, those which ordinary readers found memorable. The first part of the official history is therefore reasonably reliable; the second part, which I will keep extremely brief, is wholly unreliable, because it was invented for purposes explained above.

The short story was invented as soon as human beings could talk. One day, one of the first hunter-gatherers went out and had a close encounter with a sabre-toothed tiger. When he came back he gave his family a lurid account of what had happened, no doubt with a little exaggeration thrown in. Later, his wife told the story to some of the other men’s wives while they were doing the cooking. And so on. In other words, the short story began as a tale told orally, often around the campfire.

As soon as civilisation invented writing, stories began to be recorded on paper. The Bible, of course, contains numerous parables and stories which offer moral lessons and judgements.

The Greeks had the fables of the slave Aesop, dating from about the sixth century BC.

The Arabian Nights is a collection of stories from Persia, Arabia, India, and Egypt, which was compiled over hundreds of years.

In the fourteenth century, Chaucer gave us his Canterbury Tales, which are effectively short stories in verse.

Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353) is definitely a collection of short stories, by any reasonable definition; one hundred of them. The book relates how a group of young people fled from Florence to avoid the plague. While they waited for the disease to burn itself out, they entertained each other with racy stories about wicked priests and randy nuns.

Boccaccio, by the way, constitutes a bit of a problem for the Eng. Lit. guys. These stories about randy nuns et cetera look like fun – and many of them are. So Boccaccio is usually ignored. Fortunately he is Italian, so that makes it easier. If in doubt, you can always declare him grossly improper. Burckhardt, writing in the nineteenth century in his Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, simply said that ‘the character of the tales forbids lengthy description’, and moved hastily on.

In the eighteenth century, The Spectator published many semi-fictional sketches of characters.

Generally speaking, however, the accepted view among literary historians is that the short story, as we know it today, began in the early nineteenth century; that is to say, it appeared as a literary form slightly later than the novel, which is usually held to have emerged in the eighteenth century.

According to some authorities, the first short story of any significance, by a writer of any standing, was The Two Drovers, by Sir Walter Scott. This was published in 1827.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales, in the 1820s, was a famous and influential collection of folk tales, and before long the Americans got into the act with Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales (1837) and Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840).

In England, Thomas Hardy’s Wessex Tales (1888) was the first volume of short stories to enjoy a major success.

Other masters of the short-story art who worked during the nineteenth century include Anton Chekhov in Russia and Guy de Maupassant in France.

The term ‘short story’, incidentally, is said to have first been coined by Professor Brander Matthews, of Columbia University, in 1901.

Once we enter the twentieth century, any orthodox history of the short story soon presents us with a long list of ‘respectable’ authors. The professors of Eng. Lit. identified these authors as worthy of study precisely because they were not read and enjoyed by ordinary people. You had to be ‘an exceptionally good judge’ – otherwise known as a person with an intense desire to hang on to a sinecure – in order to appreciate them.

I am not going to list all the so-called ‘styles’ or ‘movements’ which the professors of Eng. Lit. claim to have identified in twentieth-century short-story writers: realism and modernism and minimalism and so forth. It is all too wearisome to think about. If you really want to know more, visit any well-stocked academic library and you will soon find some lengthy (and extremely dull) treatises on the subject.

Tomorrow we will turn, with a great sigh of relief, to something a bit more interesting and useful: namely, the true history of the short story, which is an account of the short story as favoured by readers. Readers who, praise the Lord, don’t give a monkey’s thumbnail what the professors of English Literature think about anything.


Anonymous said...


Mover Mike said...

The Grumpy Old Bookman writes about something I've long suspected. Most people don't read the short stories that are widely touted in some of our trendy magazines, just as, I suspect, they don't read the poems. However they are praised by acedemics, those who adfminister the MFA programs. Read Part 1. The official history of the short story and tomorrow the real story.

Mover Mike

Kyesha Lachelle said...

you should considering publishing your book. I was assigned a paper on the history of fiction in general and the short story in particular. Until I came across this blog, it seemed as if i was pinching for pennies to find relevant resources. Thank YOU!