Reflections on The Short Story


                                                 Reflections on The Short Story

 

The short story as a form has always been a passion of mine and last month saw the death of Alice Munro, one of the great short story writers of our time, at the age of 92. Munro was Canadian, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, and is often compared to Chekhov. She produced a number of outstanding collections such as Runaway (2004), Dear Life (2012) and Lives of Girls and Women (1971), a group of linked stories which is considered by some to be an attempt at a novel; something that her publishers were always keen for her to do but which she resisted.

 

The short story as composed by Munro and a number of other writers such as Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, A.E. Coppard and more recently, William Trevor, is a form in literature all of its own, like an elegy or an ode in poetry. When I first went began as an adult educator at Greyfriars in Colchester in the 1990, I crafted a number of short story courses for summer school students that I would teach there. One of the attractions of the genre was that you could read through examples in the classroom itself and bring a real immediacy to the work. Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" was one such. Reading aloud is something that I have found is enjoyed by many adults. These days it is a forgotten skill.

 

I would introduce such a course by saying that there have always been short stories or tales - biblical like The Prodigal Son, and in the oral tradition of The Arabian Nights or The Canterbury Tales - and I would continue by saying that there are a number of definitions: one writer, Elizabeth Bowen, said: ‘The short story is a young art, as we know it, it is a child of the (19th) century.’ Another, H.E. Bates, said that ‘The History of the English short story is very brief, for the simple reason that before the end of the C19 it had no history.’ H.G. Wells defined it as ‘any piece of short fiction that could be read in half an hour’, and Edgar Allen Poe as ‘the short prose narrative requiring from a half hour to one or two hours for its perusal’. Chekhov, who is the the acknowledged master of the form, said: ‘a story should have neither beginning nor end but if you describe a gun hanging on a wall then sooner or later it must go off’. Ellery Sedgwick, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, said: ‘a story is like a horse race. It is the start and finish that count most’.

 

I then presented more ideas: Bates suggests that the short story evolved in tandem with the reading public in England while novelist and critic, Walter Allen, claimed that The Two Drovers by Walter Scott (1827) is the first modern short story in English. Writing at the same time coincidentally in Russia, there was a group of writers -Turgenev, Tolstoy and Chekhov (again!) - who were to have a profound influence on the English short story. Also, in France there was Maupassant who in stories like The Necklace made his own contribution to the form. After the Great War two writers in English found their natural expression of prose writing exclusively in the short story form – Katherine Mansfield and A. E. Coppard. 

 

In 1918 Mansfield had married Middleton Murray and she went on to publish The Garden Party (1922), one of my own favourite collections. In the title story Laura, suddenly and quite by chance, catches sight of herself wearing her new hat in the mirror in her bedroom: "Never had she imagined she could look like that." It is from such gems of observation that a short story can be constructed. A. E Coppard believed that the art of storytelling was an oral rather than a written one, and that tales should be told as if you were in the marketplace, at the inn, or on the street corner. His best work has a lyrical quality and was written from an isolated caravan in Buckinghamshire, my home county now, where he lived like a gipsy. Dusky Ruth (1921) is a good example of this.




                                                           Alice Munro 10th July 1931- 13th May 2024

 


When I was looking to teach my short story courses, it was difficult to find a definitive collection and the best one I discovered was Malcolm Bradbury’s Modern British Short Stories (1988), I also attended a course on short story writing run by Colette Paul whose book, Whoever You Choose to Love (2004), helped to inspire me with further planning. During my own teaching two authors that I came to focus on were, William Trevor and Alice Munro, both of whom I had found to be highly acclaimed exponents of the short story form.

 

Over time Alice Munro has become a great favourite. Sarah Smith, in her recent Guardian obituary, says that Munro was keeen to make a mark on the literary world, but found that family life left her no time for novel writing. Munro, she says, published her first short story in an undergraduate magazine in 1950, having left the University of Western Ontario to marry James Munro, her first husband. Smith says that as she wrote (she published 14 collections) she developed her style: she consistently wrongfoots the reader, ‘overturning our expectations of characters and their actions’ and she often brings several narrative strands together into one story. 

 

Munro's story, "Jakarta" from The Love of a Good Woman (1998), Smith says, is a good example of this and although I haven’t read that one, I recognise the idea from Runaway, a group of linked stories which I read through with complete absorption. The way I see it, the stories are ‘linked’ in that they contain studies of human nature that we can all recognise as situations that may once have happened to us or to people that we have known during their lives. “Chance” from the book, is a story about Juliet, a teacher of Classics who receives a letter from Eric, a married man with a disabled wife, whom she once met on a train journey, and who follows this up by visiting him where he lives in Whale Bay in Canada. A delightful part of the story is where she and Eric communicate using the links between his interest in astronomy and hers in classical Greek Mythology. Juliet tells Eric that Andromeda was chained to a rock until Perseus rescued her...The story is directly linked to two others in the book, “Soon” and “Silence”, and according to an interview Munro gave Lisa Allardice, it contains an autobiographical element.

 

Life, is where Alice Munro generally draws her inspiration from, and this is why her stories are so absorbing. In her last book, appropriately named Dear Life (2012), which I read in 2016 with a group of students that I had been teaching for some time, she includes four stories which she says in that interview are ‘the first and last - and the closest things I have to say about my own life’. In the same discussion she tells Allardice how her Nobel Prize was “a wonderful thing for the short story”. Short stories “are often brushed off as something people do before they write a noveI,” she says. “I would like them to come to the fore without any strings attached.” 


Let us hope that her death can spark a new interest in this important branch of literature.

 

References:

 

The Modern Short Story (1941) by H.E. Bates

 

Alice Munro, Obituary, Sarah A. Smith in The Guardian, Thursday 16th May 2024

 

Alice Munro, interview by Lisa Allardice in The Guardian, Saturday 7th December 2013


Photo: Fairfax Media Archives/Getty Images

 

 

 

 

                                                                                   

 


  

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