The Technique of the Short Story by Henry Seidel Canby, Ph.D.

The Technique of the Short Story

by Henry Seidel Canby, Ph.D.

Critical subtlety has so far been chiefly busied with the difference between short story and merely short story and with all which would serve to define what Poe and his successors had given us. Nor have unnecessary complications been wanting in a not very simple matter, for each succeeding writer has tried to make his definition a new one.

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This is the place and this the time to discuss finally the technique of the narratives which nowadays we name by the phrase short story. After Bret Harte made his success, the type, if not exhaustively developed, was well established, and favorably recognized in America, in England, and in France.

Furthermore, such new potentialities of achievement as were possible by means of it had been already comprehended with a thoroughness which could only lead to abundant use, and the accomplishments of the later years of the nineteenth century, and the first of the new one, were not of that revolutionary character which justifies a minute and tedious investigation of form.

They are better reckoned by different methods of analysis, the more so since it is dangerous, when the artist is working with methods very well understood by himself and his readers, to waste upon processes which have become obvious that attention which should be given to his purpose and the result. So this, and no later, is the moment for a recapitulation.

Most of the ammunition, in the discussion of the short story which has continued now for some twenty-five years, has been expended not so much upon the technical structure as upon the accomplishment of this new narrative form, and its nature as thereby determined. Among the numerous American critics—I say American, for, with a few exceptions, the attitude of the English critic has seldom been au serieux—Professor Charles Sears Baldwin has made, to be sure, important contributions to our knowledge of the structure of the short story.

But critical subtlety has so far been chiefly busied with the difference between short story and merely short story and with all which would serve to define what Poe and his successors had given us. Nor have unnecessary complications been wanting in a not very simple matter, for each succeeding writer has tried to make his definition a new one.

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In reviewing definitions, let us adopt a pragmatic plagiarism. Professor Brander Matthews, harking back to Poe's often quoted distinctions, began the whole discussion with his essay on The Philosophy of the Short-story, first printed, in its entirety, in 1885.

He defined the short story by its effect, a certain unity of impression which set it apart from other kinds of fiction, and he was the first, after Poe, to attempt an explanation of what out short-story writers had been accomplishing, the first to recognize that they had accomplished something new. Spurred on by an invaluable distinction, which made us see, as we had long felt, that fiction was upon a new trail, the present writer endeavored to press onward into the matter, urging that a conscious impressionism, a deliberate attempt to convey a single impression of a mood, or emotion, or situation, to the reader, was a distinguishing characteristic, and that this, and not a chain of incidents, was the consequent sum total of the short story.

Since that time, many able critics have entered the arena, and although the new short story has received no final definition, most of those interested in literary types and their qualities have recognized and commented upon its special features.

Now the short story of all the centuries, the short story in general, as discussed in the earlier chapters of this book, is not sharply marked off from other forms. In the fourteenth century, it is sometimes hard to separate from the romance; in the seventeenth, it runs to the novel; in the eighteenth, it blends with the sketch of manners and of character.

True, in all the great literatures there were those groups of narratives whose subject-matter required that they should be short, narrative varieties which, to look at them externally, were recognized forms, ready for any writer who had short narratives to tell. Their changing rounds in the history of English literature may await recapitulation in a final chapter.

But the aforementioned critics have had under discussion chiefly that variety of short story just now most popular: the variety which has been given the type-name, short story, somewhat as we in the United States have been called American; and to its nature and purpose their definitions have especial reference.

The reason for this was excellent. Our short story is sharply marked off from other forms. To be sure, it reveals itself as merely a special case and particular development of the endless succession of distinctively short narratives which, since the world began, have dealt with those life-units that were simple, brief, and complete in their brevity. But it differs from them in degree, if not in kind. This special case can show an infinitely higher measure of unity in narrative, of totality in petto, than had ever been sought consciously before.

It is a particular development which came because, in our nineteenth century, there were situations, emotions, thoughts, pressing for expression in narrative, which could not get themselves expressed so well in any simpler fashion. The high and gloomy imagination of The House of Usher, the poignant terror of The Masque of the Red Death, the snapping humor of Margery Daw, the vivid humor-pathos of The Luck of Roaring Camp, the infinitely subtle, infinitely moving passion of They, could never have been otherwise given into words. As well have made caryatids of Mino da Fiesole's low reliefs, or frescoes of the Memling virgins on the shrine at Bruges, as express by any other method these various stories!

This higher unity was sought first by a mind full of sharp and terrible impressions needing brief and vivid narrative—that was Poe. It was continued by a century full of changing social orders, colonization with its contrasts, a civilization rapidly altering its superficies, a peculiar growth everywhere of introspection, analysis, love for the unobvious in manners and in life. Indeed, it was demanded by the characteristics of a period which supplied innumerable situations—significant nodes, as it were, where our attention clung—situations requiring swift, brief, and vivid narrative.

And thus, while the new short story was only a modification of the old short story, at its best there was just the distinction that exists between the chronometer and the watch, the chemist's balance and the grocer's scales. It was a variety constructed for difficult and unusual services.

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The Climax

Thus a real necessity lay behind the change which gave us a short story that was ponderable and yet brief. The means by which this change came about I have already discussed at length in the chapter upon Poe. It was that shift of emphasis to the climax which inevitably followed upon a conscious impressionistic purpose.

Once the climax and the climax alone was in the author's foremost thoughts, reproportioning, and a subordinating of all the elements of the story to its desired result followed automatically, and produced the highly characteristic opening, and most familiar end. The minutiae of the process it is in the province of the rhetoricians to describe.

But what is the climax? Sometimes, the incident towards which all the episodes led, which collected, like a brass globe, all the electric charge of emotion, thought, or vivid impression to be drawn from the story. Sometimes, and much oftenest, the situation, which had been the root and first perception of the tale, and now, in this climax, was most sharply revealed.

But among those short stories which differ most thoroughly from ordinary short narrative, or from the novel with its different view-point, a single impression, a vivid realization for the reader of that which moved the author to write, be it incident, be it emotion, be it situation, this is the conscious purpose of the story, and this is the climax.

And thus the art of the short story becomes as much an art of tone as of incident. Sometimes one feels that the tone is more important, that in certain stories of Maupassant's, like La Peur, in Stevenson's Markheim, or Kipling's Without Benefit of Clergy, any mere arrangement of incident is trivial when compared with the supreme skill by which all that kindles the fancy, arouses or tranquilizes the passions, has been controlled from the outset, and swayed until the work of the writer is harmonized into one tone, as if narrative were painting, and the artist a Rembrandt at work with fluent oils!

And then one recalls that such excellence has come only because, in order to do so much with so short a space of narrative, a most exacting art is necessary, and that, after all, this perfection of tone is required and is originated by the desire to emphasize the climax.

Thus, like Phoebus Apollo, the new short story relies upon the arrow it looses straight for the heart or the head, and this arrow, this impression, carries the sum total of the energy of the narrative. Does "an impression " seem a vague and bookish phrase? If so, consider a modern instance, the situation of a cultivated sceptic and rationalist who feels himself falling victim to the splendid beauty of the Roman ritual and the austere assurance of the Roman creed. Try to make a story of that situation—it is reasonably typical of modern short-story material—and, fail or succeed, you will understand sympathetically the task of the modern short-story teller.

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A Needful Qualification of the Short Story

Finally, a needful qualification. This discussion of the typical short story of our century in no sense can be used to cover all current short narrative. Beside the consciously impressionistic tales are to be found survivals of earlier types, and innumerable stories which are scarcely typical enough for exact classification. But one can roughly group them all.

First, then, we shall still be given new instances of those old, simple short narratives which have a totality of their own, and, at the best, a good unity of impression, yet are far, and rightly far, from any conscious attempt to convey one effect, and only one, for sum total. As long as there are suitable plots, there will be such tales. Thank Heaven, there are still some men who know how, and care, to write them!

Again, comes a second class, this time more nearly related to our impressionistic short story. It is here that one finds all those good tales of lively plot, wonderful happenings, humorous turns, where to search for an impressionistic effect would be absurd; and yet in them is to be discerned that structural shift of emphasis which came in with the impressionistic short story. Here is to be placed the average magazine story, when it does not belong to the incompetents.

Their stories, and the number is already vast, boldly present a sufficient plot, but do not quite attain. Here are the short stories manques of our own period, stories which ought to have shot direct to the mark, but wavered and fell short in the flight. Here are the stories of situations whose full significance the writer dimly saw, and conveys more dimly still.

And, finally, the short story as it has been fully realized for our time; not absolutely better than the best of simple short narratives, but far better for its own purposes; a literary type which shares some of the exaltation of all the difficult arts, which is incomparably the most successful form of short narrative for us, perhaps the most successful variety of contemporary fiction.

And this is true because its fashion of telling does so much with the short-story form, does so much with those especial life-units of which the present generation has been most ready to read and most eager to write.

~ The End ~

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