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Among the spate of books on short story theory that have appeared in the twenty years since John Gerlach's Toward the End: Closure and Structure in the American Short Story (1985), Susan Lohafer's recent entry in the field must count, at first glance, as one of the quirkiest. In Reading for Storyness, Lohafer is responding against what she sees as the "excesses of contemporary criticism" (127) that "map [cultural] issues onto a text" (92) and thereby threaten to reduce short fiction's power and appeal by pre-imposing ideology and privileging social relevance. Predisposed to New Criticism and Formalism, Lohafer desires to rescue literary study of an art form that she values for its unique ability to pack a lot into little. In order to accomplish this, she distinguishes herself from reader-response theorists who depend upon "informed" audiences schooled in an "elite aesthetics" and proposes instead a "literary empiricism" that, rather than deconstruct stories, will deconstruct readers and their habits of academic reading (143). Borrowing from textual linguists, discourse analysts like Teun A. Van Dijk with his notions of macrostructure and superstructure, and cognitive scientists such as William F. Brewer who "anatomize" (133) the creation of narratives to explain behavior as well as study how the mind processes literature, Lohafer develops a data-driven methodology that puts the spreadsheet onto the literary scholar's desk and into her classrooms.
While admitting that the "immanence of the end" has always been "the undisputed genre marker" (146) that distinguishes the short story from other fictional narratives, Lohafer argues that when processing a text readers not only arrive at final or end closure but [End Page 249] also, if "left to their own devices," identify a series of what she terms preclosure moments at which the story might have ended but did not; in other words, their habit of mind is to "chunk" the story into several discrete parts that display a kind of completeness in themselves (33). So each story embeds within itself a succession of still shorter stories. The preclosure points ending those "putative" stories will be signaled in the text by certain "markers" (52), such as "paragraph breaks, changes of space/time/condition, natural-event terminals, and image recursions" (27). Moreover, each of these stories-within-the-story can be classified as belonging to a specific subgenre. For her data, Lohafer draws upon anywhere from one reader (herself) or a group of four acquaintances (none of whom turn out to really like the story they read) to as many as 180 students studying the same story. In some instances, she will cluster her sample respondents by delineating various profiles they exhibit in order to determine what differences emerge by gender; or by level of experience/education; or by how they code the importance of what she somewhat vaguely terms relationships, ideas about reality, patterns or models, and spiritual frames of reference, resulting in categories "p," "i," "m," and "s" plus a number designating relative weight. What results is a deliberately anti-elitist way of reading, then, that honors interpretive plurality while refusing to privilege those who are theoretically knowledgeable, opting instead for the abilities of the Woolfian common reader.
Employing this approach, Lohafer examines in detail ten works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Kate Chopin, Julio Cortezar, Katherine Mansfield, Sandra Cisneros, Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and Bobbie Ann Mason, pinpointing as many as eleven different generic chunks within a single story. Carver's "Cathedral" and Mason's "Shiloh" each proceed through six subgenres, not always consistently named: initiation story, recognition, epiphanic tale, confession, moral coming-of-age story, and revelation story in the former; a slice-of-life story, dawn-of-recognition story, genre (love-interest) story, message (women's liberation) story, sociographic story, and postmodern story in the latter. Beattie's "Weekend" is found to exhibit a grand total of eleven such generic types as it moves toward final closure: inverted fairy tale, existential parable, epiphany story, relationship story, open-ended mystery, revisionist love story, elegy, mid-life crisis story...