restricted access The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice (review)
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Reviewed by
Dominic Head. The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. xii + 241 pp. $49.95, cloth.

Although Head's study of the modernist short story is only slightly over 200 pages, one does not read it quickly, as one does, say, E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel or Thomas Wolfe's The Story of a Novel —works arising from public lectures by practicing fiction writers. But neither does Head's book produce the sustained engagement readers give many more academic studies—Percy Lubbock's The Craft of Fiction or Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction, for example.

Head's study comes decidedly from the academy (the postmodern academy, some would say), and his audience will be found primarily there. The style tends toward the formal and regularly succumbs to the traps of academic prose: clusters of passive voice (often with attendant clusters of "is" and "is" helping verbs) and annoying introductory phrases: "It is interesting to note." The diction echoes the specialized vocabulary of contemporary theoretical discourse. Decidedly, the book is not aimed at Mr. Bennett or at Mrs. Brown.

Although its style is sometimes offputting, The Modernist Story raises important issues and repays the patience that reading it requires. Claiming the short story "a quintessentially modernist form," Head protests what he sees as the paucity of attention to its aesthetic. In his opening chapter he surveys and challenges—deconstructs, we might say—the major statements in English about the genre. As Head claims, no voice on the aesthetic of [End Page 210] the short story has been as influential as that of Edgar Allan Poe, who identified unity of effect as the chief aim of the genre. Head finds, however, that the distinguishing feature of the modernist short story is disunity. Building on Althusser's concept of "relative autonomy" (with frequent buttressing from Fredric Jameson's work) and on Mikhail Bakhtin's "conflicting voices" in narrative, Head reconsiders five Irish/British writers as examples of the modernist practitioner: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Wyndham Lewis, and Macolm Lowry. Chapters for each of these writers comprise most of the book. A concluding chapter attempts to bridge the modern and postmodern worlds and speculates on the role the short story may have in portraying contemporary life.

Some readers will judge Head to be willfully pursuing an unlikely thesis, to be perversely revisionist. They will point to what looks like arbitrary (even suspect) choices of major "British" modernist short story writers (and wonder why a British focus is desirable for this topic). Head omits D. H. Lawrence because he finds him problematic as a modernist: Lawrence's stories (unlike his exuberantly excessive novels) are too conservative in structure and form—too unified—to give him a place among the five writers featured in the book. Few would question the appropriateness—even necessity—for chapters on Joyce, Woolf, and Mansfield. For many readers, however, the unexpected inclusions would be Lewis and Lowry. Commentators on the genre regularly overlook Lewis. Head chose to include him because Lewis' stories exemplify the Vorticist stances of detachment and dynamic form. Lewis is also useful to Head because his work highlights Head's placement of Lowry. As Lewis represents for Head the darker, elitist side of modernism, he sees Lowry's stories as "expansive and positive." Head's own sympathies lie with "celebrations of broader, societal themes."

In the concluding chapter Head argues that, rather than closing off the possibility of imitating reality because of its self-conscious artifice, the modernist short story can make meaningful connections between world and text. As if to signal that the "arbitrariness" of his structure is purposeful, Head takes an extended look at a postmodern short story by an American, Donald Barthelme's "The Balloon." Head chooses a deliberately open device to end his consideration of closure and non-closure in the modern story and to reaffirm his invitation for further examination of short story aesthetics. He concludes with a question: "[I]s this [the formal dissonance of the moderns] a fictional style which pushes to an extreme the connection between literary form and social context where...


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