Sooner or later connoisseurs of the short story (both practitioners and literary theorists) find themselves trying to describe just what it is that is endlessly fascinating about the genre, and sooner or later most of them find themselves, as John Bayley does in this book, unable to avoid the question of definition. What characteristics of the short story are peculiar to that form alone? Bayley maintains that the distinguishing characteristic of the short story is that its form cannot adequately contain its content. The short story's justification, he says, is grounded in a basic incompatibility between the story's art and its mystery. The short story, Bayley argues, is both complete in itself as art and paradoxically incomplete as statement.
Any real dispute that Bayley has is not so much with short story practitioners or short story theorists but rather with more generalist critics like Todorov and the structuralists or Derrida and the deconstructionists. Bayley takes issue, for one example, with structuralist critics who maintain that closure is identical to revelation (posed questions are answered) and that once revelation occurs the narrative must conclude. Bayley's point is that in the short story questions are never really answered; possibilities continue to be held in suspension. Instead of talking about closure, Bayley suggests that critics and scholars use the more proper word "fulfillment," a fulfillment that embodies inconclusiveness and provides its own commentary on itself. Undermeanings in a story, never expressed, Bayley says, are what a story really is about.
Bayley, rightly I believe, identifies the epiphany in modern short stories as the moment of recognition of paradox, the time when silence prevails; but by [End Page 875] insisting that the epiphany as it is used in the short story is the product of the turn of the century, Bayley loses the support for his argument that surely would have been afforded had he referenced such American masters of the form as Hawthorne and Poe who were writing "true" short stories of the kind described by Bayley in the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century. In his review of Twice-Told Tales, Poe talks about more than "unity" and "design." Indeed, more important to the generic definition of short story is Poe's concept of necessary reader participation (a reader must read with a "kindred art") and the presence in a story of "obvious" surface meanings and "insinuated" undermeanings. Hawthorne too was well aware of theoretical assumptions that approach fiction as a means to an underworld both absolute and real as distinct from an experiential world expressed in the surface narrative.
Bayley's argument might also have benefitted by reference to various other short story theorists whose thinking about the short story genre is, as I indicated earlier, in many instances similar to Bayley's own and as vigorously and persuasively defended. Although some of the objections I make could be considered minor and not really touching on the thesis that Bayley finally espouses concerning the nature of the short story, still, it seems to me, that an overall view of the genre is unfortunately obscured if certain of Bayley's judgments, based on his interpretation of particular stories and authors, are accepted without question. By foregrounding paradoxical content in the short story, Bayley places a spotlight on interpretation; and interpretation, of course, acts to demonstrate thesis. Consequently, Bayley is able to validate the role of such writers as James, Kipling, Joyce, and others in the development of the short story. But Bayley's interpretations also invalidate a significant number of short story writers like Mansfield, Porter, and Welty whose stories Bayley seems to fail to understand. But whether one agrees with all of Bayley's interpretations or does not, the overall book is a joy to read, provocative to consider, and stimulating to dispute.