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  • Is the Short Story Dead?

A friend recently asked me whether I believed that the short story was a living art or whether it had gone the way of vinyl records. I told her that I knew a guy who listened only to vinyl. This music lover is in fact a music fiend with a twenty-some-thousand-dollar sound system to play his old records. It occurred to me later, though, that my friend and I were mixing up categories in the way that art pundits too often do.

Storytelling is an art, and short stories or novels are forms. “Genres” are either these broad forms or specific types of them, sometimes called subgenres, such as detective novels or minimalist stories. Media—whether vinyl records, ink on paper, fabrics, film, computers or some other thing—while hardly irrelevant to the forms they present, shouldn’t be casually mixed up with the forms themselves. Just as music has survived its different media, so storytelling has endured a good many physical incarnations. More importantly, the decline of a particular medium seldom corresponds with the demise of a whole art or art form.

The earliest stories were oral, with techniques natural to that medium, such as set phrases and other kinds of repetition, including repeated themes and formulas. Such techniques were used in the Odyssey, Beowulf and some books of the Bible, which were composed [End Page 5] orally long before they were written down. Despite favoring certain stylistic devices, media don’t define form, although the techniques natural to a particular form may undergo changes as the media used to present it evolve. For example, it could be argued that the spoken story has recently been rediscovered by the use of tapes, the Internet and iPods, but it’s probably more accurate to say that the written story benefits from some of the qualities of the oral—principally the intimacy of the human voice—in such new media.

One of the earliest extant oral stories is The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was composed in Sumeria and first written down in cuneiform on clay tablets. There are written fragments of Gilgamesh from around 2000 b.c., but the oldest extant complete (although damaged) version was written in Akkadian in the eighth century b.c. It is a coherent, entertaining narrative about several characters, chiefly Gilgamesh and his rival and later friend, Enkidu, who fight and compete with each other but finally develop a powerful friendship. In the story are human struggles and conflicts, powerful emotions, a quest for meaning, sex, frustrated sex, attempts at revenge, depression (Gilgamesh falls apart and doesn’t wash himself for days when Enkidu dies)—in other words some of the same stuff that drives stories in The Missouri Review four thousand years later.

Of course, there are differences between today’s short stories and ancient tales, but coherent imagined narratives for entertainment and instruction are hardly new. The books of Ruth, Esther and Jonah are full of story. Herodotus’s history of the Persian Wars, written in the fifth century b.c., uses almost every technique of storytelling—a progressing narrative, suspense, events initially omitted and described later for effect, closely described and obviously imagined scenes, varying points of view, dramatic detail and characterization of his historical protagonists. As a read, paragraph to paragraph, Herodotus’s writing is more like fiction than history.

The media for storytelling evolved from the human voice and clay to papyrus and animal skins, paper, and finally the electronic image. Paper was first used in China in the first century a.d., in the Middle East by the eighth century and in Moorish Spain by the eleventh century. The evolution of printing was slow, considering that after Gutenberg’s invention of punch-and-mold reusable type in the fifteenth century, it changed very little for 350 years. Printing [End Page 6] continued to be done by simple screw presses, one page at a time. While steam and other power presses began to develop in the early nineteenth century, keyboards for setting movable type didn’t come along until the 1890s. The fact is that inexpensive printing and widely available printed material are...


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