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Foreword The masthead of this magazine has stated for many years that we invite submissions "with a distinctly contemporary orientation." Someone recently asked me what that meant, and I responded with the less than impressive answer that I wasn't completely sure. Since in this issue David Wojahn writes about some of the influences and problems in today's poetry, it seems Uke an opportune time for me to come up with an assessment of what makes a short story "distinctly contemporary ." First, a thing or two about the begmnings of the short story. Storytelling has of course been around for longer than we will ever know, and the sacred books of the major religions are replete with narrative . But in the history of secular publishing, both short stories and novels are relative latecomers. The essay, the philosophical tract, epic and lyric poetry—most of the now classic genres of writing are bluebloods with ancient ancestry compared with these arrivistes. It wasn't until the growth of the periodic magazine in the 18th and 19th centuries that fiction was really launched. It is probably something of an exaggeration to claim that Washington Irving, an American expatriate writer living in England, "invented" the short story. But his two best-remembered picturesque sketches, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle," published in 1819, are key early examples of sketches that crossed over the Une to what later was caUed the short story. One of their most important features is that they are presented as stories and nothing else, in which certain characters go through a complete narrative trajectory. They are not journahsm or essays with fictional elements but fictional narratives, which speak for themselves. The "lateness" of both novels and short stories in mass publishing was partly due to the fact that reading fiction was considered suspect, as movies and TV are suspect today. Many felt that the very medium itself was corrupting. As parents today (including me) tell kids that they will learn nothing but how to sit with their mouths open and brains turned off by watching television, moral authorities during the early years of fiction commonly suspected that there was something fundamentally corrupting about printed stories: being by definition "not true," fiction was false and dangerous and might instill the wrong habits (sloth, lewdness, etc.), particularly in female readers. To counter this, early writers and pubUshers often made extravagant declarations on title pages, and in prefaces and advertising, regarding the moral or educational value of a work. Although Washington Irving got the idea for "Sleepy Hollow"—a tale of rivalry for the favors of "the buxom Katrina"—from German folklore, he set the story in lower New York among Dutch farmers. The use of exotic, mostly rural locales, characters, and speech was a common aspect of American fiction in the last half of the century. In the years 1875, '85, and '95, a little over half of the stories and serialized novels in TTie Atlantic Monthly (one of the best-edited American magazines ) were local-color or dialect pieces, with the number declining by the last decade. Most of these stories are tiresome to readers today, due to their authors' exaggerated attempts to denote every oddity of speech. While revealing something about the variety of American idioms , such stories were so intent on describing "locals" that they failed to create true characters. Since the days when local color was hot in America, there have been no small number of important writers whose characters lived in places like Yoknapatawpha County, Winesburg, Ohio, and rural Georgia. However, by 1920, coincidental with the shift of the American population toward a majority of city dwellers over country dwellers, American writers had become genuinely tired of rural and heartland life. Whereas early local colorists often lampooned artificial clowns of country life, their inheritors wrote about hypocrisy, ignorance, cruelty, and small-mindedness among real people. Colorful character types retreated to genre fiction and pure entertainment, such as the Western stories of writers like Zane Grey and Max Brand. Which brings us to the "distinctly contemporary" story. Fiction writers still use exotic locales, but often in a different way. The dramatic effect of such...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 5-10
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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