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I. What IS a Short Story? Problems of Definition
Edgar Allan Poe’s review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales must surely be one of the most influential book reviews ever written; there is rarely an article or a book on the short story form which fails to summon up for discussion Poe’s description of the short story in that review. The query “What Is a Short Story?” survives in the title of Eugene Current-Garcia and Walton R. Patrick’s collection of essays, reviews, and articles addressing that question. Their book traces the continued interest in the genre issue among critics as well as practitioners of the short story from the time when Poe canonized the form in 1842 to 1961, when the first edition of Current-Garcia and Patrick’s book appeared. Interest in the question of definition has continued to play a part in short story theory, as witnessed, for instance, by the fact that Short Story Theory at a Crossroads, the collection of theoretical essays which Lohafer and Clarey published in 1989, also has a sub-section entitled, “What Is a Short Story?”
Why this theoretical solipsism, one may ask? Why this passionate interest in felling an animal who refuses to play dead? After all, very few people bother to ask the question, “What is a novel?” The reason Mary Louise Pratt offers to explain this continued interest in arriving at precise definitions of the short story while the novel does not give rise to a comparable activity, seems convincing. In literary history, she remarks, the short story has been cast in the role of little brother to the novel from the beginning, not only in physical terms (everyone, after all, recognizes that the novel is bigger than the short story), but more importantly in terms of artistic prestige. For instance, the short story has often been seen as a convenient starting place for writers with ambitions of becoming respected novelists (182–86). Indeed, often one finds typical short-story writers defending their preferred genre one suspects at least partly out of a sense of inferiority. Already Poe seems to have felt that need, claiming for the short prose tale a much higher prestige than literary historians at the time were willing to accord. “The tale proper, in our opinion,” said Poe in his review of Hawthorne, “affords unquestionably the fairest field for the exercise of the loftiest talent, which can be afforded by the wide domains of mere prose” (106).
In terms of artistic and aesthetic viability the position of the short story is firmly secured by now, everyone will agree; the little brother stigma seems more and more to be a thing of the past. But the proliferation of excellent short stories has made things more difficult rather than easier for critics with an interest in definitions. Already during the nineteenth century it became clear that short stories would not always behave the way Poe and his followers thought they should. Certainly, with the advent of Modernism, not to speak of Postmodernism, the definitional plot has thickened even more. Hence a need has arisen for a more sophisticated approach to definitions, one that could account in more adequate theoretical terms for all those types of short fiction never dreamt of in Poe’s philosophy of genre. [End Page 136]
Before 1980 definitions were as a rule essentialist. Whenever a definition was ventured it set out to name a range of essential qualities that short stories possess, such as describing a single event, a moment of revelation, and so on. Posterity has cast Poe as the first essentialist. His recommendations for a tightly structured story, or prose tale, as he called it—the term “short story” was not coined until the 1880s—soon became prescriptive. Poe, famously, spoke of the need for a preconceived idea behind the story, “a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out,” and he went on: “In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect...