In the final section of this issue devoted to short fiction theory, the contributors respond to each other’s essays, noting points of agreement or disagreement, raising questions, making suggestions, and framing issues. Following each response, the author addressed has a chance to reply.
I. Michael Trussler responds to Charles E. May’s essay
I’ve been much swayed by Charles’s suggestive argument that the short story embodies a different epistemology than that maintained by the novel, a sentiment that is encapsulated in the following sentence from his essay: “The question is not simply whether the technique of the novel and the short story are different in achieving the illusion of reality, but rather whether the two forms present different interpretations of what reality is.” As a way of replying to his essay, I’d like to ask about the ways short stories respond to historical context.
If we take as a working premise that the novel typically explores social reality, a gathering of phenomena that’s always in flux, and the short story concentrates more on the private, perhaps numinous (and thus more “mythic”) experience of reality, is it possible for a short story writer to create a narrative (which is always a social form) that doesn’t somehow reflect something of the historical horizon in which it was written, a horizon that’s always shifting? If the answer to this question is “no,” several others arise, one being: “what is the difference between how a novel uses historical context versus the short story?”
To move in a slightly different direction: Boccaccio, Chekhov and Munro all create stories that pivot on adultery for instance, but they do so differently, at the level [End Page 239] of style of course (though stylistic change is itself a mysterious thing), and perhaps even in their approach to their shared subject matter. For Boccaccio, there’s a seesaw of power, humor, and prurience, but Chekhov, in “Lady with a Dog,” decides to show how something presumably as basic and transhistorical as adultery is somehow mediated by cultural discourse: Anna briefly takes on the characteristics of the paintings she’s seen depicting “fallen women” (and here Chekhov predates Baudrillard and his theories of the simulacrum by several decades). In her short story “The Children Stay,” Munro focuses on the terrible and chronic pain of leaving one’s children, and all along she uses the story to investigate whether there are universals (the central character is acting in a production of Jean Anouilh’s Eurydice). What I’m curious about is whether Charles thinks there’s a kind of “Ur” narrative/experience that the three writers are repeating or responding to in a manner specific to the short story (and if so, how should we think about those parts of each individual story that are rooted in their own historical context, given that most short theorists maintain the hermeneutical notion that every detail in a text contributes to its meaning)? Or, to offer a variant on this kind of inquiry: if the short story and the novel both pay attention to “historical context” as either subject matter or as features of artistic detail, does the short story treat this material differently than the novel?
Charles E. May replies
I certainly agree with Michael that short stories can be as firmly established within an historical/social context as novels can, although many short stories blithely ignore historical/social contexts. The difference, it seems to me, is one of focus. Take the example of the writer Jim Shepard, who may have found a way to make short stories more interesting to readers by appealing to the public interest in history. The stories in his four short story collections—Batting Against Castro, Love and Hydrogen, Like You’d Understand Anyway (shortlisted for the National Book Award)¸ and You Think That’s Bad—have attracted some attention from reviewers because most of them are derived from Shepard’s reading in a wide range of subjects. A Shepard Acknowledgments page usually runs to two or three pages, with his admission that...