- To Be Continued: The Story of Short Story Theory and Other Narrative Theory
The May 2012 special issue of Narrative provides preliminary answers to a question that seems to have gone unasked for far too long: what is the relationship between short story theory and other narrative theory?1 With narrative theory embracing and being embraced by fields as diverse as medicine and law, and at the same time engaging with a much broader corpus of narrative “texts,” it has long puzzled me that no work has been published on the relationship between narrative theory in general and theory dedicated to a genre whose very name contains a synonym for the term “narrative”: the short story. The May 2012 issue of Narrative thus makes an important and overdue intervention. Before responding to specific aspects of this intervention, I will pose some questions that probe the reasons for short story theorists’ and other narrative theorists’ extended silence on this issue.
Of short story theorists, I ask: If all short stories are narratives, why has short story theory not availed itself of the tools and methodologies of narrative theory in general in a more sustained, systematic, and widespread way? Why are insights about particular short stories typically only connected to insights about the short story in general as opposed to the broader class of narratives in which the short story surely participates? Are there legitimate reasons, rooted in form, content, or some other aspect, to treat the short story as a special kind of narrative, fully or partially distinct from other kinds, in ways that qualify or limit the applicability of narrative theory’s [End Page 132] tools and methodologies? Are these reasons inflected by factors such as disciplinarity and ideology that are rooted less in the short story’s form or content and more in its academic study and perceived sociocultural role?
Of narrative theorists, I ask: Does it simply go without saying that short stories are narratives and that the tools and methodologies of narrative theory are therefore as helpful in analyzing these stories as they are in analyzing other narrative forms such as the novel or film? If so many recent publications in narrative theory take short stories as their case studies, surely on the basis that such case studies are more manageable in length than novels, should the question of genre be considered? We readily acknowledge that narrative techniques differ across different media such as print text and filmic “text,” and we are careful to modify our narratological approaches accordingly, but does the fact that the short story and the novel appear in the same media mean that differences of genre are insignificant or inconsequential?
My enthusiasm about the May 2012 issue of Narrative is a response to the important questions the contributors ask; my reservations stem from their diagnosis of the current state of affairs. In a co-authored introduction that tackles definitions of the short story and the broader project of defining genres, along with pairings in which the contributors respond individually to the work of prominent narrative theorists, in five single-authored essays that read the same short story, Alice Munro’s “Passion,” and in a concluding dialogue in which the five contributors respond to one another’s essays—in this rich range of scholarly material, Susan Lohafer, Charles E. May, Michael Toolan, Michael Trussler, and Per Winther raise important questions about the short story and its relationship to other narrative theory. Their answers, however, tend to close down the important and overdue conversation these questions prompted.
In the section of the introduction that pairs four of the contributors with four prominent narrative theorists, three of the contributors ultimately argue that their projects diverge and have little to be gained from the interests, tools, and methodologies of narrative theory in general. A few common threads are apparent in the contributors’ characterizations of other narrative theory:
• Other narrative theory is overrun with jargon that at best offers the analytical project nothing new and at worst impedes the uninitiated’s access to the text or the analytical project’s results.
• Work informed by other narrative theory is somehow different from and inferior to “good...