Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Becoming a Writer: BRANDER MATTHEWS' Philosophy of the Short Story

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THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A Novel and a Novelet is one of length only: a Novelet is a brief Novel. But the difference between a Novel and a Short-story is a difference of kind. A true Short-story is some­thing other and something more than a mere story which is short. A true Short-story differs from the Novel chiefly in its essential unity of impression. In a far more exact and precise use of the word, a Short­ story has unity as a Novel cannot have it. Often, it may be noted by the way, the Short-story fulfills the three false unities of the French classic drama: it shows one action, in one place, on one day. A Short­ story deals with a single character, a single event, a single emotion, or the series of emotions called forth by a single situation. Poe's paradox that a poem cannot greatly exceed a hundred lines in length under penalty of ceasing to be one poem and breaking into a string of po­ems, may serve to suggest the precise difference between the Short­ story and the Novel. The Short-story is the
single effect, complete and self-contained, while the Novel is of necessity broken into a series of episodes. Thus the Short-story has, what the Novel cannot have, the effect of "totality," as Poe called it, the unity of impression.

Of a truth the Short-story is not only not a chapter out of a Novel, or an incident or an episode extracted from a longer tale, but at its best it impresses the reader with the belief that it would be spoiled if it were made larger, or if it were incorporated into a more elaborate work. The difference in spirit and in form between the Lyric and the Epic is scarcely greater than the difference between the Short-story and the Novel; and the "Raven" and "How we brought the good news from Ghent to ASx" are not more unlike the "Lady of the Lake" and "Par­adise Lost," in form and in spirit, than the "Luck of Roaring Camp," and the "Man without a Country," two typical Short-stories, are un­like "Vanity Fair" and the "Heart of Midlothian," two typical Novels.
Another great difference between the Short-story and the Novel lies in the fact that the Novel, nowadays at least, must be a love­ tale, while the Short-story need not deal with love at all. Although there are to be found by diligent search a few Novels which are not love-tales-and of course "Robinson Crusoe" is the example that swims at once into recollection-yet the immense majority of Nov­els have the tender passion either as the motive power of their ma­chinery or as the pivot on which their plots turn. Although "Vanity Fair" was a Novel without a hero, nearly every other Novel has a hero and a heroine; and the novelist, however unwillingly, must concern himself in their love-affairs ....

While the Novel cannot get on easily without love, the Short-story can. Since love seems to be almost the only thing which will give in­terest to a long story, the writer of Novels has to get love into his tales as best he may, even when the subject rebels and when he himself is too old to take any delight in the mating of John and Joan. But the Short-story, being brief, does not need a love-interest to hold its parts together, and the writer of Short-stories has thus a greater freedom; he may do as he pleases; from him a love-tale is not expected.
But other things are required of a writer of Short-stories which are not required of a writer of Novels. The novelist may take his time; he has abundant room to turn about. The writer of Short-stories must be concise, and compression, a vigorous compression, is essential. For him, more than for anyone else, the half is more than the whole. Again, the novelist may be commonplace, he may bend his best ener­gies to the photographic reproduction of the actual; if he shows us a cross-section of real life we are content; but the writer of Short-stories must have originality and ingenuity. If to compression, originality, and ingenuity he add also a touch of fantasy, so much the better.

In fact, it may be said that no one has ever succeeded as a writer of Short-stories who had not ingenuity, originality, and compression; and that most of those who have succeeded in this line had also the touch of fantasy. But there are not a few successful novelists lacking, not only in fantasy and compression, but also in ingenuity and origi­nality; they had other qualities, no doubt, but these they had not. If an example must be given, the name of Anthony Trollope will occur to all. Fantasy was a thing he abhorred; compression he knew not; and originality and ingenuity can be conceded to him only by a strong stretch of the ordinary meaning of the words. Other qualities he had in plenty, but not these. And, not having them, he was not a writer of Short-stories. Judging from his essay on Hawthorne, one may even go so far as to say that Trollope did not know a good Short-story when he saw it.

I have written "Short-stories" with a capital S and a hyphen be­cause I wished to emphasize the distinction between the Short-story and the story which is merely short. The Short-story is a high and difficult department of fiction. The story which is short can be writ­ten by anybody who can write at all; and it may be good, bad, or in­different; but at its best it is wholly unlike the Short-story. In "An Editor's Tales" Trollope has given us excellent specimens of the story which is short; and the narratives which make up this book are amusing enough and clever enough, but they are wanting in the indi­viduality and in the completeness of the genuine Short-story. Like the brief tales to be seen in the British monthly magazines and in the Sunday editions of American newspapers into which they are copied, they are, for the most part, either merely amplified anecdotes or else incidents which might have been used in a Novel just as well as not.

Now, it cannot be said too emphatically that the genuine Short­ story abhors the idea of the Novel. It neither can be conceived as part of a Novel, nor can it be elaborated and expanded so as to form a Novel. A good Short-story is no more the synopsis of a Novel than it is an episode from a Novel. A slight Novel, or a Novel cut down, is a Novelet: it is not a Short-story. Mr. Howells's "Their Wedding Jour­ney" and Miss Howard's "One Summer" are Novelets,-little Nov­els. Mr. Anstey's "Vice Versa," Mr. Besant's "Case of Mr. Lucraft," Hugh Conway's "Called Back," Mr. Julian Hawthorne's "Archibald Malmaison," and Mr. Stevenson's "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" are Short-stories in conception although they are without the compression which the Short-story requires ....
It is to be noted as a curious coincidence that there is no exact word in English to designate either vers de societe or the Short-story, and yet in no language are there better vers de societe or Short-stories than in English. It may be remarked also that there is a certain like­ness between vers de societe and Short-stories: for one thing, both seem easy to write and are hard. And the typical qualifications of each may apply with almost equal force to the other: vers de societe should reveal compression, ingenuity, and originality, and Short ­stories should have brevity and brilliancy. In no class of writing are neatness of construction and polish of execution more needed than in the writing of vers de societe and of Short-stories. The writer of Short-stories must have the sense of form, which has well been called "the highest and last attribute of a creative writer." The con­struction must always be logical, adequate, harmonious.

Here is a weak spot in Mr. W. H. Bishop's "One of the Thirty Pieces," the fundamental idea of which-that fatality awaits every successive possessor of every one of the coins once paid to Judas for his betrayal of Jesus-has genuine strength, not fully developed in the story. But other of Mr. Bishop's stories-the "Battle of Bunkerloo," for instance-are admirable in all ways, conception and execution having an even excellence. Again, Hugh Conway's "Daughter of the Stars" is a Short-story which fails from sheer deficiency of style: here is one of the very finest Short-story ideas-the startling and fascinat­ing fantasy that by sheer force of will a man might have been able to draw down from the depths of the sky a lovely astral maid to share his finite human life-ever given to any mortal, but the handling is at best barely sufficient. To do justice to the conception would tax the execution of a poet. We could merely wonder what the tale would have been had it occurred to Hawthorne, to Poe, or to Theophile Gautier. An idea logically developed by one possessing the sense of form and the gift of style is what we look for in the Short-story.

But, although the sense of form and the gift of style are essential to the writing of a good Short-story, they are secondary to the idea, to the conception, to the subject. Those who hold, with a certain Amer­ican novelist, that it is no matter what you have to say, but only how you say it, need not attempt the Short-story; for the Short-story, far more than the Novel even, demands a subject. The Short-story is nothing if there is no story to tell—one might almost say that a Short-story is nothing if it has no plot,—except that "plot" may sug­gest to some readers a complication and an elaboration which are not really needful. But a plan—if this word is less liable to misconception than "plot" —a plan a Short-story must have, while it would be easy to cite Novels of eminence which are wholly amorphous—for example, "Tristram Shandy."

Whatever it is length, the Novel, so Mr. Henry James told us not long ago, "is, in its broadest definition, a personal impression of life." The most powerful force in French fiction today is M. Emile Zola, chiefly known in America and England, I fear me greatly, by the dirt which masks and degrades the real beauty and firm strength not sel­dom concealed in his novels; and M. Emile Zola declares that the novelist of the future will not concern himself with the artistic evo­lution of a plot: he will take une histoire quelconque, any kind of a story, and make it serve his purpose,—which is to give elaborate pictures of life in all its most minute details.
It is needless to say that the acceptance of these stories is a nega­tion of the Short-story. Important as are form and style, the subject of the Short-story is of more importance yet. What you have to tell is of greater interest than how you tell it. . . . As a Short-story need not be a love-story, it is of no consequence at all whether they marry or die; but a Short-story in which nothing happens at all is an ab­solute impossibility.

Perhaps the difference between a Short-story and a Sketch can best be indicated by saying that, while a Sketch may be still-life, in a Short-story something always happens. A Sketch may be an outline of character, or even a picture of a mood of mind, but in a Short ­story there must be something done, there must be an action. Yet the distinction, like that between the Novel and the Romance, is no longer of vital importance. In the preface to the "House of the Seven Gables," Hawthorne sets forth the difference between the Novel and the Romance, and claims for himself the privileges of the romancer. Mr. Henry James fails to see this difference. The fact is, that the Short-story and the Sketch, the Novel and the Romance, melt and merge one into the other, and no man may mete the boundaries of each, though their extremes lie far apart. With the more complete understanding of the principle of development and evolution in literary art, as in physical nature, we see the futility of a strict and rigid classification into precisely defined genera and species. All that is needful for us to remark now is that the Short ­story has limitless possibilities: it may be as realistic as the most prosaic novel, or as fantastic as the most ethereal romance.

The Short-story should not be void or without form, but its form may be whatever the author please. He has an absolute liberty of choice. It may be a personal narrative, like Poe's "Descent into the Maelstrom" or Mr. Hale's "My Double, and how he Undid me"; it may be imper­sonal, like Mr. Frederick B. Perkins's "Devil-Puzzlers" or Colonel J. W. De Forest's "Brigade Commander"; it may be a conundrum, like Mr. Stockton's insoluble query, the "Lady or the Tiger?"; it may be "A Bundle of Letters," like Mr. Henry James's story, or "A Letter and a Paragraph," like Mr. Bunner's; it may be a medley of letters and tele­grams and narrative, like Mr. Aldrich's "Margery Daw"; it may be cast in anyone of these forms, or in a combination of all of them, or in a wholly new form, if haply such may yet be found by diligent search. Whatever its form, it should have symmetry of design. If it have also wit or humour, pathos or poetry, and especially a distinct and unmis­takable flavour of individuality, so much the better. But the chief req­uisites are compression, originality, ingenuity, and now and again a touch of fantasy. Sometimes we may detect in a writer of Short-stories a tendency toward the over-elaboration of ingenuity, toward the exhi­bition of ingenuity for its own sake, as in a Chinese puzzle. But mere cleverness is incompatible with greatness, and to commend a writer as "very clever" is not to give him high praise. From this fault of super­ subtlety, women are free for the most part. They are more likely than men to rely on broad human emotion, and their tendency in error is toward the morbid analysis of a high-strung moral situation.

The more carefully we study the history of fiction the more clearly we perceive that the Novel and the Short-story are essentially different-that the difference between them is not one of mere length only, but fundamental. The Short-story seeks one set of ef­fects in its own way, and the Novel seeks a wholly distinct set of ef­fects in a wholly distinct way. We are led also to the conclusion that the Short-story-in spite of the fact that in our language it has no name of its own-is one of the few sharply defined literary forms. It is a genre, as M. Brunetiere terms it, a species, as a naturalist might call it, as individual as the Lyric itself and as various. It is as distinct an entity as the Epic, as Tragedy, as Comedy. Now the Novel is not a form of the same sharply defined individuality; it is-or at least it may be-anything. It is the child of the Epic and the heir of the Drama; but it is a hybrid. And one of the foremost of living American novelists, who happens also to be one of the most acute and sympathetic of American critics, has told me that he was often distracted by the knowledge of this fact even while he was engaged in writing a novel.

In the history of literature the Short-story was developed long before the Novel, which indeed is but a creature of yesterday, and which was not really established in popular esteem as a worthy rival of the drama until after the widespread success of the Waverley Novels in the early years of the nineteenth century. The Short-story also seems much easier of accomplishment than the Novel, if only because it is briefer. And yet the list of the masters of the Short ­story is far less crowded than the list of the masters of the longer form. There are a score or more very great novelists recorded in the history of fiction; but there are scarcely more than half a score Short-story writers of an equal eminence.

From Chaucer and Boccaccio we must spring across the centuries until we come to Hawthorne and Poe almost without finding an­other name that insists upon enrolment. In these five hundred years there were great novelists not a few, but there was no great writer of Short-stories. A little later than Hawthorne and Poe, and indeed al­most contemporaneous with them, are Merimee and Turgenef, whose tide to be recorded there is none to dispute. Now at the end of the nineteenth century we find two more that no competent critic would dare to omit,—Guy de Maupassant and Rudyard Kipling.
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