Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Short Story, the Novel, and Essential Form

I’m in the midst of a Frank O’Connor immersion. I’m flipping back and forth between one of his short story collections (Domestic Relations) and his book about the short story (The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story), while another collection of his stories, his study of the novel, and a biography of him await me on the hold shelf at the library.

O’Connor caught my attention at the beginning of The Lonely Voice with this passage: “For the short story writer there is no such thing as essential form. Because his frame of reference can never be the totality of a human life, he must be forever selecting the point at which he can approach it, and each selection he makes contains the possibility of a new form as well as the possibility of a complete fiasco” (21).

Throughout the introduction, O’Connor defines the short story by contrasting it with the novel. The novel, he says, requires a hero with whom the reader identifies (16-17). The short story, on the other hand, has never had a hero. It has “a submerged population group” (17); it almost always contains a “sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society” (18). The short story and the novel reflect different attitudes to society, different ideologies. “There is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel -- an intense awareness of human loneliness” (18-19). On the form of the novel, he says: “the chronological development of character or incident is essential form as we see it in life, and the novelist flouts it at his own peril” (21).

I find myself agreeing with nearly everything O’Connor says about the short story, but disagreeing with most of his contrasting statements about the novel. I’m wondering though whether I would have disagreed with what he had to say about the novel in 1962, the year The Lonely Voice was published. My conception of what a novel is and what it can do is doubtless very much a product of the evolution of the form in the intervening decades. Though I jump back and forth across many decades in my short story reading, I’ve realized that most of the novels I read were written post-1960.

Just last week, Jason Cowley staked out the novel as prime territory for innovation. In an article in the Guardian, he declared the novel to be more versatile and flexible than any other art form. The article has generated some persuasive rebuttals in the blogosphere. See for example This Space and Bookish. But the disagreements centre not on Cowley’s assertions of versatility and flexibility but on the very conservative examples that he puts forward which tend to undercut rather than illustrate his point.

For my part, I’d like to think the formal possibilities of both the short story and the novel are wide open. Not that that makes the work of the short story writer or the novelist any easier. As O’Connor said, there is always the possibility of fiasco. But it does make both the writing and the reading much more interesting.

No comments: