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Oct 1, 1975

An Introduction to Imaginative Literature, Part II

Fiction--The Short Story

Part II of Riggenbach’s excellent review of fiction.

I have said that literary criticism worthy of the name must enable the reader to have as intense an aesthetic experience as possible. But what is an aesthetic experience, and what does it have to do with presentational symbols of human feeling that enable us to make the abstractions we call metaphysical value-judgements? Precisely this: the aesthetic experience, the experience of feeling an imaginary world organismally—not the experience of conceptualizing such a world, however elaborately—not the experience of perceiving it with the mind’s senses—but the experience of perceiving that world’s “sensory field as perceived by a conceptual consciousness” (Ayn Rand in “Art and Cognition”)—the experience of living in that world, insofar as we can achieve such an experience through the intermediaries of language and imagination—this aesthetic experience is the means by which readers of literature understand what they are reading. The aesthetic experience is to understanding a work of art what a knowledge of dictionary definitions and grammatical rules is to understanding a sentence—with one qualification, namely, that both are part of understanding a literary work. A literary work is made of words, sentences, paragraphs, which must be understood according to specifiable rules of definition and grammar before the reader can know in what a given imaginary world consists; but a literary work is also made of that imaginary world—its people, places, events and things—and it must be understood according to specifiable rules of concept formation before the meaning of the work as a whole may be grasped. And one of the most fundamental of those rules of concept formation, I would say, is the rule that all valid conceptual thought must originate in immediate, personal (organismal) awareness—the kind of awareness involved in the aesthetic experience. In a sense, to say that a work of art is a presentational symbol is to say that it is comprehensible only to those who achieve an aesthetic experience of it.

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Clearly, the work of imaginative literature which offers the possibility of the richest, most varied kind of aesthetic experience is the work of fiction. For a work of fiction is an imaginative literary work in which the actions (physical or psychological) of imaginary human beings are the most significant, the most nearly essential of its characteristics qua presentational symbol—a work, that is, in which the action symbolizes the essence of the metaphysical value-judgement(s) justified by the work as a whole, while the characters, settings, and inanimate properties add the qualifiers. What this means is that a story may present as complex and elaborate a world as its author desires, so long as its every detail is integrated (and there are thousands of kinds of fictional integration) to the significance of the plot, while a poem is limited to presentation of essentially static worlds and an essay is limited to presentation of worlds organized around a single kind of action—cognition. (For a fuller presentation of these distinctions among literary forms, I refer the reader to parts III and IV of this series.) Though one of the most common types of fiction—narrative verse—is of genuinely ancient origin, the two most common types—the short story and the novel (distinguished from each other, for me at least, on purely arbitrary grounds of length)—are inventions of the past 200 years. Prose fiction existed in English before the turn of the nineteenth century, to be sure, but not in any great abundance or to anyone’s great artistic benefit. And even after the turn of the last century, when fiction had become a more or less popular kind of literature to write, the novelist or short-story writer tended not to produce works of great literary excellence. And the reason is entirely a function of his public and personal image: the story-teller was not regarded and did not regard himself as an artist, subject to the same kinds of expectation and criticism to which the poet was subject; the novelist or story writer was an entertainer, more like a clown than a Shakespearean actor, more like a Ross Hunter film than an Ingmar Bergmann. It was not until the late nineteenth century (in the era of Meredith, Moore, James, and Art-For-Art’s-Sake) that any significant number of fictionists came to regard themselves as artists of at least as refined a sort as poets—and before those fictionists were able to build a public for such fiction, another few decades had gone by. Today there are still influential critics and professors of literature at important institutions who believe the story is intrinsically a “looser” form than the poem and is not capable of the same degree of aesthetic refinement—that is, of the same degree of symbolic organization and compression. And, predictably, writers who did not consider themselves serious artists seldom produced works which could be taken seriously as works of art, whatever their excellence in this or that subsidiary area of fiction writing (plot construction, style, characterization).

The first really artistic short story in English literature (henceforth, when I use the phrase “English literature,” I will mean literature written in English—nations have nothing to do with art) is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s verse narrative The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. A useful edition of this work, though its introductory and appended material works to establish a few minor critical perfidies, is Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Ancient Mariner. Coleridge was much greater as a literary critic and theorist than as a literary artist, but his allegory of good, evil, and nature combines brilliant stylistic achievement with painstakingly economical presentation of a thoroughly designed, thoroughly integrated imaginary world.

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Later nineteenth-century practitioners of the short story were important, many of them, but for only tangentially artistic reasons (Edgar Allan Poe is a representative example: his stories are innovative in a number of ways and enjoyed great influence over any number of much better writers, but they stand up rather badly when they are subjected to purely literary evaluation—evaluation, that is, outside their historical context). It was only at the end of the century, during the eighties and nineties, that substantial work was done to continue the tradition launched by writers like Coleridge and the American Nathaniel Hawthorne (of whose best short fiction “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and “The Great Stone Face” are fairly representative). Henry James, whose work will be discussed more extensively next month, is the author of a number of fine short works, notably “The Beast in the Jungle.” And such popular writers as Bret Harte (in “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and others), Mark Twain (in “The Mysterious Stranger” and others), and “O. Henry” (in tales like “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Last Leaf”) brought a less ambitious sort of literary distinction to their work during this period.

After the turn of the twentieth century, the short story began a climb to artistic glory which it has not yet exhausted. And, uniquely among the literary arts, the short story has enjoyed its greatest achievements since then in the United States, not in England. While certain British writers, such as W. Somerset Maugham and D. H. Lawrence, have become internationally famous for their short fiction, they have always seemed to me substantially more adept at their novels. But at least two British writers of short fiction—E. M. Forester (see “The Other Side of the Hedge” and “The Machine Stops”) and James Joyce (see “The Dead”)—achieved genuine distinction in that form, and one British writer of the first years of this century must be ranked as one of the greatest figures in the history of the short story. I am speaking here of H. H. Munro, who wrote under the pseudonym Saki. There is almost no describing Saki’s short stories; what can one say after indicating that each is written with theretofore almost unprecedented economy of prose expression and that each is an artistic whole of only a few pages in which, in a single perfectly stylized scene, a character reveals his self, his character? The only thing like these stories is the work (in translation and to that extent inaccessible) of the French writer Guy De Maupassant. I especially recommend “The Open Window,” “Sredni Vashtar,” “Esme,” and “The Schwartz-Metterklume Method.”

The early 1900s in America were not up to Saki’s standards, but they were developing in a similar direction. Even Theordore Dreiser, American literature’s leading exponent of clumsiness in style, produced a memorable short work or two—the best is probably “The Lost Phoebe”—and with the appearance of Ernest Hemingway, the first giant of the short story had spoken from this side of the Atlantic. Hemingway’s best stories are so good they must be read (and re-read and re-read) to be believed. And it is almost impossible to pick “bests”; so instead I”ll name favorites: “The Killers,” “A Clean, Well Lighted Place,” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Other important short works of this period are Faulkner’s “The Bear,” “Delta Autumn,” and “A Rose for Emily”; Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” (a touching, poetic, shocking presentation of a child’s withdrawal into classic schizophrenia—as seen by the child); and Steinbeck’s “The Ears of Johnny Bear.” Also notable, though lighter, are Carl Stephenson’s “Leiningen Versus the Ants” and Richard Connel’s “The Most Dangerous Game.”

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During the 1950s and ‘60s a good half dozen serious writers of short fiction came to prominence in this country by bringing the art of the short story to its highest point of consistent excellence to date: William H. Gass (who, despite or possibly because of his being one of the five or six most accomplished stylists in all of American literary history, has not been terribly prolific—almost his entire short fiction is available in one collection, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and the title story is a masterpiece); Alfred Bester (whose best work is in the collection, Starburst, particularly the stories “Fondly Fahrenheit” and “The Starcomber”); J. D. Salinger (whose book, Nine Stories,, is a must for any short fiction enthusiast, and whose “The Laughing Man” and “For Esme—With Love and Squalor” are among the best ever written by anyone—”The Laughing Man,” by the way, bears an allusory resemblance to a famous Victor Hugo novel); Ray Bradbury (whose best stories are scattered among several anthologies, but whose collection, Twice 22, is representative and contains two of his very best—”The Great Wide World Over There” and “In A Season of Calm Weather”); Donald Barthelme (whose collection Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts is as representative as any other of these indescribably, surrealistically funny stories); and Theodore Sturgeon (whose finest work—one of the finest done by anyone working in English in this century—is More Than Human, a short-story cycle—a continuous narrative that is also several distinct and artistically complete short stories—that, in fewer than 200 pages, breathes more life into the idea of the gestalt than the Gestalt psychologists have done in the past quarter-century). (Next month: Neil McCaffrey brings us “Jazz with a Human Face.” Jeff Riggenbach returns in December with “Fiction—The Novel.”)