31 Days of Stories 2015: Introduction

April 30, 2015 by · 4 Comments 

The_Lonely_VoiceShort stories, argued the Irish writer and critic Frank O’Connor, traffic in loneliness. In his classic evaluation of the form, The Lonely Voice (1963), O’Connor distinguishes between the novel, which is capable of operating on a large social canvas and addressing teeming masses of humanity, and the story, which usually focuses on individuals who are outsiders, loners, or members of what O’Connor referred to as “submerged population groups.” Novels, O’Connor argues, require at least one figure – usually the protagonist – with whom the reader can identify. Stories, by contrast, lack this locus of identification, replacing it – on the level of both subject and form – with characters and situations that are marginal, unfamiliar, or broadly disavowed.

The novel, in O’Connor’s conception, is social, whereas stories are essentially individual:

I am suggesting strongly that we can see in [the short story] an attitude of mind that is attracted by submerged population groups, whatever these may be at any given time – tramps, artists, lonely idealists, dreamers, and spoiled priests. The novel can still adhere to the classical concept of civilized society, of man as an animal who lives in a community, as in Jane Austen and Trollope it obviously does; but the short story remains by its very nature remote from the community – romantic, individualistic, and intransigent.

Perhaps this is one reason stories remain a matter of broad cultural indifference, especially in our current historical moment. Twenty-first century media, we are told, must be social – it must be shareable and clickable and likeable. But stories, as O’Connor recognized, contain a distinctly asocial (if not, in some cases, frankly anti-social) aspect: they privilege unique, idiosyncratic voices (on the part of both their characters and their creators) and operate outside accepted norms of practice.

Alice Munro, the 2013 Nobel laureate and surely Canada’s best-known writer of short fiction, exemplifies this idea, which makes her relative acceptance by mainstream readers something of a puzzle. Munro is one of the most subversive writers around: stories that on their surface appear to be straightforward works of naturalism in the kitchen-sink mode are in fact dark, sardonic, and (at least in her later period) almost expressionistic investigations into human cruelty and disaffection. Munro, it is true, is capable of greater swaths of compassion than Mavis Gallant, to whom she is frequently compared, but woe betide any reader who wishes to identify with a character from one of Munro’s stories.

This marginal aspect – along with a rigorous concentration of language and resistance to closure – is one of the major stumbling blocks to short fiction’s acceptance, but it is, paradoxically, also one of the things that makes the form so endlessly fascinating. As far as literature is concerned, novels have long been central to our conception of culture and canon; stories continue to remain peripheral. But their very location on the edges allows them greater freedom to experiment, to refashion themselves into new and unique shapes, and to test the boundaries of style and technique.

“I think the story needs advocacy as a cultural institution the way poetry has done,” said Larry Dark, director of the Story Prize and former series editor for the O. Henry Awards anthology. Poetry, of course, was once given pride of place at the centre of the English and European canon; stories have never been afforded this distinction. Nevertheless, some part of Dark’s suggestion informs the impetus behind this site’s annual month-long celebration of the short story. By shining a light on the variety and scope of short fiction – contemporary and past, in English and in translation – it is hoped that readers might gain some appreciation of the potential in what has been (and will likely remain) a neglected literary genre.

Some of the stories that follow will probably be familiar to a majority of readers; others will undoubtedly be less so. We’ll begin tomorrow with a Canadian master’s return to the form after an extended absence, following which the perspective will broaden beyond Canada’s borders and will reach back into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

With all respect to Dark, this is not advocacy, so much as enthusiasm; though I argue for the continued relevance of short fiction as a form, what keeps me returning to stories in general – and this project in particular – is enjoyment. While not always immediately gratifying – one of the other things that prevents a larger uptake in short fiction among a distracted populace is the demands the form places on its readers – stories are nevertheless sources of boundless pleasure. They can be funny, scary, infuriating, and heartbreaking, often at the same time. My hope is that at least some of this enjoyment proves infectious.