Monday, May 22

William Boyd's short history of the short story

William Boyd provides us a quick taxonomy of the short story. He tells us that the modern short story as we know it now is mostly an American device which blossomed with the arrival of mass produced magazines and papers, and at its height in the 1920s, writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald received as much as $4k for a single story published in the Saturday Evening Post.

But although short fiction is an American enterprise, it was Chekov who revolutionized the narrative:
“By abandoning the manipulated beginning-middle-and-end plot, by refusing to judge his characters, by not striving for a climax or seeking neat narrative resolution, Chekhov made his stories appear agonisingly, almost unbearably lifelike.”
So almost everyone writing short fiction owes something to Chekov. But if you do not subscribe to the singularity of effect that characterizes the Chekovian variety of short fiction, then you must be following the event-plot tradition, which according to Boyd, refers to the “style of plotted story that flourished pre-Chekhov—before his example of the formless story became pre-eminent.”

But since the 1950s, writers have attempted to deviate from the Chekovian form. There’s the “suppressed narrative” which can be seen in the works by Borges, Nabokov, and Calvino. There’s also the mini-novel story which attempts to compress within a few pages what the novel does in a few hundred.
Then there’s that weird creature which Boyd calls the biographical story:
...a catch-all term to include stories that flirt with the factual or masquerade as non-fiction. Often the impedimenta of the non-fiction book is utilised (footnotes, authorial asides, illustrations, quotations, font changes, statistics, textual gimmickry).
Proponents of this style include Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Safran Foer. Also, “the biographical story also includes stories that introduce real people into fiction or write fictive episodes of real lives.” This new incarnation of the short story seems to be the only logical development of living in a world saturated by “advertising media, the documentary, journalism, and 24-hour rolling news, to colonise some of that territory, to invade the world of the real and, as a cannibal will devour the brain of his enemy to make him stronger, to make fiction all the more powerful by blurring the line between hard facts and the invented.”

This collision between reality and fictional reality seems to be unifying theme of contemporary literature (and that also extends to film). It’s the question that everyone asks of his or herself: “Why am I here? Is this really happening? How did I ever get here?”

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