Monday, April 5, 2010

Short Stories

My most recent literary obsession: The Short Story. I love that short stories are like little literary snacks I can pop into my mouth before I go to bed. I've been dabbing into many different collections, including but not limited to: The Best Short Stories of 2009, Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolf, Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx, Nine Stories by JD Salinger, Stories by Anton Chekhov.

This new interest stemmed from my listening to a certain podcast "Entitled Opinions (On Life and Literature.)" In this particular episode, Stanford professor and host Robert Harrison interviews contemporary American author Tobias Wolf. They discuss (among other things) the art of the short story & Wolf's work within the genre.

Here is an excerpt of Robert Harrison's introduction to the episode.

"Michelangelo says on the art of sculpture [assumedly Harrison's translation]: 'The best artist has no conception that a block of marble, still unworked, does not already contain within its own excess. And that conception is brought out by the hand that obeys the intellect.'

He continues,

When I read a good short story ... I have the impression that the block of marble is a potential novel that the author attacks with his pen, removing all that would be superfluous in that novel, until he arrives at the quintessential conception at the heart of the matter, which now comes forth as a decisively sculpted, highly condensed work of art. There is nothing more that the author either could add or remove without comprising the stories perfect distillation of its essential narrative content. When you have this degree of distillation in the work of art, it calls for an equal degree of concentration, or attention to detail, on behalf of the person who sets out to read it. For it is not only the author who gives the story to the reader, it is the reader who gives the story its meaning. For where would that meaning take place if there were no readers to make sense of the words in which it is contained?"

I have a few issues to take up with Dr. Harrison here. First of all, and perhaps most importantly, I would politely set aside that fact that I find Dr. Harrison's persona to be almost unbearably pompous and self important. Secondly, my first point: I believe what he says of the short story being a "perfectly distilled novel" discredits the novel itself. The novel is also a distillation, just of a greater pool of original material. That is to say, though there may be more material within a novel, none of it is there just to fill in space. If details are superfluous or just exist to titilate the reader, the work should not be considered "good literature." Within a work of art, whatever the medium or scale, every element is essential to justify the beauty of the whole.

This relates to my next point. I believe that every great work of literature can stand alone in its greatness and does not need the reader to project his or her own meaning on to it. True, the work does, in a sense, need a reader so as not only to exist as a series of markings on a page. But, I believe that more often than not, the reader falls short in obtaining the fullness of the work. For while the reader may comprehend the direct meaning of the words, it is not guaranteed that they will comprehend the complete depth of meaning contained within the interaction of every single element. Dr. Harrison believes that to scale these depths calls for a "deep concentration and attention to detail." It seems to me he is assuming that solely in deep concentration and attention to detail the reader will gain an understanding equal to the depth of work put into the writing of the novel, which, in my opinion, can and must never be assumed. To understand this is to have healthy respect for art.

This is also the value of a book blog such as this one. Any person with a basic understanding of how literature works has something legitimate to say that others may not have thought about. Whether they are a published professor in the department of French and Italian at Stanford or not, everyone has a different experience in the world and thus their own "Entitled Opinion." It is through deep concentration, attention to detail, as well as open discussion and respect for the work that readers come closer to understanding the depth of a great work of literature.

So, in this light, I hope that you, dear reader, will become more engaged in the literary conversation here at The Blue Bookcase. What do YOU think of the art of the short story? What are some of your favorite short stories or short story collections?

Though I may disagree with Harrison's view of the short story, I did very much enjoy listening to the episode of the podcast. It even convinced me to go pick up Tobias Wolf's Our Story Begins the very next day. I encourage you all to listen to this podcast which is available for free download on iTunes.

You can also see a list of some of my recent favorite short stories on my blog.