Charles E. May is professor emeritus at California State University, Long Beach. He is the author or editor of ten books, including New Short Story Theories, Reality as Artifice, Alice Munro, and I Am Your Brother. He was a Fulbright Senior Scholar and has published over 700 hundred articles and reviews on the short story. He maintains a blog on the short story which can be read here.
Hi Charles, thanks for agreeing to an interview with The Short Story.
In your critical book The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice, you state that there are two strands or influences on early twentieth century short stories: romanticism and realism. Could you elucidate on this, with reference to one or two short stories?
Ever since Boccaccio’s Decameron, the short story has moved back and forth between varying levels of projective fiction and realistic fiction.
Although there are many elements and aspects of romanticism and realism that interrelate in the short story, the most important one is the relationship between the romance form’s emphasis on theme and thus characters who “stand for” certain human traits, desires, fears, etc., and the realistic story’s emphasis on actual events in the real world and thus characters who interact much as “real” people do.
Of course, Roderick Usher in Poe’s great story is not so much a real person as he is an embodiment of a basic human desire to transcend mere physical reality, whereas the couple in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” are as-if real people caught in conflicting desires. Roderick’s House is much more symbolic than real. At the end, when the doors swing open, Madeline falls inward upon Usher , he falls into the house, and the house falls into the tarn, as everything collapses back into unformulated pre-creation nothingness.
However, there is no such thing as a purely realistic great short story. Short stories, at least good ones, just don’t work that way. Even though Hemingway’s story is relatively realistic, the valley in the story is as much a metaphor as an actual place with two sides–one on this side that is dry and barren and the one on the other side, the one they cannot have, which is a fertile field of grain with trees along the banks of the river. The metaphor seems quite clear, for it represents what the girl at least sees as the two sides of the conflict–fertility versus barrenness.
The critic Bander Matthews differentiated between ‘the Short-story and the story that is merely short.’ What do you think he meant by this?
There have always been stories that are short, going back even beyond that font of great short stories, The Thousand and One Nights. But it was until the nineteenth century, primarily with Poe (and this is what Brander Matthews recognized), that a story could be “held together” by obsessive pattern rather than mere plot. When theme becomes more important than mere plot, when a pattern of language becomes more important than “events,” then “the short story” supersedes mere “stories that art short.”
Why do you think endings are so important to short stories? Can you think of any successful short stories that don’t rely on an ending that is ether in the vein of O. Henry’s trick-like formula or closes with a Joycean epiphany?
Any time we arrange a narrative sequence to reflect that it has meaning, that is, any time we make use of the process of repetition and metaphor, we inevitably “fake” the ending, but isn’t this faking the very act that makes meaning out of “one damned thing after another” and therefore constitutes the essence of narrative art? The short story has always been a form closer to the aesthetic, artistic, therefore artificial side of narrative than the novel has. I agree with V. S. Pritchett, who simply echoes what many short story writers and readers have long noted: the short story answers the “primitive craving for art: beauty of shape, wit, paradox, the longing to see dramatic pattern.”
Of course, everything does not have to be either O. Henry or epiphany. Chekhov was famous for his so-called “open endings,” which Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky called “illusory endings,” that is, not endings at all, but rather prompts that allow the reader to read a metaphor as an ending. At the end of Chekhov’s “Gooseberries,” the smell of the pipe that bothers Burkin is the unresolved nature of the meaning of the story that his companion has told within the story. The open end of “Lady with the Pet Dog” is a conventional openness of something that cannot be easily explained, something immanent but not yet. It is a classic forestalling of the end to say that the end was still far off, even as this ends the story.
Chekhov famously wrote that ‘in short stories it is better to say not enough than too much’ – was this influenced by the need for brevity in a form that is by definition short, or was he referring to other essences like tone and mood?
After Chekhov said this, he added, “I don’t know why.” And if Chekhov does not know why, I am not sure I know why either. Part of it has to do with the fact that a good short story usually does not allow for lots of explanation. The short story depends on the reader than the novel does to “interpret,” for a short story usually is based more on “meaning” than “happenings.” And a short story, by the careful use of metaphor and repetition creates a pattern of thematic significance. This is why short stories have to be read more than once.
The short story has undergone significant change in the last hundred and fifty years, to the extent that we’ve reached post-modern meta-fiction championed by writers like Donal Barthelme. Is the short story the quintessentially experimental literary form and where do you see it going in the future?
For various reasons, the short story has always been an “experimental” form. It gives writers the opportunity to “try out” techniques they might not otherwise take a chance on. The various trends we have seen in the short story in, for example, the last fifty years, have sprung from various experiments in interrelating (to go back to your first question) romanticism and realism. For example, the self-reflexive metafictions of Robert Coover, John Barth, and Donald Barthelme were reactions against the realism of Cheever, Updike, Bellow etc. Then the minimalism or so-called hyperrealism of Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Ann Beattie, etc., were reactions against fabulism. Since these two trends pushed antirealism and realism about as far as they could go without becoming either unreadable or intolerable, the short story post-Carver has not settled into any “trend” that I can see. There are the wonderful “realists” such as Alice Munro and William Trevor, and the great experimentalists such as David Means and Joy Williams, and the terrific fabulists such as George Saunders and Steven Millhauser. I don’t see any settled trends in the future of the short story—hopefully just lots of great short stories. Although I would mention a trend I have not seen before, one that pleases me: the new interest in the short story in England.
It is often said by critics and writers alike that the short story is a fundamentally American form. Why do you think this is and is it a fair statement to make today?
I think that notion that the short story is an American form basically comes from the influence of the publishing industry in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Since it took a while for good copyright laws to protect British novels, it was easy for American publishers to pirate those novels; so why should they publish American novelists? Magazines took up the slack, and the short story was an ideal narrative form for those magazines. Magazines paid pretty good money for short stories up through the 1940s in America. Now short stories seem to have gone the way of poetry—written by dedicated artists who love the form even though they cannot make any money from it, and largely read by other short story writers or wanna-be short story writers in MFA programs, where the form has become a favoured teaching tool, since novels are too large and unwieldly for classroom discussions and too much work for teachers to read.
Carver would have been a great short-story writer no matter where he was born or where he practiced his art. In some ways, since Chekhov was his greatest mentor, he may be more Russian than American. I have read all of Carver’s stories, including those very early pieces he wrote while a student at Chico State and Humboldt State in California. Despite what other lovers of Carver want to believe (and I am one of those fervent Carver fans), all that editing that Gordon Lish forced on him for his first two collections made his stories much better than they would have been otherwise.
I talk about Carver’s mastery of the short story form in my book Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies , as well as all these issues you raise. A thorough understanding of Carver’s mastery answers many of the questions you pose here about the form’s mixing of the romantic and realistic, its emphasis on endings, its refusal to provide explanations, its experimental nature, etc.
Interview by Rupert Dastur / The Short Story / 7th August 2015