Making the Case for the American Story
This past year the National Book Award celebrated its 60th anniversary by conducting a public poll to select the best work of fiction that had won the award. To make the short list for this poll, the National Book Foundation balloted a number of select writers to pick their three favorite winners. Interestingly, four out the six books chosen were short story collections—the collected stories of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and John Cheever respectively. Only two were novels—Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”—which suggests that there should be a different focus in the traditionally novel-dominated study of 20th century American literature.
There is an inherent prejudice in literary culture against the story as a lesser art form than the novel. Literary critics are obsessed with arguing about the so-called Great American Novel, but one never hears a debate about what could be termed the Great American Story. Many claim that the short story is dead, arguing that most contemporary writers write stories while in school as a mere stepping stone to eventually writing novels. Ironically, the short story is the most organic American literary form, largely developed by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Aside from the historical roots of the story, there seems to be a valid argument that the short story is better suited to capture the flavor of American life.
The short story offers inherent advantages over the novel, stemming simply from the length, which imposes a certain focus and brevity on the author’s prose. The writer can simply offer an evocative scene, without the pressure of maintaining plot momentum and design over the course of a full-length novel. Perhaps the greatest strength of the form is that the story relies so heavily on what is left unsaid. Every gesture, every phrase, every detail in a great story takes on additional significance since it both signals the literal action and evokes everything that is left out of a scene.
No writer better exemplifies the importance of the unspoken than Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor’s fiction features the recurring Catholic themes of the fallen nature of man, grotesque humanity, and violent salvation. Many of her stories climax with a confrontation between two archetypal characters. One is often an entitled southern lady with a superior attitude, while the other figure is typically of a lower-class, seemingly ignorant or naïve. The tension gradually builds throughout the story until it is released when the working-class character suddenly attacks or humiliates his privileged counterpart. This kind of reversal, which occurs so often in O’Connor’s work, not only highlights the sinful arrogance of humanity but also overturns the social dynamics of Southern society. The condensed structure of the short story is the perfect form for O’Connor’s exercise in vicious catharsis. These brutal acts of violence become a radical form of the Catholic concept of grace. In O’Connor’s fiction, God’s grace manifests itself in the human world through violence, and the reaction of mankind is often no more than ambivalence or even scorn.
But the fate of O’Connor’s characters after they experience a moment of grace is often left unresolved. At the end of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the reader cannot know if the infamous criminal “The Misfit” will reform his life after murdering the family’s grandmother. In the story “Good Country People,” Hulga Hopewell is left trapped on the top floor of a barn when her artificial leg is stolen by a Bible salesman. It is unclear whether any character will be saved or change in any way. It is what is left unsaid and unresolved that lends these stories their impact.
The particular strengths of O’Connor’s writing are perfectly fitted to the form of the short story, which becomes increasingly apparent by comparing her short fiction with her novel “Wise Blood.” The novel follows the many disturbing encounters of the sardonic prophet Hazel Motes, who preaches the idea of the “Church Without Christ” while wandering through the South. Accordingly, the novel seems to be a series of stories strung together, but the incidents and violence lose their sting when compiled on top of each other without the tight structure in O’Connor’s short fiction. The emotional power of each shocking episode is slowly diluted to the point where Hazel’s ultimate death becomes anesthetized.
The conclusion of “Wise Blood” seems almost tacked-on, simply to leave the reader with a sense of finality. At the end of the book the corpse of Hazel Motes is returned to his boarding house after he runs away because his landlady is pressuring him to marry her. The novel comes to a close as the landlady looks into Hazel’s eyes “trying to see how she had been cheated or what had cheated her, but she couldn’t see anything... she felt as if she were blocked at the entrance of something.” While the endings of many of O’Connor’s short stories leave her reader with a sense of unease and uncertainty towards the human condition, “Wise Blood” ends with a scene of banal mystery that is not worth exploring.
Some may argue it is unfair to judge the difference between short and long fiction by examining an author such as Flannery O’Connor who is acclaimed for her stories and not her novels. However, this somewhat lopsided example conveys the specific strengths of the short story. While not offering the complex world of a novel, a short story collection can offer genuine snapshots of real human activity. Perhaps American life is better represented through these short visions than through the grand and singular narrative of a novel.
—Columnist Theodore J. Gioia can be reached at email@example.com.