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Why Do We Still Love the Short Story?

Short story first became popular in the United States of America as an effort to create a distinct form of American literature separate from European styles. 

The following excerpt comes from the book A Short History of the Short Story: Western and Asian Traditions by Gulnaz Fatma.

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Numerous causes have led to the short story’s development as a popular form of literature. The rapid development of the short story in modern times is largely due to the hectic schedule of life that does not allow people to devote enough time to reading the lengthy epics, novels, and plays that appealed to earlier readers. Now, people can hardly afford to read lengthy novels like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) and Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), the latter the longest novel in the English language at roughly 2,600 pages, because it takes a long time to read fiction continuously. Modern readers want to read short stories for recreation so they can forget the worries of the world for a while and relax after a hard day’s work. Furthermore, the short story can be read quickly in one sitting; it does not require careful perusal or a second reading to understand it, as might a poem. For these reasons, the short story has attracted readers’ attention and become a popular form of literature.

The modern short story first came into vogue with the growth of journalism, resulting in its publication in all types of magazines and journals. While the short story first became popular in the United States of America as an effort to create a distinct form of American literature separate from European styles, its popularity quickly grew in Europe. The reason for the short story’s popularity in Europe was twofold; the more alert writers accepted the classicist code of unity and proportion, and it gained the hospitality of Parisian journalism, which had always been close to literature. The French do not publish many magazines, perhaps because their newspapers have enough scope in them for artistic appreciation and their readers often logically felt everything they needed they could find in these publications. The daily journals of Paris were the first to publish most of the short stories of Fromental Halévy (1799-1862), Jean Richepin (1849-1926), and François Coppée (1842-1908). And whenever the list of the world’s most admirable short stories is prepared, it definitely contains more than one of the amusing fantasies of Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897).

While the short story flourished in the United States and France in the nineteenth century, it was not given due weight during this time by the well-known British men of letters, for various reasons, including that Poe was viewed as excelling all others as the writer who gave a perfect form to the short story for the first time. Also, in England, the magazines tended to publish serialized novels, which could not obtain such popularity in America in that format. Furthermore, the large English reading public had a variety of interests, which they did not feel American fiction could fulfill, and the English tended still to see their writers as superior to American authors.

Following the age of Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe, American short story writers began to give local color to stories as well as to indulge in humor, sentimentality, feminist themes, and realism. Northern and Southern writers in the United States differed in their forms of sincerity and their presentations due to the size, variety, and different experiences of the American people. They described people of all kinds and intro­duced readers to their fellow citizens in other parts of the country, thereby broadening their out­look. In no other country had such an explora­tion relating to con­temporary humanity been achieved—perhaps because in no other country could such an expe­ri­ment of multi­cultural­ism have succeeded.

Short stories began with the oral storytelling tradition, which led to the composition of epics such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. These oral narratives were based on rhythmic verse, which included Homeric epithets; such stylistic devices served the purpose of mnemonics, which made the memorization of the story an easier task. Short stories in the form of verse laid emphasis on individuals’ narratives, which were related hurriedly.

The refined form of the short story emerged from various develop­ments relating to this genre, such as brief tales having a moral, as asserted by the Greek historian Herodotus who, in the sixth century B.C., first narrated the tales of a Greek slave named Aesop, although other interpretations relating to his country and age are also given. These ancient stories came to be known as Aesop’s Fables.

Fables typically were stories of animals who could talk and who resembled human beings in many other respects; although Aesop’s Fables were written down, most fables were stories related orally, and they continued to be narrated by one generation to the next. These oral legends and beast fables were both long and precise, with beast fables gaining the greatest popularity. From this collection of fables, Bidpai and Aesop selected stories, which were improved by refined narrative artists such as Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695), whose collected fables were didactic and satiric in spirit.

Every fable contains a moral, even though it is not necessarily found at the story’s end. The ethical aspect highlighted by the storyteller in an animal story can be found in the medieval European fables of Reynard the Fox, or more recently in the Br’er Rabbit stories of Uncle Remus (1881) collected by Joel Chandler Harris from African-Americans in the Southern United States. A very apt moral is also present in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894), where the writer describes Mowgli’s growth to manhood in the company of Nature. These beast fables are entertaining and reflect the artistic skill of the author, who is sensitive about the changing aspects of life. However, such beast fables only have a slight resemblance to a short story.

Another early short story form popular in medieval Rome was the anecdote. The anecdote resembled parables with a realistic narration that provided food for thought. These Roman anecdotes were compiled in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and were known as Gesta Romanorum. The anecdote was popular in Europe until the eighteenth century, influencing such works as the anecdotal fictional depiction of Sir Roger De Coverley, a character in English authors Addison and Steele’s publication The Spectator (1711).

Other early brief tales that are considered precursors to the short story are tales of supernatural background. Many of these stories were Egyptian narratives, such as “The Tale of the Two Brothers” (circa 1200 B.C.) and “The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor” (circa 1600-2000 B.C.), which exist on ancient papyrus manuscripts. Also some supernatural stories were found in the pages of Herodotus (484-425 B.C.), who was primarily a historian but gifted with the art of storyt­elling.

Surprisingly, the Greeks, during their period of decline, were more inclined to write prose, while during the height of their glory they found expression through poetry; none of the nine muses were ever assigned any task relating to the composition or inspiration of prose fiction. The best brief stories in Latin, such as Petronius’ “The Matron of Ephesus” in his Satyricon (1st century A.D.) with its satiric ingen­uity, attracted the attention of modern poets who adapted the tales in their own style.

Because the novel became the dominant literary form in the nine­teenth century, it is noteworthy that novels often contained short stories within them. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605 and 1615) contains one minor narrative that merely expanded his novel without improving it; similar experiments were made by Paul Scarron in Le Roman comique (1651-1659), Henry Fielding in Tom Jones

About the Author

Gulnaz Fatma is an Indian writer and author. She is a research scholar in the Department of English at Aligarh Muslim University in Aligarh, India. Fatma is a dynamic personality in literature studies who has published many articles in national and international journals. She is the author of a grammar book published by KGA Publications, and she is currently writing a novel on the themes of immigration and multi­culturalism.

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  1. […] (This article was originally published in Staug News, Nov. 1, 2012) […]