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The Short Story Is Not a Single Genre sample essay

The short story, whist difficult to define, has a number of common traits which can be attributed to each story. John Bowland admits: “In truth there have been hundreds of efforts to define this most elusive and tantalising of fictional forms.” Whilst it can be claimed the short story genre is impossible to classify, attempts include that of Pritchett, who believes: “The novel tells us everything, whereas the short story tells us only one thing, and that intensely.” According to Heather Ingman “certain themes recur through different historical periods – exile, dislocation, dreams, memory, time, spirituality, death, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, childhood, the family.” These themes, and many others, are prevalent in many short stories, and being such a wide and varies genre allows for individual writers to place their own stamp on their respective stories. William Trevor claims that the short story is “the art of the glimpse.”

This intensity and the ability of the writer to plunge the reader headfirst into the timeline of a unique and acute microworld is one shared characteristic of the short story. This Janice- like ability for the writer to allow the reader to speculate and imagine both the background and past for the characters, and to attempt to envisage the future in a snapshot view. O’Connor talks about this search for a telling moment as a “struggle with time’s majestic rhythms.” Typical of the choice of time is Edna O’Brien’s ‘Chords’, where Claire’s mother’s visit shows the past in her rural Irish traditional values clashes with the more bohemian, contemporary young London friends at her dinner party. Clare Boylan in the introduction to her collection of short stories says the short story “I have always loved the economy and deftness of the short story. .is an incident crystallized in time yet it is also a pathfinder.” (5)

The economy which Boylan mentions creates an intensity, and a purity of form which is created by a distillation of words into only those completely necessary. Irish short story writer Brian McLaverty claims that: “In short stories every word has to count”. This limited amount of space and opportunity for extended description of the plot and situation is where vigilant word choice becomes paramount. With the Dubliners being the paradigm for the Irish short story, Joyces’ fascination with language undulates throughout his consecutive writers. “Joyce’s writing, and particularly Finnegan’s Wake, exhibits and awareness of playing close attention to the operations of language at the phonemic level and suggests that ‘every word, letter, penstroke, and paperspace is a perfect signature of its own.” (Roughly 5)

Along with this attention to language, there is also a tendency to focus on the minute details of the situation. Clare Boylan in her introduction to her collection of short stories supports this: “I love the feeling with the short story that the world is in the detail and that small random acts can set ordinary lives alight or consume them to ash.” Marcus furthers this claiming: “The short story writer’s basic and essential gift must be his approach to the material of life, his vision of the world around him, the outlook that is exclusive alone by virtue of his particular emotional and intellectual chemistry: in other words his way of seeing; if his way of seeing is sufficiently individual, differentiated, and if to it is added a gift of expression both above average and out of the ordinary, then you have a short story writer.” (12) One such example of a writer who focuses on intimate insights into the worlds of his characters is Irish writer Michael Mc Laverty.

His focus is often on the private worlds of those in submerged population groups; those on the fringes of society, similar to more contemporary stories such as those of immigrants in Dublin society in Roddy Doyle’s ‘The Deportees’. “McLaverty’s stories constitute small private worlds whose relationships to the larger public worlds beyond are… implicit, oblique, problematic.” (Foster 250) His depiction of Mr Craig in “The Poteen Maker” highlights the life of a brilliant, but almost tragically alcoholic teacher through the details observed by a pupil. Heaney wrote on Michael McLaverty: “His language is temperate, eager only in its pursuit of exactitude.” (1)

‘The Exercise’ by Bernard McLaverty brilliantly focuses on human relationships, carefully balancing dialogue and narrative voice to portray the nuances and tensions through everyday detail, for example Kevin watching his father shave: “His father towered above him trying to get at the mirror, pointing his chin upwards scraping underneath..his father finished shaving, humped his back and spluttered in the basin. Kevin heard him pull the plug and the final gasp as the water escaped. He groped for the towel then genuflected beside him drying his face.” These detailed descriptions allow for an immediate connection with the reader, and provide a focus the audience can grasp on to, allowing their imagination to fill in the blanks.

It is claimed that the Irish tradition of the short story is “a response to the peculiar frustrations and conflicts of modern Irish life” (Averill 3) Therefore the Irish short story is a pertinent example of how the genre in all its colourful variations, categorised under the same term. Kiberd states: “By nature of its origins, the form was admirably suited to the task of reflecting the disturbances in Irish society as it painfully shed its ancient traditions.. but the short story is particularly appropriate to a society in which revolutionary upheavals have shattered every idea of normality.” (14) The theme of nationality appears in many other stories such as Edna O’Brien’s’ ’Cords’ and Liam O’ Flaherty’s ‘Going Into Exile’, and is also prominent across European short stories as a whole.

This connection between the Irish society and its history, and the genre gave birth to it is based on the claim that the economic hardship, colonial history and tribal community somehow influenced the emergence of an Irish short story as we see it today. Often the stories act as a method of confronting the issue that made the environment stifling for the writers, who are often in exile themselves, for example the anti-clerical nature of some McGahern’s stories. Perhaps then in the short story, and particularly the example of the Irish short story, this connection to Ireland and the “nets” of religion, tradition and nationalism which Joyce through Daedalus mentions, is impossible for Irish writers to fully escape irrelevant how varied their stories and or backgrounds.

In the wide ranging and indefinable short story genre there is enough scope for difference whilst remaining in the genre’s remit. Whilst a multitude of strong and viable connections can be made within each short story in terms of repeating themes, language, and layout, each short story has the power to stand alone as a unique and rounded piece of literature. Caroline Walsh perhaps best answers the essay question with her concluding comments in her introduction to the collection of Short Stories “Arrows in Flight”: “It would be possible to go on sifting through these stories indefinitely, identifying this or that linking thread. It may or may not enhance a reading of the individual stories, each of which is, above all, complete in itself: the work of a distinctive, assured voice saying something original in a well-crafted way.” (15)

Works Cited

Averill, Deborah M. ‘Part 1 the Irish Short Story tradition: Introduction.’ The Irish Short Story from George Moore to Frank O’Connor. London: University Press of America, 1982. 3- 25. Boylan, Clare. ‘Introduction.’ Clare Boylan: The Collected Stories. Abacus, 2000. 5. Foster, John. Private Worlds: The Stories of Michael McLaverty. Heaney, S. ‘Introduction.’ Collected Short Stories of Michael McLaverty With an Introduction by Seamus Heaney. Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2012. Joyce, James. Portait of the Artist as a Young Man. London: Wordsworth Classics, 1992 Joyce, James. Dubliners. London: Penguin Books, 1992.

Kiberd, Declan. ‘Story Telling: The Gaelic Tradition.’ The Irish Short Story. Ed. Patrick Rofroidi and Terence Brown. Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe Ltd, 1979. 13 – 23. Marcus, D. ‘Introduction.’ Book of Irish Short Stories. Selected and introduced by David Marcus. London: The Bodley Head, 1980. 11- 16. O’ Connor, Frank. The New York Times Book Review. October 12, 1952. 18. In Frank O’Connor and the Desolation of Reality. 190- 20. Roughly, Alan. ‘Chapter 1 Structuralism and Structuralist Joyce.’ James Joyce and Critical Theory An Introduction. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991. 3- 5. Walsh, Caloline. ‘Introduction’. Arrows in Flight Stories from a New Ireland. Ed. Caroline Walsh. London: Scribner TownHouse, 2002. 7- 15.

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