A look at the short-story and some of its best exponents across the literary landscape
I recall an English teacher once asking the class to write a short-story on any subject they chose. His only instruction was, ‘Keep it short, keep it simple!’ And that is really the art of the short-story. It goes without saying that to write an outstanding short-story and still adhere to those rules requires a special kind of talent. Short story writing in the latter part of the 19thcentury and the first half of the 20thcentury was a task undertaken by most writers of the time. I cannot include them all but will use one or two to illustrate my point. In recent times the only place you will find short-stories on a regular basis are in Sunday Supplements or women’s magazines. Or as they are now known, ‘gender specific publications!’ (Dear Lord and Father of mankind forgive our foolish ways!)
Story telling in its oral form goes back into the mists of history. For one thing it was a device to sooth frightened children or to help them get to sleep. Although when I was a small child trying to get to sleep I remember my Dad’s voice reciting, ‘One dark and stormy night three robbers sat in a cave. The eldest said to the youngest, ‘Tell us a tale…’ Nightmares! Gradually the short- story became a written art and by the nineteenth century had a number of authors purveying their talents. The father of the short-story is generally regarded as the American Edgar Allan Poe.(Photo below) Believed to be the first writer to live on the income from his work his poem ‘The Raven’ established him on the literary scene. Two of his short-stories ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and ‘ The Fall of the House of Usher’ are generally recognised as helping the short-story become an accepted literary genre. He is also credited with writing the first detective story, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’ It would be 47 years before Sherlock Holmes appeared on the scene.
Poe died in 1849 at the age of 40. His rather disjointed and peripatetic lifestyle had not helped his health problems. The cause of death is worthy of a short-story. Take your pick it seems. Cholera, consumption, rabies, heart disease, meningitis, etc, etc!!!
Whatever his health problems Edgar Allan Poe (He was just plain Edgar Poe, but both his parents died young and he was taken in care by a John Allan.) had set the standard bar high for future short-story writers. Mark Twain’s place in American literary history, indeed world history is based on ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and his chum Huckleberry Finn. However Twain was a prolific short-story writer and produced around sixty of them. My favourite short-story title is from the Twain oeuvre. ‘ The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.’ More fable than story like most of his stories humour plays a big part. Twain’s most famous quote is, ‘Reports of my death have been exaggerated.’ Not to mention, ‘Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority it is time to pause and reflect.’ The sixty odd stories are still in print but are not particularly famous outside the USA. They are good, but not great. Mark Twain took his name from the cry of the Mississippi riverboat men as they tested the water depth. ‘By the mark, twain!’ I think I would have stuck with Samuel Langhorne Clemens which is a great name.
Sam Clemens not withstanding the most famous author of the 19thcentury is surely Charles Dickens. (Jane Austen’s fame did not really blossom into full-blown adoration until the 20thcentury). Dickens most famous short-story is ‘The Signal-Man.’ The protagonist of the story being invested with supernatural vision it is a horror story that Stephen King would be proud of. Dickens did like a ghost story and included them in his short-story collections. Despite rumours to the contrary Dickens and Twain never met. Twain did attend a reading given by Dickens in New York on one of his American tours.
Another American short-story writer still remembered is William Sydney Porter who went by the pen-name of O. Henry. This author had a rather colourful life. His first wife died quite young, his second left him and somewhere along the way he was sentenced to five years imprisonment for embezzling money from the bank in which he worked! None of this deterred him from achieving fame on the New York literary scene of the early 20thcentury. His most famous creation was the Cisco Kid. Most of his short-stories dealt with the ordinary people of New York City. ‘The Gift of the Magi’ probably being his best story. In this a destitute husband and wife want to buy each other a Christmas present. The lady sells her hair and the gentleman sells his fob watch. With the money they receive the lady buys a new chain for the fob watch and the gentleman buys special combs for the lady’s hair. Read on!
Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay in 1865. (Photo above) A child of the Raj he spent his early years in India before he and his sister were sent to school in England. The married couple in Southsea who looked after them were cruel and nasty people. Only holidays with an Aunt in London saved his childhood from total disaster. Early journalism back in India pushed him towards a writing career. He was a novelist, a poet and a writer of short-stories. Later in life he would write the radio script for the first Christmas message by a reigning monarch. This was George V in 1932. The Jungle Book is regarded as a masterpiece of children’s writing. There was also The Jungle Book Stories, a collection of short stories for children. He would write many short stories in his lifetime, perhaps the most famous being ‘The Man Who Would be King.’ In 1907 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature the youngest recipient then and now. A hundred years ago Kipling was one of the literary worlds favourite writers. As the twentieth century moved on long-forgotten critics started to claim he was an imperialist, a racist, his stories were rubbish and so on and so forth. Strangely enough in India the criticism was not always against him. What the moronic critics could not get their small brains around was the fact that Kipling was a child of his time! 99.9 % of the Western World were racist in the latter half of the nineteenth century and beyond. The term was not even used. It was just their way of life. People really do need to stop judging the past by the politically-correct, risk-averse nonsense that passes for criticism in 2019! People will be reading Kipling for some time yet.
Another author who used the Asian continent for some of his most famous stories was one William Somerset Maugham. As the career of Kipling came to its end Maugham’s star was burning bright. His first novel in 1908 had been a best-seller and his plays matched any other playwright in turns of production on the West–end stage. In the 1930’s he was believed to be the country’s highest paid author. He is often criticised for his ‘plain prose’ but his plots and character descriptions are a joy to read. I think I had read most of his stories before I was 20 years old. Having gone to school in the Far East his stories set there held a certain resonance for me. He wrote most of his short-stories between 1920 and 1945. His Ashenden stories set in the world of intelligence provided Ian Fleming with the idea of creating his very own secret agent! His most famous story is ‘Rain’ set in Hong Kong and describes the collision of culture between a prostitute, ‘Sadie Thompson’ and a missionary. My own favourite is probably the ‘Book-Bag. ‘ It involves the taboo subject of incest and unrequited love on behalf of the lovelorn District Officer. The Bag in question is a laundry bag full of books which the narrator carries with him everywhere he goes. He is addicted to books and does not wish to run out of reading material. I quite like him!
Hector Hugh Munro was born in Burma in 1870. His father was a member of the Imperial Indian Police Force. Following the death of his mother he and his siblings returned to England and lived a morbid childhood with two maiden aunts. Hector became a journalist and this eventually led to his career as a writer, publishing novels, but mainly short-stories of which there were many. Writing under the pen-name ‘SAKI’ he is known for his satirical edge particular when describing politicians in his stories. He wrote 138 stories in all and his most famous collection is probably ‘Beasts and Super Beasts.’ ‘The Open Window’ remains at the top of most peoples lists as his most famous story. The First World War would bring it all to an end. He lied about his age to join up (He was 44 and did not have to go) He declined a commission and served as a trooper. He was in a shell-crater at Beaumont Hamel when he was shot in the head by a German sniper. Compared to O.Henry by many critics he remains one of the outstanding short-story writers of the twentieth century.
Following on the success of Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain came two American authors whose fame was probably even greater. F. Scott Fitzgerald (Photo below) was born in 1896. Brought up mainly in Buffalo New York although he was born in St Paul Minnesota. His family were not well off but rich enough to provide him with a good education although he dropped out of Princeton and joined the Army in 1917 but never finished training in time to take part in any action. His drinking and writing started around 1920 when his first novel ‘This Side of Paradise ‘ was published. The profits from the first year were good but Fitzgerald turned reluctantly to writing short-stories to supplement his income. He published four collections and had 164 stories published in various periodicals. His most famous story is probably ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.’ Renowned as a writer of ‘The Jazz Age’ in the twenties he met up with Ernest Hemingway while living in Paris. However Fitzgerald’s fame rested on two novels, ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Tender is the Night.’ The latter being the better book in my humble opinion. His short-stories were written to maintain his income and are good but ‘Benjamin Button’ apart nothing great.
Hemingway on the other hand was a different kind of writer all together. Short-stories were invented for him! A writer who never used two words where one would do is sometimes claimed to be responsible for the most famous short short-story. “For sale, baby shoes. Never worn.” Much debate that in a slightly different form the words used pre-date Hemingway. Whoever wrote it the words are sad but brilliant.
Hemingway produced a number of great novels in his lifetime but in between his masterpieces he would publish collections of short-stories. ‘The First 49’ is probably his most famous collection and contains his best short-story. ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro.’ A story about a man on safari with his friend Helen towards whom he has a somewhat ambivalent attitude. The man has contracted gangrene but the party has run out of medicine and their truck has broken down. The story centres around Harry, the man in question, as he reminisces about his past life.
Hemingway published over a hundred short-stories in collections and single stories for magazines. A number of his collections were published posthumously. In 1952 he published what would be his final novel, ‘The Old Man and the Sea.’ In 1954 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Ernest Hemingway was born on 21 July 1899. On 2 July 1961 at his home in Ketchum Idaho he rose early. He sat in a chair in the doorway leading to the verandah facing the rising sun. He put the two barrels of his Bess rifle into his mouth and pulled both triggers. A sad and tragic end to a great career. His family tried to pass it off as a shooting accident. The post-mortem put paid to that suggestion. The Hemingways were a indeed a tragic family. His father, brother and sister committed suicide. Almost thirty-five years to the day of his suicide Hemingway’s grand-daughter Margaux committed suicide. How tragic can a family get? It is an awful legacy to hold. What we have to hold is the writing of Hemingway regarded by many as the greatest writer in American literary history.
Raymond Carver was born in Oregon in 1938. He wrote only short-stories or poems. A restless spirit he moved from place to place in the USA and occasionally travelled to England. He was an admirer of Hemingway but claimed not to be influenced by him. The brevity and anger in some of his stories tended to prove otherwise. He cited Lawrence Durrell as an influence which came as a surprise to me! Durrell’s style and content is far removed from that of Raymond Carver. However Raymond Carver invested a lot of his stories with humour and grit. Not for him the high wealth of the very rich but those down on their luck and short of a dime. His most famous stories are ‘Will You Please be Quiet Please?’ And ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.’ Raymond Carver brought to the American short-story the world of the ordinary made extra-ordinary by the way he wrote. He is well remembered in American literary circles. Sadly the author was a heavy drinker until he was forty when a doctor warned him that he would be dead within months if he continued. He stopped drinking but carried on smoking and in 1988 aged just fifty he died of lung cancer.
As you can imagine some of the stories mentioned in this blog have had to be revisited and the authors researched. It is a labour of love I will admit. I read a lot of Ray Bradbury in my younger days. (Where did the time go!?) However I never knew that much about him. Reading up on his life story has made me elevate him to the status as one of the great writers of American Literature. I love this quote:
‘Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.’
Ray Bradbury was born in Illinois in 1920. The family moved to Tucson Arizona before finally settling in Los Angeles. As a young child one of his aunts read short stories to him on a regular basis. He was 14 when the family arrived in L.A and he thought he had arrived in paradise. (aka: Hollywood!) He soon made the right contacts and while still fourteen earned his first fee as a writer by selling a joke to George Burns for use on the Burns and Allen Radio Show.’ The young Bradbury made his way around Hollywood on roller-skates. He would head for the entrances of all the major studios in the hope of getting autographs from his heroes and heroines.
This quote from Google is worth reading: Ray Bradbury was an American fantasy and horror author who rejected being categorized as a science fiction author, claiming that his work was based on the fantastical and unreal. His best known novel is Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian study of future American society in which critical thought is outlawed.
‘Critical thought is outlawed?’ The way political correctness is going in this country we may not be too far away from that dystopian future? Meanwhile back at ‘Fahrenheit 451. ‘ For those who do not know, that is the temperature at which paper spontaneously combusts. It is a brilliant story and much to everyone’s surprise the film mostly kept faith with the book. The book was written in a library study room where there were typewriters for rent. The rental costs were $9:80c! However that book and film were from the fifties. Bradbury published his first collection of short-stories, ‘Dark Carnival’ in 1947. Before that he had attended many various informal and formal gatherings of science-fiction writers in and around L.A. Following ‘the publication of ‘ Fahrenheit 451’ his fame became world -wide and he became richer by the day! ‘The Martian Chronicles’ soon followed. Ray Bradbury had a vivid imagination that was far- reaching and capable of producing an extraordinary vision of the future. Early in his career he proclaimed that he would write everyday and proceeded to do so for the next sixty-nine years! He produced writing for film and TV, over thirty novels and more than six hundred short- stories. It is difficult to name his best short-story. The one that is usually at the top of most lists is ‘I Sing the Body Electric.’ His short-stories were published in various journals and newspapers. Then the best ones would be assembled in a collection. ‘The Illustrated Man’ is one such collection featuring the title story and eighteen other excellent stories. ‘The Illustrated Man’ was made into a feature film starring Rod Steiger. Made back in 1969, a mere fifty years ago!
Sadly on 5 June 2012 Ray Bradbury died in his beloved Los Angeles at the age of 92. He left a remarkable legacy.
Stephen King! Say those two words and ‘The Shining, ‘Carrie,’ ‘ Misery, ’et al come to mind. He has sold over 350 million books! However he has also produced around 150 short-stories. His last collection, ‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams,’ was published in 2015. Nearly all of his stories are written in his usual horror genre. I have not read all his stories as I am not a fan of the genre. My favourite King story is ‘The Shawshank Redemption.’ More thriller than anything else it is a brilliant story. One short-story I have read is, ‘The Breathing Method.’ It concerns a doctor who has instructed a pregnant patient on a breathing method to adopt when the baby arrives. On his way home he comes across a road traffic accident involving his patient. To his horror he finds that his patient has been decapitated. But not only that, her head is still controlling her body! Read on……. (Do not read this story on your own in an isolated creaking cottage where there has been a power failure and the only light is by candles!). Stephen King has always been interested in the mechanics of writing and it is to his credit that he carries the banner for short-story writing in the 21stcentury.
There are so many writers I could have mentioned at length. D. H Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy, H.E.Bates, E.M. Forster, Joseph Conrad, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce; the list is endless!
But this is already a long piece of writing about Short– Stories! So it is time to give you my top three greatest writers of the short-story in my humble opinion.
In third place I would put Anton Chekhov. More famous for his plays, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, the Cherry Orchard and The Seagull. All are regularly staged around the world in this century. Chekhov was born in Russia in 1860. He qualified as a doctor but it was never a rewarding profession as Dr Chekhov tended to treat the poor people in his care free of charge. He started writing while at university and in his early twenties started making connections that would advance his literary career. Also in his twenties he developed early signs of tuberculosis but managed to treat himself and hold it at bay. He is seen as a landmark playwright in that his characters spoke as normal people. Not for him the usual type of speech in other plays of the day with archaic language and long boring declamations. He brought changes to the writing of short-stories which would influence the writing style of future writers. He would lay the characters before the reader and provide their conversations but there was rarely a defining plot with a beginning, a middle and an end. More a start and a finish and the reader could work it all out! He wrote over two hundred stories all to a very high standard. Raymond Carver thought of him as the greatest writer of short-stories. Most lists of his stories would place ‘The Party’ and ‘The Lady with the Dog’ at the top. However choose any Chekhov story to read and you will be impressed. He married a lady called Olga in 1901. A strange arrangement in that she continued her acting career in Moscow and he his writing career in Yalta. In June 1904 they both travelled to a spa in Germany for rest and recuperation. His tuberculosis was now a serious issue. A month later he died at the age of 44. A great loss to the world of literature. In Russia he is placed second behind Leo Tolstoy on their list of great Russian writers. Chekhov had met Tolstoy when the great man came to stay with him on one occasion.
In second place I would put a French author by the name of Guy de Maupassant. Named by many as the father of the modern short-story his three hundred plus short-stories inspired Somerset Maugham and O. Henry among many other writers of the twentieth century. He was born near Dieppe in 1850. By the time he had entered his teenage years his mother had obtained a separation from his father. A brave lady in a male dominated society! She would be the great influence on his life and provided guidance and advice to her son. His working life began in the Civil Service and he did not publish his first story until he was thirty. It proved to be his masterpiece. French is an elegant language and if I tell you the story was called ‘Boule de Suif’ it just rolls off the tongue? Then we translate it to English and it becomes ‘Ball of Suet!’ Not quite rolling off the tongue! It is a brilliant story of the class system that operated in France during the Franco-Prussian war. The title of the story is the name given to a prostitute who travels in a coach with people who see themselves as above talking to her. Until they have to! The published story was an immediate success and the author started to publish collections on an almost annual basis. Within twelve years he had written over three hundred stories. Yet at the age of just 42 he died from syphilis first contracted in his twenties. His last months of life were full of pain and madness and he died in Paris in 1893. Despite his short career his stories placed him in the pantheon of great writers and like Chekhov it would be hard to find a poorly written story.
And so to first place. In the non-English speaking world it is likely that Chekhov or de Maupassant would be in first place. In America every writer on the ‘greatest’ list would be American. But here in England on my list I give you Katherine Mansfield.
Katherine was born in Wellington New Zealand in 1888. A daughter of a well-off family she and her sisters attended school in London from 1903 until 1906 when she returned to New Zealand. Finding life there rather mundane she returned to London in 1908 where she found life more exciting. She had started writing while at school and had various articles published. Her tangled love life and fragile health provided an impetus to keep writing. She married a George Bowden and promptly left him within twenty-four hours! It would take her nine years to obtain a divorce and marry John Murry with whom she had an on off, maybe, maybe not relationship! All in addition to tempestuous affairs with her female and male lovers. Into this mix were added friendships with D H Lawrence and his wife not to mention Virginia and Leonard Woolf! Her first published collection was in 1911. ‘In a German Pension’ provided the reader with stories that reflected the time she had spent in Germany. In later years Katherine would describe this collection as ‘immature.’ Some critics accused her of plagiarizing Chekhov which was a little unfair. She may have copied his modernist style but the ideas for the stories were all her own. Chekhov was indeed her inspiration but as she published individual stories in various magazines critics came to realise that here was a writer worth noting. She now travelled regularly between London and Paris usually to avoid the English winter. But tuberculosis is a pernicious and unrelenting disease. Various doctors did their best but their treatments proved futile. By the time her second collection ‘Bliss’ was published in 1920 the author must have known her life was coming to a premature end. The collection was well received and Katherine continued to write. Her collection ‘The Garden Party’ was published in 1922 to great acclaim. She moved to Fontainebleau near Paris in late 1922. On 9 January 1923 she died at the age of 34. Such a sad waste of a life. Along with de Maupassant and Chekhov they could have given us another hundred years of writing? What stories have we lost? ‘The Garden Party’ is a masterpiece of writing. It deals with the class system and is beautifully observed. A marquee is being erected for the party when a young workman is killed by an accident with a falling pole. The dilemma for the family is do they cancel the party in memory of the young man? Or as he is not one of the family do they continue? Read on! Another of her stories about the class system is the ‘Life of Ma Parker.’ I had to write an analysis of this story as part of my O.U degree course. I must have another look at it some time! After her death John Murry published posthumous collections of his wife’s stories. He did much to make sure her name was enshrined in the history of short-story writing and I certainly did not need convincing!
Katherine Mansfield by day and by night
Much revered in New Zealand a statue of Katherine was finally erected in Wellington ninety years after her death. Much debate in New Zealand about whether she would ever have returned to the country of her birth. It is of little consequence to the reader as her work is available wherever you live. (Well maybe not North Korea!)
All that you have read is my subjective opinion and other people would probably compile a completely different list. If you have not been inclined to read short-stories before I hope this blog persuades you to try one or two. Most them can be found in charity bookshops and some websites publish them for free!
Recommended Reading List:
Katherine Mansfield – Selected Stories– OXFORD WORLD CLASSICS
Guy de Maupassant – Bed 29 and other stories– available on Amazon
Anton Chekhov – The Steppe and other stories – Penguin Classics
Somerset Maugham – Collected Short Stories Vols 1 -4– Penguin Books
The Stories of Raymond Carver – Picador Books
Stephen King – Everything’s Eventual – New English Library
Ernest Hemingway – The First Forty – Nine Stories – Arrow Classics
…and I could not let my recommended list be published without a mention of….
‘The Perfect Dinner Party and other Word Gatherings’ by Rod Pickles!
Still available on Amazon Kindle!