Short Story Theories

I just want to advocate here, if you’ll forgive me, for big-T Theory and what it can do to enrich our understanding of short stories specifically.
There’s a divide—and we all know there’s a divide—that stands between segments of those committed to literary criticism and literary writing. I can’t claim to know how big either tribe is, or even that this is some kind of huge problem (especially in 2018, a year of huge problems).

It’s almost stereotypical, the way a mysterious frostiness can exist between an English Department and a Creative Writing Department within the same university. From the writers’ side, a reason I’ve heard from keeping their distance is an aversion to Theory.
Marilynne Robinson has been vocal about the offense she takes from literary scholars she sees as devaluing her point of view as a work’s author: “That’s just insulting. … [Some] of us are closer to the phenomenon than others” (111). When I met George Saunders in March 2017, he told me, in gentler terms, that he avoids Theory in the interests of preserving his practice; the way he put it was that he harbors his own sense of how fiction works, his reluctance to engage with literary criticism rising out of a desire to not upscuttle his own process. Which is all well and good, of course.

But some of us are amphibious. Some of us are both writers of literary criticism and fiction and poetry. And for us, occupying this space is just how we happen to be. It was my great fortune to meet another amphibious writer, Michael Trussler, at the same time I met my favorite short story theorist, Susan Lohafer. We were at the International Conference on the Short Story in English dinner in Vienna, Austria, in the summer of 2014. Michael and Professor Lohafer and I were chatting on the way into the venue and somehow this amphibiousness came up, he and I agreeing that this is simply how we are. Michael, who composes short fiction and poetry as well as some of the most insightful literary criticism I’ve read, is as much at home applying Agamben’s ideas to a text as he is crafting and assembling multimedia poetry projects with his own photography. Finding him alongside one of the greats of short story theory was one of those moments in my life when I knew I was so fortunate to be precisely where I was.

Susan Lohafer’s work really ought to be more appreciated than it is. Much in the way the short story is often sidelined by the novel, short story theory lives in the shadow of criticism about novels. This may have benefited the field a bit, as there has been a friendly and diverse proliferation of theorists working on short stories since the early 1980s, free to make and publish their discoveries without scads of territorial scholars vying for attention. It’s really more accurate to consider it all a gallimaufry of short story theories than short story theory, for the pluralism that makes for a healthy field is alive and well here.

If you write short stories, I encourage you to spend time with Lohafer’s book Reading for Storyness (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). It will not, I promise, corrode your ability to write. Lohafer made a career studying the short story and taking in her ideas of preclosure theory and storyness may enrich you, may spin off ideas you’ve not yet had. Her nudge to those of us invested in the form toward finding consilience with cognitive science is also a well-considered challenge. She is one of the theorists who has eschewed jargon for clarity, who considers how the process of reading affects our experience of a story. In her words, “The reading process itself becomes the means by which our shared humanity is triggered, our reactions modulated, and our insights refined as we move through short stories” (168). These concerns are shared by writers wishing to connect with and dazzle readers. As such, coming to the table, giving the best Professor Lohafer gave a go, could very well enliven one’s creative work in untold ways. I invite you to take a look at what this group of scholars has been doing for forty years, starting with Lohafer, very much in the hope that this engagement will benefit your thoughts and feelings about the short story, too.

Works Cited:

Lohafer, Susan. Reading for Storyness. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Robinson, Marilynne. The Givenness of Things: Essays. Picador, 2016.