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Short Story Resources & Criticism

Literary Time Periods

Old English (Anglo-Saxon Period)           450–1066
Middle English Period 1066-1500
The Renaissance 1500-1600
The Neoclassical Period 1600-1785
The Romantic Period 1785-1832
The Victorian Age 1832-1901
The Edwardian Period 1901-1914
The Georgian Period 1910-1936
The Modern Period Early 20th century
The Postmodern Period Mid-20th century

What is a Short Story?

A short story is a work of prose narrative fiction, typically ranging from 1,600 to 30,000 words. The genre's first theorist, Edgar Allan Poe, believed the short story should be brief enough to read in one sitting. He also argued for the "unity of effect," insisting that every word in the report should contribute to the effect predetermined by the author. As the short story evolved, the term proved resistant to definition, but that has not deterred writers and critics. In addition to economy and unity, other elements proposed as genre-defining include an epiphanic moment, the quality of suggestiveness, and an evocation of mood. Although each component holds for some short stories, significant exceptions could easily be cited; thus, these and other proposals failed to define the short story. A negative is the only definition to win widespread agreement: a short story is not a novel.

Narrative existed long before such terms as "short story" and "novel" were used to distinguish forms. Myths and didactic tales are part of the most ancient cultures, part of oral tradition before literacy. The earliest written stories were often in verse rather than prose. Among the earliest precursors of the short story was India's Panchatantra, five books of animal fables and magic tales compiled, in their current form, between the third and fifth centuries CE but perhaps dating from about 200 BCE; Aesop's Fables, written by an enslaved Greek probably between 620 and 564 BCE; and the tales of The Thousand and One Nights, which originated in tenth-century Persia. From the Judeo-Christian tradition came the stories of such characters as Ruth, Esther, and Jonah, and the parables of Jesus such as the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. Another precursor was the fabliau, a brief, bawdy comic tale famous in thirteenth-century France. Giovanni Boccaccio used this form in his Decameron (1349–51) and Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales (1387–1400).

The modern short story began in the nineteenth century. Increased literacy rates and the proliferation of magazines and newspapers fostered the genre's development. Washington Irving’s "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle," first published in 1819–20 in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, have been described as the "founding stories" of the American short story. Poe may be the author most often credited as the father of the modern short story. Still, Russian writer Nikolai Gogol published Arabesques in 1835, five years before Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. Gogol’s most famous novel, "The Overcoat" (1842), was particularly influential in developing Russian fiction. Anton Chekhov, a prolific writer of short stories in the late nineteenth century, is thought by many critics to be the most excellent short story writer of all time. Chekhov influenced writers as diverse as Flannery O’ConnorRaymond Carver, and John Cheever. Frenchman Guy de Maupassant is another master of the short story. Between 1880 and 1890 alone, he published more than three hundred stories. Widely read in English-speaking countries, he significantly influenced American writer Kate Chopin. Some scholars credit Sir Walter Scott with founding the short story in England. Still, he was followed in the Victorian era by a bevy of British writers who wrote short fiction, including Charles DickensWilkie CollinsRobert Louis StevensonArthur Conan Doyle, and H. G. Wells.

In the second half of the twentieth century, signs indicated that the short story had acquired status comparable to the novel. In 1951, The Collected Stories of William Faulkner was given the second National Book Award. Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer won the National Book Award for A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories in 1957, and Bernard Malamud’s collection The Magic Barrel won the following year. The singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978. Frank O’Connor, an Irish short story writer called his nation’s Chekhov, published The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story in 1963, a rare critical examination of the genre.

The decades of the 1960s and 1970s saw an increase in writers creating short stories about the black experience. James Baldwin’s collected stories Going to Meet the Man (1965) explored sex and race; Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love (1972) and The Sea Birds Are Still Alive (1977) centered on the sustaining connections of family and friendship; and Alice Walker’s In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973) espoused her "womanist," or black feminist, position in stories about the oppression of black women and their strength in struggle. The 1970s also saw the first of Raymond Carver’s four significant short-story collections, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976). His spare prose and blue-collar world void of passion and hope drew praise from critics. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), Cathedral (1983), and Where I’m Calling From (1988) established Carver as a leading figure in what critics hailed as a renaissance of the short story in the late twentieth century.

The short story has continued to prosper into the twenty-first century, albeit in forms far removed from the traditional brief account. Lorrie Moore has the narrator of "How to Be a Writer," a story from her first collection, Self-Help (1985), decided that plots are for the dead, not for writers; the self-referential irony in this case since Moore’s story is plotless. An absence of action is only one form of innovation. George Saunders’s blend of the bizarre and the ordinary earned his story collections best-seller status and called forth superlatives from fellow authors and critics alike. Tenth of December, his fourth collection of stories, received the first Folio Prize for the best fiction in the English language in 2014. Lydia Davis, winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, is famous for the brevity of her novel, some stories consisting of a single sentence (Text adapted from EBSCO).