Monday, 24 April 2017

Poe Power

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The Sunday Times (evil Murdoch paywall, but you can sign up for a couple of free items a week if you like) has an interesting article by Stephen Amidon about the American short story. Amidon argues, quite reasonably, that American authors are often masters (or mistresses?) of short-form fiction. Most British novelists are not. Ireland is another story, but let's stay focused here.

According to Amidon
While the modern short story was probably born in Germany in the early 19th century, with works by writers such as ETA Hoffmann and Heinrich von Kleist, the genre came into its own in the US over the next few decades. The honour of the first great American short story must go to Washington Irving, whose canonical The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was published in 1820. 
It was in May 1842, however, that US pre-eminence was firmly established when Graham’s Magazine of Philadelphia published two pieces by the 33-year-old Edgar Allan Poe. The first was one of his “tales of ratiocination”, The Masque of the Red Death, whose intense narrative concentration and focus on the feverish workings of his protagonist’s inner psychology prefigured much of what was to come.
Quite true. Poe put his tanks (or dragoons, or whatever) on the castle lawns of all those authors of three-decker Gothic novels by showing all their favourite tropes worked better in condensed form. After Poe no US writer needed to feel guilty about writing something shorter than 20,000 words. And, as Amidon astutely points out, the US economy's clout meant that there were always publishers for short fiction willing to pay decent rates.

Things were very different in Britain. There was a brief period from about 1890 to 1914-ish when a large number of magazines paid good rates for short stories. Writers like Conrad could make more money from short stories/novellas than full-length novels. It's not a coincidence that this is also seen as the golden age of the ghost story. Check any anthology of 'Great Spine Chillers' etc and look up the dates of original publication. The period immediately after 1900 is always well represented. True, some writers such as M.R. James didn't need the money. But it didn't do any harm for such authors to reach literary maturity at a time when short fiction flourished. 

Science fiction, horror, crime - all the genres were know and love started to crystallise at that time. A few years later, when short fiction became less lucrative, the genres were consigned to the pulps. Along came Lovecraft and his gang, followed by the Golden Age of science fiction, the horror comics, superheroes... 

The pulp magazine era produced a lot of good writers who excelled at short fiction and were less surefooted as novelists. Writers like Fredric Brown, Fritz Leiber, Arthur C. Clarke, Eric Frank Russell, Ray Bradbury. True, some natural novelists did emerge, notably Philip K. Dick and Robert Silverberg. But then came the New Wave, and guess what? Lots of short stories by the like of J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Norman Spinrad, Samuel Delaney... 

Ballard, especially, broke genre boundaries and is now truly 'literary'. Many  of his stories have the same inventiveness and playfulness of Poe, and the same emphasis on the grotesque. Many of his stories are subtly horrific and don't offer the reader rational explanations. 'Mr F. is Mr. F.' (see below) is a disturbing account of a backwards pregnancy, for instance. (Don't ask.) Poe used the conventions of the early 19th century Gothic and distilled them for concentrated effect. Ballard did the same with the conventions of his era.

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Ballard's roots lay in science fiction, of course. The horror boom of the mid-Seventies to early Eighties was very different. It was clearly driven by novels (most of them American, often linked to films). But since Poe was one of the begetters of sf as well as horror I think his influence is clear enough. And the point stands, that while mainstream literary authors in Britain neglected short fiction it flourished within the walls of the genre ghettos. I'm sure experts on so-called 'women's fiction' could advance a similar argument. 

Anyway, interesting article. Lots to chew over.


Aonghus Fallon said...

Funny thing is, I think there's a real preference - on the part of both readers and authors - for big books in the US, yet even if one were to disregard the American short story as a form (and the commercial factors which popularised it), a lot of seminal American fiction is pretty short (ie, around novella-length) - e.g. 'The Scarlet Letter" 'The Great Gatsby', & ''The Catcher in the Rye'.

valdemar said...

Absolutely! The Great American Novel is conventionally seen as a damn big book, like Moby Dick. But as you say, the groundbreaking stuff tends to be shorter. Perhaps we could make a rule of thumb - that the most influential works are those that can be read within a single day? (If you start really early.)

Aonghus Fallon said...

It would be really interesting list to draw up. I reckon you could read (focusing on English authors) - say - 'Animal Farm' or '1984' in a single day. Also 'A Christmas Carol'.