Harte on the short story form

Harte argued for greater freedom for the short story, as at that time in Ireland it had become limited to the social realist form. His contention in the Preface to his collection, From under Gogol's Nose, was that it could be close to the discursive essay on the one hand (as exemplified by 'The Storyman Interview') and close to the poem on the other (as exemplified by 'Turfman'), both hereunder.

The Storyman Interview

I traced him to a flat in a south Dublin suburb where he had been living in isolation and obscurity for several decades. His so-called flat was no more than an old-style bedsitter, nowadays glorified by estate agents with the name, ‘studio apartment’. The clutter of books and tea-cups, sheets of paper scribbled on and discarded, packets of sliced bread half-consumed, an open carton of rancid-looking butter, all attested to continuing intellectual activity in the midst of domestic squalor.

When he heard the purpose of my visit, that I was pursuing a course in creative writing and wished to make him the subject of my dissertation, he guffawed. He laughed with genuine mirth, then, it seemed to me, laughed with pity. He prepared two cups of coffee, handed one to me, pushed an opened packet of chocolate goldgrain biscuits in my direction, and sat back. I cleared a corner of the table and set up my tape recorder, the microphone pointing towards him, arranged my note pad with the carefully composed questions on my knee, and sat back too, waiting for him to talk.

- So where do we start?

- At the beginning, I suppose.

- In the beginning ….. was the Word. And Word begat Story, and Story begat God and all of the heavenly hosts. How’s that? …..

When I was a young man ….. I fell in love ….. with the short story. Is that better?

Yes, and Story begat Moses and Jesus and Mohammed. And Story begat Lugh of the Long Rays, and Cuchulainn, and Fionn…..

When Yeats was an old man ….. someone asked him, as someone would, to whom did he see the mantle of Irish literature passing after he had departed. Yeats is said to have replied, ‘the Cork Realists’.

Hard to believe!

The Cork Realists. Daniel Corkery, and Sean O’Faolain, and Frank O’Connor, and Elizabeth Bowen. And Liam O’Flaherty who wasn’t a Corkman at all.

Hard to believe that in the nineteen thirties people read short stories and cherished short story writers.

Hard to believe that in 1963 Frank O’Connor published ‘The Lonely Voice’ and claimed that the short story was Ireland’s national art form. And no one contradicted him.

Hard to believe that in 2003, the centenary of his birth, O’Connor is almost forgotten, and his beloved short story eclipsed almost to the point of extinction.

And the wise men can’t understand it. It goes against reason, they say. The short story is the literary genre that most aptly conveys the fragmentary nature of modern life and modern experience. That’s what they say. So why is there no interest in it? The hurly-burly of contemporary living allows only snatches of time for reading. So why do people not avail of such intermissions to read short stories? That’s what the wise men ask. Why do publishers want whoppers of novels instead of collections of crafted short stories? Why do newspapers and magazines no longer print individual stories? Why? Why?

So many whys from the wise men on this subject, so few answers.

He paused, and once more lapsed back into the chair for a few moments in silence. Then he sprang forward again, his elbows planted on his knees.

- If we are going to search for an answer, we must begin with one simple honest truth: there is no longer any significant public for the short story. People do not read short stories. They are not interested.

If there were avid readers waiting for short stories then newspapers and magazines would be carrying them. If there was a demand for collections of stories by specialist story writers, then they would be welcomed by the publishers. The reality is that a collection of stories is as welcome in a publishing house as a pork chop in a synagogue. The reality is that when a magazine or newspaper carries a short story, it is either out of a sense of noble obligation, or out of nostalgia for the glorious past of the genre. The reality is that there is no public demand for the short story. And that is the reality we must start from.

- But there are some masters or the story, still alive, still writing stories, McGahern, William Trevor, Benedict Kiely.

- True, but three swallows don’t make a summer. And some writers from the younger generations have written good stories too, but that doesn’t alter the climate either. Take the three you mentioned. In each case their stories are superior to their novels, but while their novels are read widely from generation to generation, their stories are barely kept in print. And if they had never written a novel, would their stories have carried them to the same pinnacle of literary esteem? I think not. And as soon as a young writer, like yourself, issues a good story he is immediately advised to channel his efforts into a novel. Agents, publishers, editors, commentators, all join the conspiracy to siphon off new talent from the short story. And if that promising writer persists with the short story, he is advised at least to write a novel as well so that he will gain a readership. The logic there is that no one will be interested in reading stories for their own sake, and can be persuaded to read them only out of interest in the author as a novelist or as a celebrity.

- If the situation is that bad, then it can only get better.

- No, it can get worse. Writers can lose interest in it. In spite of the dreadful state of the short story from the point of view of publication and readership, it still has a powerful appeal for writers. And it’s easy to understand why. The writing of the most banal short story challenges the skill and the invention of a writer to an extent that the writing of a novel can never do. The satisfaction of having forged a short story out of unyielding conditions is the only satisfaction left the writer, but it is still enough to encourage the effort. But perhaps you are right. Perhaps that is the bedrock, the level below which we are unlikely to sink. If so, we should use it as a foundation. Certainly lamenting its decline will do nothing to improve the state of the short story. But neither will the deluding cant that accompanies the publication of the occasional anthology, that the short story is still alive, still thriving, still being fostered in Cork.

- To what do you attribute the decline of the short story?

- Whom do we blame? That’s a good question. If we could find the culprit and eliminate him, all would be well. If we could find the cause and tackle it, then we might start making progress again. Do we attribute the decline to the disappearance of the traditional outlets in magazines and newspapers? No, that would not be logical, would it? That would be to mistake the effect for the cause, the symptom for the disease. Do we blame the dull editorial policy that has pervaded for the last forty years, that has canonised Cork Realism and reduced it from a diamond to a lump of domestic coal? Perhaps. Yes, that certainly accelerated the decline. That is closer to the prime cause. Add to that the reduction of the short story to a practice range for aspiring novelists, and you get the realist approach drilled in. What is being placed uppermost in the mind of the young writer is to show from the story he is writing that he has the capability of being a novelist, and to write in a manner that will convince a particular editor or agent of that capability. The production line of these made-to-measure stories is endless and the tedium for the reader close to absolute. Then the claims that are made that this is good for the short story! It drives me to distraction. The form has traditionally suffered from being cast in a secondary role to the novel, but today it has been downgraded further in the hierarchy of esteem, downgraded to the status of a shoeshine.

- So you blame editorial policy for the short story’s decline?

- This straitjacket of Cork Realism has certainly been a major factor. Every damn story has to be a slice-of-life. Every story has to explore a significant moment, a moment of crisis, a turning point in the life of the subject. Every story has to strain for an epiphany in the most mundane situations. And the stories are so predictable in their banality that there is no longer the remotest chance of surprise for the reader. Fine, if some stories want to do that, but there is a life elsewhere, and there is a story elsewhere. Cork Realism may have been very good for the development of the novel, and that’s for a different discussion. But we are concerned with the fate of the short story, and I believe one of the main reasons for the stunting of its growth lies in the stultifying misunderstanding of the form, down through the generations, by critics, by commentators, by the reading public, a misunderstanding which has isolated it on this barren headland of Cork Realism.

- Do you not think that O’Connor’s ‘Lonely Voice’ provides an adequate insight into the form?

- Have you read it?

- Yes, it is the core text on our short story course.

- Indeed. A core text on everybody’s short story course, that’s the trouble. It is everybody’s anchor in the unexplored sea of the short story, everybody’s point of departure and point of return. But I’ll tell you this much, if the novel is an ocean liner and the short story a coaster, as people are fond of saying, then ‘The Lonely Voice’ is the lighthouse guiding them on their way, and it’s no wonder the short story has run aground.

- I would have presumed you liked Frank O’Connor.

- I don’t like Frank O’Connor. I love him. I worship him. Why do you think I live next door to where he wrote ‘Guests of the Nation’? Have you never seen me late at night touching the latch on his old gate with reverence? His stories should be recited by the angels. But his book on the short story is full of balderdash. It should be taken with a grain of salt instead of being received as the bread of heaven.

- That’s severe, considering how influential the book has been.

- But that’s the problem, isn’t it, that it has been so influential. If people read it as an insight into O’Connor’s approach to story-writing, that would be fine, but to slavishly adopt it and adhere to it, as if every dictum came directly from the tablets of stone, shows gross stupidity. A moment’s reflection on his peremptory generalisations should be enough for any intelligent reader to realise that in many of them he was wildly off target. Look at his explanation of the different conditions in which the short story and the novel thrive. Without the concept of a normal society the novel is impossible, he says, and normal society he envisages as the structured stratified society that existed in England up to his day. Since the sixties considerable disintegration of this normal society has taken place in England and the ranks of submerged population groups have swollen and have become very articulate, conditions ideal for the nurture of the short story, it would seem, yet it is the novel that continues to thrive and in England too the short story is facing extinction. In Ireland even the social and family structures that existed in O’Connor’s day have been fragmented, have disintegrated almost, a condition which should have been favourable to the continued thriving of the short story, inimical to the development of the novel. And look what happened – the exact opposite.

- Are you blaming O’Connor himself, or his readers and followers?

- Oh, I blame O’Connor too. He narrowed down the short story to his type of short story, the study of the critical moment, the crucial event. And he was intolerant of any variation. He quoted Turgenev, and agreed with him, that ‘we all came out from under Gogol’s “Overcoat” ’. But, even as he is agreeing, you can sense the itch in his fingers to take up the pen and re-write the story eliminating the ghost at the end. He was totally focused, and that is good for the writer, but it is the same as being blinkered, and that is bad for the critic or commentator or editor. If we all came out from under Gogol’s “Overcoat”, then who came out from under Gogol’s “Nose”? Plenty, dearly beloved Frank, plenty, but you had ways of rationalising them out of bounds.

- What about his thesis that the short story is essentially the voice of human loneliness?

- More balderdash. He got that idea from his mentor, Corkery, who claimed much the same for music. Corkery suggested that the breath of life that is behind all great music is the sigh of loneliness. So do we go through all the arts and find that loneliness is the motivating factor in them all? I don’t think so. Loneliness is one common aspect of human experience, as natural as pain, pleasure, love. Just as pain is an in-built protective mechanism to ensure the welfare of the body, so the capacity for loneliness is a natural protective mechanism to ensure the cohesion of the tribe. So why should the short story be limited to exploring loneliness when it can just as well explore love, pleasure, pain? And as for his submerged populations, his motley crew of outsiders, his tramps, artists, lonely idealists, dreamers, and spoiled priests, it is ludicrous to assume that they must be present in society in order to be re-created in the short story, since they are merely convenient figures on whom is projected the loneliness that is the natural experience of everyone. Cork Realism and the psychological study of outsiders may be cosy bed-fellows, but they beget only one kind of story.

- Is it O’Connor’s definition of the short story that you take issue with?

- It is his whole obsession with definition, with limitation. And when he arrives at the formula for the short story as he sees it –the Cork Realist formula – he sets it down as canon, and any story that does not conform to that canon is other-than-a-short-story. It is a conte, or a nouvelle, or a tale. And to this day critics are snagged on the same spike, making up names such as metafiction, anti-stories, or fictions, for those stories that have been left off-side by the line O’Connor has drawn across the pitch. What a sterilising exercise it has all been! It is like arriving at a definition of the poem that covers only the lyric, and then holding that anything else is other-than-a-poem.

- So how would you define the short story?

- I wouldn’t. Why bother? For the purpose of understanding the concept, the two words can’t be made simpler. With basic concepts and objects you let experience do the job of definition. If you want a child to know what a hammer is, you hold up the tool and say, ‘hammer’. Then experience impresses on the child its multiplicity of design and use. Whereas if you start with a definition, you sow the seed of confusion in the child’s mind – if a man bludgeons another to death with a hammer, does it have to be re-defined to incorporate ‘offensive weapon’, or at that moment is it other-than-a-hammer? You might not see the relevance of this, but it is relevant, and the problem is central to the understanding and the use of the short story. Listen to this.

He went over to the bookshelves, rooted out a well-worn paperback copy of ‘The Lonely Voice’, and fingered through it.

- When O’Connor draws his line across the pitch with his narrow definition, he ends up with absurd conclusions. This is how he dismisses the later stories of DH Lawrence: ‘The man was a flaming romantic anyhow, and I find myself reading those later stories in which he represents himself as a benevolent god, game-keeper, gypsy, stallion, or sunlight come on earth to relieve wealthy women of their sexual frustrations, as fairytales, legends, prose poems, anything on God’s earth except a representation of human life and destiny’. Clearly Lawrence’s stories did not fit the canon of Cork Realism. But listen to what he has to say about Mary Lavin, then a younger writer whom he greatly admired: ‘With her growing power has come a certain irritable experimentation as in “The Widow’s Son” where she experiments dangerously with alternative endings.’ ‘Experiments dangerously’! Wow! Frank was not one for throwing caution to the wind. There you have the negative spirit of Cork Realism that we have inherited. And listen to this for balderdash, again about Lavin: ‘Her most important work will not be in the novel, nor in the short story form but in the nouvelle.’ That’s where you end up when you start off by defining and limiting. We should instead dedicate ourselves to freeing the short story of all limitation. A short story is a short story. Let’s see what it can do. Let’s see what we can do with it. Let it sprout wings and fly. Let it veer deliriously from one extreme to another. Let it skim so close to the discursive essay that it almost, but not quite, becomes one. Let it veer so close to the poem that it is preserved from absorption only by its narrative soul.

- But surely we must to some extent define the realm of the short story, for example to distinguish it from the novel.

- Yes, of course, the novel. That’s part of the obsession, isn’t it? The critics and the commentators regard the short story as the bastard son of the novel, whose status is dubious, and esteem low, whose existence and qualities have to be related to his supposed parent. But they are wrong. The short story is no bastard son of the novel. A better argument could be made for the reverse. But apart from that, the novel is the literary genre that the short story is most unlike. And the genre it is closest to is the poem, but no one seems to recognise that.

- The short story is closer to the poem than to the novel?

- Yes, and I’ll tell you why. Firstly, both are fundamentally oral forms and work best when directed at the mind’s ear. Secondly, the short story, like the poem, communicates primarily to the imagination, whereas the novel communicates primarily to the rational mind. That is why the short story is misunderstood, and why it does not enjoy mass popularity. It makes the reader work. As with the poem, the reader has to engage actively with the short story, has to participate in the creative process, has to activate his own narrative imagination. If the story does not demand this of the reader, or if the reader is too lazy to respond, then the special magic of the short story is lost.

Storytelling is as old as communication, even older than poetry. Indeed the very evolution of the mind seems to have been deeply and intimately and indelibly influenced by this faculty, this story faculty, this urge to create, hear, process, stories. Anyway, storytelling has been around since people first spoke, and ever since they have been using story to explore and explain everything from the experience of their own lives to the mysteries of the Universe. They have been using it to invent communal, tribal, religious identity. But always there has been the ever-present overriding urge to influence one another and entertain one another.

- But surely this storytelling tradition has been dissipated in modern times into all the narrative arts, the novel, drama, film, as well as the short story?

- Of course it has. But what is special about the short story is that it has remained closest to the ancient tradition of storytelling. It is the contemporary form that has evolved directly from the first primitive attempts at storytelling, down through myths and legends, folktales, fairytales, fables, the later literary tales, down to the magazine stories of the 19th Century. And the rest is well-recorded history. All other narrative forms are off-shoots, tangents, adaptations of narrative for different purposes. The short story is the pure and direct heir of the storytelling tradition because it essentially employs the same methods by communicating through the mind’s ear directly to the imagination.

Because the printing of stories in magazines corresponded with the serialisation of and the growth of interest in novels, O’Connor, and indeed others, assumed that the two were related, that the short story had been invented from the spare rib of the novel. Nothing could be further from the truth. The rise of the magazines merely provided the story, which had been alive and thriving in the oral tradition, with the opportunity of evolving into a form more suited to the demands of the time.

- In what way are the methods of the short story closer to the storytelling tradition than, say, those of the novel?

- No doubt, on your course, you have studied the critics and are familiar with the common observations on the relative techniques of the two forms. They claim that the distinctive techniques of the short story have been developed to cope with the restraints of brevity. Whereas the novel has the space to be explicit in all things the short story is obliged to be implicit, to use suggestion as a technique for coping with the lack of space. And of course that is true. However, if you disregard this implication that the short story is struggling with the handicap of not being a novel, and look at it as a form in its own right, a form which communicates directly to the imagination, then the implicit, suggestive techniques are native to it, natural to it, and not adopted for ulterior reasons. The novel presents everything, explains everything, and the individual passive reader receives it pretty much as every other reader does, pretty much as the author conceived it. But the short story communicates in a totally different way. It is like a hand-grenade lobbed into the mind of the reader and when it makes contact with the active imagination of the reader it explodes, becomes something different, bigger, leaving the reader to trace the trajectories of the explosion.

- That is what Poe talked about, is it not? The single powerful effect of the short story.

- Yes and no. The impact of the grenade making contact is a single effect, the one Poe was speaking about, but the explosion and its aftermath are anything but single or simple. Perhaps if I use another, less violent, metaphor, I can better demonstrate the different phases in the communication of a short story. Think of the story as a stone, an object made from words, which the writer drops into the well of the mind. The immediate powerful impact comes when it hits the water and sets up a clear strong complete circular wave of meaning. However, the effect does not stop there. As the water settles there are further circular waves, not as powerful as the first perhaps but still complete. Then some of the circles become fragmented but can easily be traced to completion. Then further out there are ripples so disjointed it takes a greater effort of the active and excited imagination to link them and project their completion. Some stories are so powerfully suggestive that, even when the physical circles disappear, the pattern has been set and can be followed to infinity. This is the magic of the short story. The reader may enjoy the stunning experience of the first impression, may find satisfaction in the immediate complete circle of meaning, but by pursuing circle after circle he can travel far beyond the initial point of contact, can explore more and more layers of meaning, can end up chasing ideas that perhaps lie beyond the very grasp of reason.

The short story reader is always an active participant in the search, always seeking the horizon. He may never reach that destination, but what he learns along the way will make the journey worthwhile. Demands are made on him, work, effort, application, constant vigilance, and that is the reason why the short story is not popular with the masses who want only a little diverting entertainment on a commuter journey. No, the short story is akin to the poem: there is no facile satisfaction. Its appeal is to the imagination, and the imagination is insatiable. You can feed it, yes, but the more you feed it, the hungrier it becomes. On the other hand, the rational mind can be well satisfied with a five-course novel followed by brandy and cigar.

- What about the problem of length?

- That old chestnut! I think Poe hit the bullseye when he declared that a short story had to be perused at the one sitting. I know that it gave rise to a thousand and one jokes, including that Poe was measuring the length of the story by the durability of his backside. But Poe had a wonderful intuitive grasp of the true nature and the possibilities of the genre. If you consider all I have said, it is clear that the reading of a short story must be a single experience. In the oral tradition people would listen to the most complex and layered story, then go off, usually in awe, and let it reverberate in their minds. Similarly a short story must be read, must be ingested as a single object, even though the digestion of it is ruminatory. You can’t deliver a hand-grenade in instalments.

- Do you think that layers of meaning are necessary in all stories?

- I would hope to be the last person to say what a short story should or should not do. I believe in the infinite possibility of the form. A story can set out to solve the riddle of the pyramids in an oblique way; it can explore a symbolic parallel between a medieval castle in an urban setting and the human head encasing the primitive psyche; it can do a million and one things. As a reader I expect a short story to challenge my imagination, to stir my sense of wonder. That might be achieved through subtlety of language, patterning of imagery, novelty of plot, characterisation, psychological insight, exploration of a symbol, whatever. I do expect to sense a mystery at the heart of every short story, and I do expect that that mystery will yield of its riches only very reluctantly and only after effort on my part. If a story has nothing to give but its face value, or if it yields its mystery too easily, it may still be a short story but a banal one. This might sound as if I’m advocating obscurantism. I’m not. Far from it. Think of the reading of a short story as meeting a person for the first time. At first you form impressions from the physical appearance, the mannerisms, the style of conversation. Then from conversing you learn a little more of this person, his occupation, his hobbies, his family background perhaps. You can continue meeting that person every day for the rest of your life, and learn a little more from every conversation, but you will never know everything. That’s why people are endlessly fascinating. And so it should be with a short story.

- Finally, what do you think is necessary to make the short story popular again?

- Popularity is a dubious aspiration. Banality rather than profundity might seem to provide the recipe for popular success. But God knows, the reader has been sated with a diet of banality over the last forty years, with the result that he has decided to look elsewhere for sustenance. And can you blame him? It is not popularity we should be seeking for the short story, but something more basic, an audience, a readership. It will of necessity be a select readership and will be lured only by the promise of artistic satisfaction, intellectual excitement. The esteem of the short story should be on a par with poetry. We should abandon the coat-tails of the novel, and align the short story with poetry. Even the presentation of stories should indicate that they are to be considered individually and with circumspection. Instead of seeking to have them published in massed print on the pages of broadsheets, or in paperback volumes that ape the appearance of novels, perhaps we should be presenting them in small volumes like poetry, volumes that would emphasise the individuality of each story. Then the reader might be encouraged to approach the short story with the same care, attention, effort, he expects to bring to the reading of a poem.

- Thank you.

- So what do you intend to do with this tape?

- Transcribe it. Shape it into a dissertation. Present it to my course director, and hopefully gain a top grade.

- Is that all? I had hoped it might help you write a good story.

- Oh yes, and that too.


Street clean, windswept. Clan Brasil, sept of the otherworld. Nobody but me, and the wind, and her approaching form. Pub on the corner, haven, Headline.

Closer, moving between me and the pub, drawing eye, and mind, and soul, and body. Drift of yellow hair on the breeze. Womanshape sculpted by the hungry wind. Fingered and thumbed. Voluptuary.

Poise in movement. A bale of peat briquettes in either hand. Balance and harmony.

I gave her my eye, she gave me hers. Smiled.

- Would you carry my briquettes for me?

- Would I carry your Cross for Ireland, Lord? Would I what? Bales lighter than mind. Not earth. Already fire and air, anticipating their imminent burning. But the odour is peat. Odour of bogs, of youth. Odour of wraiths and will-o-the-wisp. Odour of dreams.

And the fiddle waltz, with the fire, and the hearth-rug stretched for stretching. If God has not sent this woman, how can the Devil be so benign?

We talked of marvels, how a road can have the common sense to climb across the canal and scuttle off into the little streets of Harold's Cross, how the electric lamp has adversely affected the working conditions of ghosts, how a white knight cannot exist without a damsel in distress.

The wind blowing her drapes touched cloth against cloth. Sensations of touch. Joy. Bliss.

We arrived. Elphin grot. Key in the door. Opening to unspeakable pleasures.

Then a call. Sweet as a blackbird to her mate.

- I'm home dear .


And what rough beast? Braces hanging about his haunches? Belly spreading over the couch? Waiting for her.

Bales of peat are earth once more. Weight. Pain. And two feet locked in the wet bog. Smell of bog on clothes, on hands. Stronger than the perfumes of Arabia.

Bales dropped.

Bogmen never die. Hell must seek them out and torture them with dreams.

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