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Nettie Palmer on short stories

October 29, 2011

In a recent Monday Musings I mentioned Nettie Palmer who was part of one of Australia’s famous literary couples. Her husband, Vance Palmer, wrote, in the late 1930s to early 1940s, a regular column for the ABC Weekly published by the then Australian Broadcasting Commission. Nettie Palmer also contributed to this paper, albeit less regularly. One of these contributions is a discussion, in 1943, of Australian and Russian short stories. In it she made a simple but clear statement on what she believes is essential to a good story:

What is a story without the power to see what matters to people, to detect the character’s most revealing moment? A sense of life is something more than mere narrative, or a knack for inventing a scene.

This appeals to me because of her focus on meaning and character rather than on plot … and I like the way she hones in on “the character’s most revealing moment”. When I think about it, the best short stories do tend to centre on just that, a moment (an action, a decision, an event) in which the character’s self is revealed to us. I think of Guy de Maupassant‘s “The necklace”, Kate Chopin‘s “Désireé’s baby” and Henry Lawson’s “The drover’s wife”. In these stories, the main characters are confronted by a challenge to their sense of being … and how each responds tells us much about who they are, and we, in contemplating their reactions, learn a bit more, perhaps, about who we are.

Does this definition of a good story hold for longer fiction too?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 3, 2011 3:18 am

    I like that definition of a short story, though sometimes I think that moment can be revealed through plot if that makes sense. To your story examples I’d like to add Virginia Woolf’s “Mark on the Wall,” one of my favorites and oh so very Woolf. Not sure that the definition holds true for longer fiction so much because of the length and because the story generally talkes place over a longer period of time. We get the moment but we get the before and after too, or we get multiple moments or sometimes just the one moment but spun out in so many different ways that it is no longer singular.

    • November 3, 2011 8:59 am

      Thanks for engaging Stefanie. I was going round in circles about the longer fiction … I like the way you describe it. I also think that moment can be revealed through plot. I suppose her point is that that’s what makes a good plot?

      And thanks for the recommendation of Woolf’s Mark on the wall. Even the title tempts me. I don’t think I’ve read it so I will see if I can track it down.

    • November 3, 2011 9:16 am

      Ah, I found it on Project Gutenberg (the Australian, one but it’s probably on the original one too). Will try to read it in the next few days.

      • November 4, 2011 12:33 am

        Oh you are in for a treat! Enjoy!

        • November 4, 2011 9:17 am

          I will and will let you know as I’ve printed it out and written your name as recommender on the top.

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