Modern short stories, 1929-style

Pock, Modern short storiesAs I continue to clear out my aunt’s house, I keep finding little treasures. Most I move on. There are only so many little treasures, after all, that you can dwell on, let alone keep, but an old book of short stories? Of course, that captured my attention. Titled Modern short stories, it was my aunt’s school text around 1947. It edition date is actually 1929, and it belongs to a series of books, The Kings* treasures of literature, which was edited by Sir A T Quiller Couch*. Modern short stories was edited by Guy N. Pocock, who was “a novelist and educationist” according to the Wikipedia entry for his son Tom!

It contains twelve short stories, but I haven’t yet read them. I’m writing this post for other reasons. One is that my aunt wrote in the front of the book “Katherine Mansfield wrote good short stories”! Presumably the recommendation of her Methodist Ladies College teacher. Mansfield is not included in the anthology, although a couple of women (unknown to me) are. The book also has “Questions and suggestions” for each story at the back. The first story is “The lost god” by John Russell. Heard of him? I haven’t. Anyhow, one of the questions/suggestions for this story is:

“Good God!” breathed Bartlett. “He couldn’t get out!”

Explain this.

I think I’ll have to read this. In my search to find out who John Russell was I found a 2013 post on a blog called Pulp Flakes which describes itself as being about “Pulp magazines, authors and their stories. Adventure and Detective pulps”. According to the blogger, this story, written in 1917, was made into a film, The sea god. The blogger says that the story is “about an explorer who becomes a god. A standard pulp trope, you might say, and yet this has an unexpected ending. Or is it a beginning?”. One of the commenters calls it “one of the best short stories ever written”!

But, enough of that digression. I want to move on to my main reason for writing this post, Pocock’s introduction. Pocock commences by pondering how many short stories find their way into print. “Cataracts … come pouring out, monthly, weekly, daily, even hourly, from the American and English Press”, he says. And there are many others which are rejected. Of the thousands published, he asks, “how extraordinarily few are really worth the reading and writing – how extraordinarily few can be called great!” This, however, is not as extraordinary as it would appear, he continues, because “a great short story is a very difficult artistic achievement”. Of course, the stories he has chosen for this anthology are, he reassures us, “very good indeed”.

And so, in his introduction, he shares his ideas about “what constitutes a really good short story”. I’m going to dot point them:

  • it must be a story, that is, he says, there must be a plot – “however slight” (I like this qualification) – by which he means “some kind of development and crisis”. Otherwise, he suggests, it will be a sketch, a little snapshot from life or imagination”. To explain this, he describes going to “the ‘Pictures'”. (Interesting, given that going to the movies was still a fairly new thing at this time.) A sketch, he says, is like Pathé’s Gazette or Scenes from wild life, which are “just scenes”, while a short story is like Deadwood Dick or The adventures of Sherlock Holmes, because these comprise “a more or less artistic arrangement of scenes and situations developing to a climax”. What fascinates me about this is that he was clearly gearing his thoughts to young people – school students – by relating short stories to something they might know and enjoy. He was, in other words, “an educationist” as Wikipedia says.
  • it must be short, though there are, he admits, such things as “long short stories … a kind of literary dachshund”! Love it. Generally, though, they should be “brief and to the point”, ranging from a few hundred to two or three thousand words. In a short story, he continues, “there must be no padding out, no word-spinning. Every epithet, every phrase, every sentence should bear in some way upon the plot, character or atmosphere”. I think this is one of the reasons short stories are a joy to read. You really have to think closely about every thing the author writes.
  • if it’s an action story, the narrative must be rapid. This doesn’t have to be “breathless”, he says, but the sequence of events needs to be “swift and sustained”. And if it’s a more subtle, psychological story, the narrative still needs to move “rapidly”. There cannot be “loitering about and explaining the situation”. This is why short stories can be a challenge to read. If things aren’t explained, you really have to read all those words carefully – see the above point – to work out what’s going on!
  • we expect a consistent tone he says. He then discusses tone, such as how pathos is maintained or different sorts of humour injected, but he doesn’t really expand further on our “expectation”. I think he’s right, though. It’s the consistency of tone that tends to drive a short story on and give it much of its punch. When I think of my favourite short stories, it’s often not so much the actual story I remember as the feeling I’m left with, and this is usually created by the tone.

He then becomes a bit descriptive. He talks about “stories of Imagination”. The imagination can be “fanciful” taking us into “a world that lies beyond our everyday experience”, or “scientific” which may be beyond our experience but not beyond “possibility”. Stories, too, can convey an atmosphere of mystery (that is, be strange or haunting) or a sense of remoteness (that is, of happening, far away or long ago). “It is Style”, he says, “that works this magic; the personality of the author coming through”. I think I see “style” being broader than this – as also incorporating tone, pacing, characterisation etc – but perhaps I am misreading him.

Finally, he refers to characters, saying that

Their tongue betrayeth them. Either they are the real thing, or they are the author dressed up in borrowed and unfamiliar garb, which will deceive nobody.

The stories in this anthology, he says, are convincing – even those that are “most fanciful” – a qualification which suggests to me that he is a little wary of the “fanciful”? Then again, as one who tends to be wary of the “fanciful” myself, I understand where he’d coming from!

I’d love to hear what short story writers and fans think of his assessments.

* Kings has no apostrophe on the title page, and Quiller Couch is not hyphenated, though Wikipedia hyphenates it.

16 thoughts on “Modern short stories, 1929-style

  1. Hi there Sue,

    I can’t resist having ‘my two cents’ on this one:

    Consistency of tone is important; any shifts tend to be confusing and dilute the story’s thrust. An appropriate economy of language is important, but this can vary from story to story. Characterisation must, of course, be not only plausible but vivid, arresting.

    I don’t think events need necessarily be ‘swift and sustained’. There should (probably) be a narrative progression and ‘purpose’ (however subjective), although again this is debatable for a highly modernist story. The so-called experimental modernism is somewhat marginalised now, and I think even a modest narrative ’cause and effect’ over the course of a piece can elevate it from being a mere description of an occurrence (even though such ‘descriptions’ or ‘episodes’ can be beautifully evoked and worthy in their own right.)

    Short stories nowadays offer the chance of both relative brevity of narrative content, and relative reflectivity. Short stories aren’t popular amusements anymore, but they aren’t staggeringly long tomes or racy potboilers, either. They should be allowed space to breathe without sacrificing pace too much, and I think they should be able, if necessary, to display a degree of interiority without becoming didactic. Hemingway’s spare style was a useful corrective, but I also believe it’s an example that can be carried too far.

    Oddly enough, I wonder if it isn’t easier today for genuine depth and weight to be expressed in a short story BECAUSE they’re short. There seems to be so much more pressure for novels to begin explosively and to never slacken, if only because it’s relatively harder nowadays for readers, with all their available and unavoidable distractions, to remain attracted to a full-length text for its duration.

    As with much else in literature, any of the ‘rules’ Pocock lists can be followed to great affect and broken to great affect. Nearly ninety years after he wrote his preface, the short story occupies a much smaller place in the public’s imagination but also, potentially, a more multifaceted one.

    • Thanks Glen. Love your practitioner’s perspective. Just what I hoped for. Certainly I agree that changes in literature over the last 90 years do mean some of his “strictures” no longer hold, particularly as you say re plot/purpose and pace.

      But best I love your conclusion re breaking rules. That can define the best writers can’t it … The ability to know when you can get away with not following convention and proven techniques.

  2. Pingback: Modern short stories, 1929-style | picardykatt's Blog

  3. What an exciting find and your aunt’s words in the front make it a real treasure.
    “literary dachschund” … gorgeous!

    I was interested to read Pocock’s warning that characters must be the real thing. It is so easy for authors to dress themselves “in borrowed and unfamiliar garb” and so much more difficult to write characters far removed from oneself (but also infinitely more enjoyable).

    I like Glen’s mention of Hemingway as an example of brevity sometimes being carried too far. Writers can get caught up in their “cleverness” and forget that the reader will be buying their work for enjoyment, not as a masterclass.

    I love short stories … reading them, writing them, examining them, and I long for a resurgence in their popularity. I was interested to read how it is the feeling you are left with, WG, that colours your memory of a short story. I like short stories with a certain amount of ambiguity, threads that may not be perfectly knotted and cut by the writer, something to worry at long after the page is turned.

    Great post!

    • Thanks for your input Karenlee. I was fascinated by the implication that short stories were so popular back then. I think interest in them is on the rise again, but of course I’m not looking it from the writers’ perspective.

      I guess brevity can be carried too far, though as you know I’m a bit of a fan of “the spare”. I’m not a Hemingway expert though so I can’t comment on him.

      I like a bit of ambiguity too, though not so much that I’m mystified, if that makes sense. By this I mean I don’t like it if I have no idea what the author is intending but I do like it if things aren’t tied up and I can see various possibilities.

  4. Having time to spare I thought I might do some research for you into John Russell, but nothing! No entry in either The Oxford History of or Companion to Australian Lit. So I read HM Green’s chapters on the short story (1890-1923) right through. Nothing there either but a very interesting section on HHR and ‘Cuffy Mahony’ so I didn’t waste my time.

    • Thanks Bill. I don’t think John Russell is Australian. This is one of those world literature series. I’m not sure any of the 12 or so stories are by Australians in fact. I’m glad though that your research took you to some worthwhile places anyhow!

      • A fascinating find. This sort of “secondary” literature- anthologies, school textbooks, encyclopaedias are such a trove of cultural history. The editor’s comments seem reasonable enough as far as they go.

  5. As wild and experimental as I like my novels to be sometimes, I must say I do prefer short stories that are more traditional so I can totally get on board with Pocock’s assessment. You have to read The Lost God and tell us what it is about! How curious your Aunt’s note in the book is since there is no Mansfield story. I wonder why she wrote it there?

    • I certainly will Stefanie – when I find the time to read it.

      Re my aunt writing that note. My guess is that the teacher must have told them that so like a good girl she wrote it down.

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