In establishing the credentials of the short story, especially as a modern written form significantly boosted by magazine culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it is often felt necessary to make comparisons between the novel and the short story, comparisons that have tended to put the short story in the shade of the novel, a form assumed to be more technically sophisticated. The comparison can work in the other direction, however, to highlight the distinctive nature of shorter forms of fiction.
One of the evident problems with academic criticism of the novel in recent decades has been the overemphasis on topical or thematic interest at the expense of style or technique. The overemphasis is understandable, given the particular phase of intellectual history: critics have sought to eradicate the shortcomings inherent in successive critical movements – such as the New Criticism and structuralism – movements with a formalist focus that encouraged the neglect of contextual and historical questions. Successive critical approaches gaining purchase from the 1980s – Marxism, feminism, postcolonialism, ecocriticism – have served to swing the pendulum back towards questions of content, so that the contexts that generated topical points of foci for the novel necessarily became central to the key debates. This does not necessarily signify a neglect of formal and stylistic matters; but there has been a felt need for critics of the novel to still the swing of the pendulum, and to address questions of form and style within a properly mapped historical and contextual setting.
Where the short story is concerned, this apparent tension between attention to form and attention to content/context presents a rather different problem. This volume tries to excavate the ‘pre-history’ of the modern short story in its early chapters; even so, it must be acknowledged that, as a modern printed form, the short story is a relatively new phenomenon (compared with the longer history of the novel), which makes the specific nature of its different (and compressed) historical phases harder to trace. This problem is compounded by the relative dearth of critical interest in the short story, and by the clear emphasis in the extant criticism on formal attributes.