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27 - Experimentalism: Self-Reflexive and Postmodernist Stories

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 November 2016

David James
Affiliation:
University of London
Dominic Head
Affiliation:
University of Nottingham
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Summary

‘The short story is a young art’, wrote Elizabeth Bowen in 1937: ‘as we know it’, she contends, ‘it is the child of this century’. It sounds curious to think of short fiction as still in its infancy or at least early adolescence by mid-century, when we recall the form's earlier trailblazers such as Thomas Hardy, Henry James and, of course, Edgar Allan Poe. Bowen must therefore have had some other context of generic transformation in mind, one that affects the story ‘as we know it’ now, rather than as it has come to be known and traditionally valued. Modernism, in her account, changed the short story's conditions of possibility: it now ‘may be said to stand at the edge of prose’, not only because ‘poetic tautness and clarity are so essential to it’ but also because ‘it is nearer drama than the novel’ and nearer still to cinema, whose medium is ‘itself busy with a technique’. Being ‘of the same generation’, both film and short stories ‘have been accelerating together’, such that for Bowen they continue to hold certain ‘affinities’ which are critically instructive: ‘neither is sponsored by a tradition; both are, accordingly, free; both, still, are self-conscious, show a self-imposed discipline and regard for form’.

Bowen draws the literary-historical net quite tight here. And one might question her characterization of short stories as modernism's progeny alone, their progression tied to parallel developments in other idiomatically twentieth-century artistic media. But her emphasis on the formally self-conscious and self-disciplining nature of such narratives would remain prescient in the decades to come. Beginning its map of transitions in the short story some twenty years after Bowen's Faber anthology, this chapter traces the aesthetic consequences of the genre's creative self-reflexivity across an era in which its increasing experimentalism contended at times with its increasing marginalization. However much the short story's popularity fluctuated, stylistic advances in the genre flourished after the Second World War. Writers from Britain and Ireland can't exactly be paralleled with the explicit modes of postmodern self-referentiality that shaped both the topics and the techniques of iconic North American experimentalists like John Barth and Donald Barthelme.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2016

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References

Clark, Miriam Marty, ‘Contemporary Short Fiction and the Postmodern Condition’, Studies in Short Fiction, 32 (1995), pp. 147–59.Google Scholar
Iftekharrudin, Farhat, Boyden, Joseph, Longo, Joseph and Rohrberger, Mary, eds., Postmodern Approaches to the Short Story (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003).
Winther, Per, Lothe, Jakob and Skei, Hans H. eds., The Art of Brevity: Excursions in Short Fiction Theory and Analysis (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004).
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