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9 - War Stories: The Short Story in the First and Second World Wars

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 November 2016

Ann-Marie Einhaus
Affiliation:
Northumbria University
Dominic Head
Affiliation:
University of Nottingham
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Summary

As a result of two wars, H. E. Bates claimed, the modern short story of his time was better than it had been ever before. Short story writer and anthologist Dan Davin felt that the short story ‘proved to be one of the hardiest blooms to survive in a time of devastation and weeds’. But why is the short story such a useful medium to writers in wartime? The particular conditions of publishing in wartime, from paper shortages to editorial constraints, seem to encourage the publication of short fiction in periodicals over the individual publication of long novels. The short story has also been described as a medium that ‘lends itself to the representation of experience fragmented by war’. Its brevity, its ability to capture snapshot views of life at war, and particularly its modernist, fragmented incarnation have been regarded as ideal means of expression in wartime, responding quickly to events, whether traumatic or mundane, without having to offer a panoramic overview. Compared to the larger-scale explorations of war novels and memoirs, the war story's ‘strength is its affinity to the experience of the mere moment, which goes hand in hand with a special closeness to its moment of publication and reception’. A time-strapped and anxious reading public may have turned to short stories because they ‘could at least be read quickly, in a single sitting’, offered ‘the satisfaction of immediate closure’, and did not require the same ‘lengthy emotional investment’ as novels. These qualities were not obviously new: they were pre-existing features that had made the short story popular with an increasingly literate British public before 1914. When the First World War broke out, the short story was an established (if notoriously ill-defined) form that happened to work particularly well within a wartime context of readers’ limited time, constant physical or emotional disruption, paper shortages and fragmented experience. These ostensible handicaps for the literary market in general all served to make the short prose form ‘an inescapable element of the wartime literary field’ and blackouts and the dangers of leaving the house after dark owing to lack of street lighting in both wars meant that ‘Reading – like knitting – flourished on the Home Front.’

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2016

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References

Liggins, Emma, Maunder, Andrew, and Robbins, Ruth, ‘The Short Story and the Great War’, in The British Short Story (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 133–54.
McLoughlin, Kate, ed., The Cambridge Companion to War Writing (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
Piette, Adam and Rawlinson, Mark, eds., The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century British and American War Literature (Edinburgh University Press, 2012).
Tate, Trudi, ed., Women, Men and the Great War: An Anthology of Stories (Manchester University Press, 1995).

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