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- Definitions - 4/38 -

new race like ours, is limited, not by crudity, or inexpressiveness, but by form, by the very rigidity of its carefully perfected form. Like other patent medicines, it is constructed by formula.

It is not difficult to construct an outline of the "formula" by which thousands of current narratives are being whipped into shape. Indeed, by turning to the nearest textbook on "Selling the Short Story," I could find one ready-made. (There could be no clearer symptom of the disease I wish to diagnose than these many "practical" textbooks, with their over-emphasis upon technique and their under-estimate of all else that makes literature.) The story _must_ begin, it appears, with action or with dialogue. A mother packs her son's trunk while she gives him unheeded advice mingled with questions about shirts and socks; a corrupt and infuriated director pounds on the mahogany table at his board meeting, and curses the honest fool (hero of the story) who has got in his way; or, "'Where did Mary Worden get that curious gown?' inquired Mrs. Van Deming, glancing across the sparkling glass and silver of the hotel terrace." Any one of these will serve as instance of the break-neck beginning which Kipling made obligatory. Once started, the narrative must move, move, move furiously, each action and every speech pointing directly toward the unknown climax. A pause is a confession of weakness. This Poe taught for a special kind of story; and this a later generation, with a servility which would have amazed that sturdy fighter, requires of all narrative. Then the climax, which must neatly, quickly, and definitely end the action for all time, either by a solution you have been urged to hope for by the wily author in every preceding paragraph, or in a way which is logically correct but never, never suspected. O. Henry is responsible for the vogue of the latter of these two alternatives,--and the strain of living up to his inventiveness has been frightful. Finally comes a last suspiration, usually in the advertising pages. Sometimes it is a beautiful descriptive sentence charged with sentiment, sometimes a smart epigram, according to the style of story, or the "line" expected of the author. Try this, as the advertisements say, on your favorite magazine. This formula, with variations which readers can supply for themselves or draw from textbooks on the short story, is not a wholly bad method of writing fiction. It is, I venture to assert, a very good one,--if you desire merely effective story-telling. It is probably the best way of making the short story a thoroughly efficient tool for the presentation of modern life. And there lies, I believe, the whole trouble. The short story, its course plotted and its form prescribed, has become too efficient. Now efficiency is all that we ask of a railroad, efficiency is half at least of what we ask of journalism; but efficiency is not the most, it is perhaps the least, important among the undoubted elements of good literature.

In order to make the short story efficient, the dialogue, the setting, the plot, the character development, have been squeezed and whittled and moulded until the means of telling the story fit the ends of the story-telling as neatly as hook fits eye. As one writer on how to manufacture short stories tells us in discussing character development, the aspirant must--

"Eliminate every trait or deed which does not help peculiarly to make the character's part in the particular story either intelligible or open to such sympathy as it merits;

"Paint in only the 'high lights,' that is...never qualify or elaborate a trait or episode, merely for the sake of preserving the effect of the character's full reality." And thus the story is to be subdued to the service of the climax as the body of man to his brain. But what these writers upon the short story do not tell us is that efficiency of this order works backward as well as forward. If means are to correspond with ends, why then ends must be adjusted to means. Not only must the devices of the story- teller be directed with sincerity toward the tremendous effect he wishes to make with his climax upon you and me, his readers; but the interesting life which it is or should be his purpose to write about for our delectation must be maneuvered, or must be chosen or rejected, not according to the limitation which small space imposes, but with its suitability to the "formula" in mind. In brief, if we are to have complete efficiency, the right kind of life and no other must be put into the short-story hopper. Nothing which cannot be told rapidly must be dropped in, lest it clog the smoothly spinning wheels. If it is a story of slowly developing incongruity in married life, the action must be speeded beyond probability, like a film in the moving pictures, before it is ready to be made into a short story. If it is a tale of disillusionment on a prairie farm, with the world and life flattening out together, some sharp climax must be provided nevertheless, because that is the only way in which to tell a story. Indeed it is easy to see the dangers which arise from sacrificing truth to a formula in the interests of efficiency.

This is the limitation by form; the limitation by subject is quite as annoying. American writers from Poe down have been fertile in plots. Especially since O. Henry took the place of Kipling as a literary master, ingenuity, inventiveness, cleverness in its American sense, have been squandered upon the short story. But plots do not make variety. Themes make variety. Human nature regarded in its multitudinous phases makes variety. There are only a few themes in current American short stories,--the sentimental theme from which breed ten thousand narratives; the theme of intellectual analysis and of moral psychology favored by the "literary" magazines; the "big-business" theme; the theme of American effrontery; the social-contrast theme; the theme of successful crime. Add a few more, and you will have them all. Read a hundred examples, and you will see how infallibly the authors-- always excepting our few masters--limit themselves to conventional aspects of even these conventional themes. Reflect, and you will see how the first--the theme of sentiment--has overflowed its banks and washed over all the rest, so that, whatever else a story may be, it must somewhere, somehow, make the honest American heart beat more softly.

There is an obvious cause for this in the taste of the American public, which I do not propose to neglect. But here too we are in the grip of the "formula," of the idea that there is only one way to construct a short story--a swift succession of climaxes rising precipitously to a giddy eminence. For the formula is rigid, not plastic as life is plastic. It fails to grasp innumerable stories which break the surface of American life day by day and disappear uncaught. Stories of quiet homely life, events significant for themselves that never reach a burning climax, situations that end in irony, or doubt, or aspiration, it mars in the telling. The method which makes story-telling easy, itself limits our variety.

Nothing brings home the artificiality and the narrowness of this American fiction so clearly as a comparison, for better and for worse, with the Russian short story. I have in mind the works of Anton Tchekoff, whose short stories have now been translated into excellent English. Fresh from a reading of these books, one feels, it is true, quite as inclined to criticize as to praise. Why are the characters therein depicted so persistently disagreeable, even in the lighter stories? Why are the women always freckled, the men predominantly red and watery in the eye? Why is the country so flat, so foggy, so desolate; and why are the peasants so lumpish and miserable? Russia before the Revolution could not have been so dreary as this; the prevailing grimness must be due to some mental obfuscation of her writers. I do not refer to the gloomy, powerful realism of the stories of hopeless misery. There, if one criticizes, it must be only the advisability of the choice of such subjects. One does not doubt the truth of the picture. I mean the needless dinginess of much of Russian fiction, and of many of these powerful short stories.

Nevertheless, when one has said his worst, and particularly when he has eliminated the dingier stories of the collection, he returns with an admiration, almost passionate, to the truth, the variety, above all to the freedom of these stories. I do not know Russia or the Russians, and yet I am as sure of the absolute truth of that unfortunate doctor in "La Cigale," who builds up his heroic life of self-sacrifice while his wife seeks selfishly elsewhere for a hero, as I am convinced of the essential unreality, except in dialect and manners, of the detectives, the "dope-fiends," the hard business men, the heroic boys and lovely girls that people most American short stories. As for variety,-- the Russian does not handle numerous themes. He is obsessed with the dreariness of life, and his obsession is only occasionally lifted; he has no room to wander widely through human nature. And yet his work gives an impression of variety that the American magazine never attains. He is free to be various. When the mood of gloom is off him, he experiments at will, and often with consummate success. He seems to be sublimely unconscious that readers are supposed to like only a few kinds of stories; and as unaware of the taboo upon religious or reflective narrative as of the prohibition upon the ugly in fiction. As life in any manifestation becomes interesting in his eyes, his pen moves freely. And so he makes life interesting in many varieties, even when his Russian prepossessions lead him far away from our Western moods.

Freedom. That is the word here, and also in his method of telling these stories. No one seems to have said to Tchekoff, "Your stories must move, move, move." Sometimes, indeed, he pauses outright, as life pauses; sometimes he seems to turn aside, as life turns aside before its progress is resumed. No one has ever made clear to him that every word from the first of the story must point unerringly toward the solution and the effect of the plot. His paragraphs spring from the characters and the situation. They are led on to the climax by the story itself. They do not drag the panting reader down a rapid action, to fling him breathless upon the "I told you so" of a conclusion prepared in advance.

I have in mind especially a story of Tchekoff's called "The Night Before Easter." It is a very interesting story; it is a very admirable story, conveying in a few pages much of Russian spirituality and more of universal human nature; but I believe that all, or nearly all, of our American magazines would refuse it; not because it lacks picturesqueness, or narrative suspense, or vivid characterization--all of these it has in large measure. They would reject it because it does not seem to move rapidly, or because it lacks a vigorous climax. The Goltva swollen in flood lies under the Easter stars. As the monk Jerome ferries the traveler over to where fire and cannon-shot and rocket announce the rising of Christ to the riotous monastery, he asks, "Can you tell me, kind master, why it is that even in the presence of great happiness a man cannot forget his grief?" Deacon Nicholas is dead, who alone in the monastery could write prayers that touched the heart. And of them all, only Jerome read his "akaphists." "He used to open the door of his cell and make me sit by him, and we used to read....His face was compassionate and tender--" In the monastery the countryside is crowding to hear the Easter service. The choir sings "Lift up thine eyes, O Zion, and behold." But Nicholas is dead, and there is none to penetrate the meaning of the Easter canon, except Jerome who toils all night on the ferry because they had forgotten him. In the morning, the traveler

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