Some Anomalies of the Short Story
William Dean Howells

This etext was produced by David Widger

LITERATURE AND LIFE--Some Anomalies of the Short Story

by William Dean Howells


The interesting experiment of one of our great publishing houses in
putting out serially several volumes of short stories, with the hope that
a courageous persistence may overcome the popular indifference to such
collections when severally administered, suggests some questions as to
this eldest form of fiction which I should like to ask the reader's
patience with. I do not know that I shall be able to answer them, or
that I shall try to do so; the vitality of a question that is answered
seems to exhale in the event; it palpitates no longer; curiosity flutters
away from the faded flower, which is fit then only to be folded away in
the 'hortus siccus' of accomplished facts. In view of this I may wish
merely to state the problems and leave them for the reader's solution,
or, more amusingly, for his mystification.


One of the most amusing questions concerning the short story is why a
form which is singly so attractive that every one likes to read a short
story when he finds it alone is collectively so repellent as it is said
to be. Before now I have imagined the case to be somewhat the same as
that of a number of pleasant people who are most acceptable as separate
householders, but who lose caste and cease to be desirable acquaintances
when gathered into a boarding-house.

Yet the case is not the same quite, for we see that the short story where
it is ranged with others of its species within the covers of a magazine
is so welcome that the editor thinks his number the more brilliant the
more short story writers he can call about his board, or under the roof
of his pension. Here the boardinghouse analogy breaks, breaks so
signally that I was lately moved to ask a distinguished editor why a book
of short stories usually failed and a magazine usually succeeded because
of them. He answered, gayly, that the short stories in most books of
them were bad; that where they were good, they went; and he alleged
several well-known instances in which books of prime short stories had a
great vogue. He was so handsomely interested in my inquiry that I could
not well say I thought some of the short stories which he had boasted in
his last number were indifferent good, and yet, as he allowed, had mainly
helped sell it. I had in mind many books of short stories of the first
excellence which had failed as decidedly as those others had succeeded,
for no reason that I could see; possibly there is really no reason in any
literary success or failure that can be predicted, or applied in another

I could name these books, if it would serve any purpose, but, in my
doubt, I will leave the reader to think of them, for I believe that his
indolence or intellectual reluctance is largely to blame for the failure
of good books of short stories. He is commonly so averse to any
imaginative exertion that he finds it a hardship to respond to that
peculiar demand which a book of good short stories makes upon him. He
can read one good short story in a magazine with refreshment, and a
pleasant sense of excitement, in the sort of spur it gives to his own
constructive faculty. But, if this is repeated in ten or twenty stories,
he becomes fluttered and exhausted by the draft upon his energies;
whereas a continuous fiction of the same quantity acts as an agreeable
sedative. A condition that the short story tacitly makes with the
reader, through its limitations, is that he shall subjectively fill in
the details and carry out the scheme which in its small dimensions the
story can only suggest; and the greater number of readers find this too
much for their feeble powers, while they cannot resist the incitement to
attempt it.

My theory does not wholly account for the fact (no theory wholly accounts
for any fact), and I own that the same objections would lie from the
reader against a number of short stories in a magazine. But it may be
that the effect is not the same in the magazine because of the variety in
the authorship, and because it would be impossibly jolting to read all
the short stories in a magazine 'seriatim'. On the other hand, the
identity of authorship gives a continuity of attraction to the short
stories in a book which forms that exhausting strain upon the imagination
of the involuntary co-partner.


Then, what is the solution as to the form of publication for short
stories, since people do not object to them singly but collectively, and
not in variety, but in identity of authorship? Are they to be printed
only in the magazines, or are they to be collected in volumes combining a
variety of authorship? Rather, I could wish, it might be found feasible
to purvey them in some pretty shape where each would appeal singly to the
reader and would not exhaust him in the subjective after-work required of
him. In this event many short stories now cramped into undue limits by
the editorial exigencies of the magazines might expand to greater length
and breadth, and without ceasing to be each a short story might not make
so heavy a demand upon the subliminal forces of the reader.

If any one were to say that all this was a little fantastic, I should not
contradict him; but I hope there is some reason in it, if reason can help
the short story to greater favor, for it is a form which I have great
pleasure in as a reader, and pride in as an American. If we have not
excelled all other moderns in it, we have certainly excelled in it;
possibly because we are in the period of our literary development which
corresponds to that of other peoples when the short story pre-eminently
flourished among them. But when one has said a thing like this, it
immediately accuses one of loose and inaccurate statement, and requires
one to refine upon it, either for one's own peace of conscience or for
one's safety from the thoughtful reader. I am not much afraid of that
sort of reader, for he is very rare, but I do like to know myself what I
mean, if I mean anything in particular.

In this instance I am obliged to ask myself whether our literary
development can be recognized separately from that of the whole English-
speaking world. I think it can, though, as I am always saying American
literature is merely a condition of English literature. In some sense
every European literature is a condition of some other European
literature, yet the impulse in each eventuates, if it does not originate
indigenously. A younger literature will choose, by a sort of natural
selection, some things for assimilation from an elder literature, for no
more apparent reason than it will reject other things, and it will
transform them in the process so that it will give them the effect of
indigeneity. The short story among the Italians, who called it the
novella, and supplied us with the name devoted solely among us to fiction
of epical magnitude, refined indefinitely upon the Greek romance, if it
derived from that; it retrenched itself in scope, and enlarged itself in
the variety of its types. But still these remained types, and they
remained types with the French imitators of the Italian novella. It was
not till the Spaniards borrowed the form of the novella and transplanted
it to their racier soil that it began to bear character, and to fruit in
the richness of their picaresque fiction. When the English borrowed it
they adapted it, in the metrical tales of Chaucer, to the genius of their
nation, which was then both poetical and humorous. Here it was full of
character, too, and more and more personality began to enlarge the bounds
of the conventional types and to imbue fresh ones. But in so far as the
novella was studied in the Italian sources, the French, Spanish, and
English literatures were conditions of Italian literature as distinctly,
though, of course, not so thoroughly, as American literature is a
condition of English literature. Each borrower gave a national cast to
the thing borrowed, and that is what has happened with us, in the full
measure that our nationality has differenced itself from the English.

Whatever truth there is in all this, and I will confess that a good deal
of it seems to me hardy conjecture, rather favors my position that we are
in some such period of our literary development as those other peoples
when the short story flourished among them. Or, if I restrict our claim,
I may safely claim that they abundantly had the novella when they had not
the novel at all, and we now abundantly have the novella, while we have
the novel only subordinately and of at least no such quantitative
importance as the English, French, Spanish, Norwegians, Russians, and
some others of our esteemed contemporaries, not to name the Italians. We
surpass the Germans, who, like ourselves, have as distinctly excelled in
the modern novella as they have fallen short in the novel. Or, if I may
not quite say this, I will make bold to say that I can think of many
German novelle that I should like to read again, but scarcely one German
novel; and I could honestly say the same of American novelle, though not
of American novels.


The abeyance, not to say the desuetude, that the novella fell into for
several centuries is very curious, and fully as remarkable as the modern
rise of the short story. It began to prevail in the dramatic form, for a
play is a short story put on the stage; it may have satisfied in that
form the early love of it, and it has continued to please in that form;
but in its original shape it quite vanished, unless we consider the
little studies and sketches and allegories of the Spectator and Tatler
and Idler and Rambler and their imitations on the Continent as guises of
the novella. The germ of the modern short story may have survived in
these, or in the metrical form of the novella which appeared in Chaucer
and never wholly disappeared. With Crabbe the novella became as
distinctly the short story as it has become in the hands of Miss Wilkins.
But it was not till our time that its great merit as a form was felt, for
until our time so great work was never done with it. I remind myself of
Boccaccio, and of the Arabian Nights, without the wish to hedge from my
bold stand. They are all elemental; compared with some finer modern work
which deepens inward immeasurably, they are all of their superficial
limits. They amuse, but they do not hold, the mind and stamp it with
large and profound impressions.

An Occidental cannot judge the literary quality of the Eastern tales; but
I will own my suspicion that the perfection of the Italian work is
philological rather than artistic, while the web woven by Mr. James or
Miss Jewett, by Kielland or Bjornson, by Maupassant, by Palacio Valdes,
by Giovanni Verga, by Tourguenief, in one of those little frames seems to
me of an exquisite color and texture and of an entire literary
preciousness, not only as regards the diction, but as regards those more
intangible graces of form, those virtues of truth and reality, and those
lasting significances which distinguish the masterpiece.

The novella has in fact been carried so far in the short story that it
might be asked whether it had not left the novel behind, as to perfection
of form; though one might not like to affirm this. Yet there have been
but few modern fictions of the novel's dimensions which have the beauty
of form many a novella embodies. Is this because it is easier to give
form in the small than in the large, or only because it is easier to hide
formlessness? It is easier to give form in the novella than in the
novel, because the design of less scope can be more definite, and because
the persons and facts are fewer, and each can be more carefully treated.
But, on the other hand, the slightest error in execution shows more in
the small than in the large, and a fault of conception is more evident.
The novella must be clearly imagined, above all things, for there is no
room in it for those felicities of characterization or comment by which
the artist of faltering design saves himself in the novel.


The question as to where the short story distinguishes itself from the
anecdote is of the same nature as that which concerns the bound set
between it and the novel. In both cases the difference of the novella is
in the motive, or the origination. The anecdote is too palpably simple
and single to be regarded as a novella, though there is now and then a
novella like The Father, by Bjornson, which is of the actual brevity of
the anecdote, but which, when released in the reader's consciousness,
expands to dramatic dimensions impossible to the anecdote. Many
anecdotes have come down from antiquity, but not, I believe, one short
story, at least in prose; and the Italians, if they did not invent the
story, gave us something most sensibly distinguishable from the classic
anecdote in the novella. The anecdote offers an illustration of
character, or records a moment of action; the novella embodies a drama
and develops a type.

It is not quite so clear as to when and where a piece of fiction ceases
to be a novella and becomes a novel. The frontiers are so vague that one
is obliged to recognize a middle species, or rather a middle magnitude,
which paradoxically, but necessarily enough, we call the novelette.
First we have the short story, or novella, then we have the long story,
or novel, and between these we have the novelette, which is in name a
smaller than the short story, though it is in point of fact two or three
times longer than a short story. We may realize them physically if we
will adopt the magazine parlance and speak of the novella as a one-number
story, of the novel as a serial, and of the novelette as a two-number or
a three-number story; if it passes the three-number limit it seems to
become a novel. As a two-number or three-number story it is the despair
of editors and publishers. The interest of so brief a serial will not
mount sufficiently to carry strongly over from month to month; when the
tale is completed it will not make a book which the Trade (inexorable
force!) cares to handle. It is therefore still awaiting its
authoritative avatar, which it will be some one's prosperity and glory to
imagine; for in the novelette are possibilities for fiction as yet
scarcely divined.

The novelette can have almost as perfect form as the novella. In fact,
the novel has form in the measure that it approaches the novelette; and
some of the most symmetrical modern novels are scarcely more than
novelettes, like Tourguenief's Dmitri Rudine, or his Smoke, or Spring
Floods. The Vicar of Wakefield, the father of the modern novel, is
scarcely more than a novelette, and I have sometimes fancied, but no
doubt vainly, that the ultimated novel might be of the dimensions of
Hamlet. If any one should say there was not room in Hamlet for the
character and incident requisite in a novel, I should be ready to answer
that there seemed a good deal of both in Hamlet.

But no doubt there are other reasons why the novel should not finally be
of the length of Hamlet, and I must not let my enthusiasm for the
novelette carry me too far, or, rather, bring me up too short. I am
disposed to dwell upon it, I suppose, because it has not yet shared the
favor which the novella and the novel have enjoyed, and because until
somebody invents a way for it to the public it cannot prosper like the
one-number story or the serial. I should like to say as my last word for
it here that I believe there are many novels which, if stripped of their
padding, would turn out to have been all along merely novelettes in

It does not follow, however, that there are many novelle which, if they
were duly padded, would be found novelettes. In that dim, subjective
region where the aesthetic origins present themselves almost with the
authority of inspirations there is nothing clearer than the difference
between the short-story motive and the long-story motive. One, if one is
in that line of work, feels instinctively just the size and carrying
power of the given motive. Or, if the reader prefers a different figure,
the mind which the seed has been dropped into from Somewhere is
mystically aware whether the seed is going to grow up a bush or is going
to grow up a tree, if left to itself. Of course, the mind to which the
seed is intrusted may play it false, and wilfully dwarf the growth, or
force it to unnatural dimensions; but the critical observer will easily
detect the fact of such treasons. Almost in the first germinal impulse
the inventive mind forefeels the ultimate difference and recognizes the
essential simplicity or complexity of the motive. There will be a
prophetic subdivision into a variety of motives and a multiplication of
characters and incidents and situations; or the original motive will be
divined indivisible, and there will be a small group of people
immediately interested and controlled by a single, or predominant, fact.
The uninspired may contend that this is bosh, and I own that something
might be said for their contention, but upon the whole I think it is

The right novel is never a congeries of novelle, as might appear to the
uninspired. If it indulges even in episodes, it loses in reality and
vitality. It is one stock from which its various branches put out, and
form it a living growth identical throughout. The right novella is never
a novel cropped back from the size of a tree to a bush, or the branch of
a tree stuck into the ground and made to serve for a bush. It is another
species, destined by the agencies at work in the realm of unconsciousness
to be brought into being of its own kind, and not of another.


This was always its case, but in the process of time the short story,
while keeping the natural limits of the primal novella (if ever there was
one), has shown almost limitless possibilities within them. It has shown
itself capable of imparting the effect of every sort of intention,
whether of humor or pathos, of tragedy or comedy or broad farce or
delicate irony, of character or action. The thing that first made itself
known as a little tale, usually salacious, dealing with conventionalized
types and conventionalized incidents, has proved itself possibly the most
flexible of all the literary forms in its adaptation to the needs of the
mind that wishes to utter itself, inventively or constructively, upon
some fresh occasion, or wishes briefly to criticise or represent some
phase or fact of life.

The riches in this shape of fiction are effectively inestimable, if we
consider what has been done in the short story, and is still doing
everywhere. The good novels may be easily counted, but the good novelle,
since Boccaccio began (if it was he that first began) to make them,
cannot be computed. In quantity they are inexhaustible, and in quality
they are wonderfully satisfying. Then, why is it that so very, very few
of the most satisfactory of that innumerable multitude stay by you, as
the country people say, in characterization or action? How hard it is to
recall a person or a fact out of any of them, out of the most signally
good! We seem to be delightfully nourished as we read, but is it, after
all, a full meal? We become of a perfect intimacy and a devoted
friendship with the men and women in the short stories, but not
apparently of a lasting acquaintance. It is a single meeting we have
with them, and though we instantly love or hate them dearly, recurrence
and repetition seem necessary to that familiar knowledge in which we hold
the personages in a novel.

It is here that the novella, so much more perfect in form, shows its
irremediable inferiority to the novel, and somehow to the play, to the
very farce, which it may quantitatively excel. We can all recall by name
many characters out of comedies and farces; but how many characters out
of short stories can we recall? Most persons of the drama give
themselves away by name for types, mere figments of allegory, and perhaps
oblivion is the penalty that the novella pays for the fineness of its
characterizations; but perhaps, also, the dramatic form has greater
facilities for repetition, and so can stamp its persons more indelibly on
the imagination than the narrative form in the same small space. The
narrative must give to description what the drama trusts to
representation; but this cannot account for the superior permanency of
the dramatic types in so great measure as we might at first imagine, for
they remain as much in mind from reading as from seeing the plays. It is
possible that as the novella becomes more conscious, its persons will
become more memorable; but as it is, though we now vividly and with
lasting delight remember certain short stories, we scarcely remember by
name any of the people in them. I may be risking too much in offering an
instance, but who, in even such signal instances as The Revolt of Mother,
by Miss Wilkins, or The Dulham Ladies, by Miss Jewett, can recall by name
the characters that made them delightful?


The defect of the novella which we have been acknowledging seems an
essential limitation; but perhaps it is not insuperable; and we may yet
have short stories which shall supply the delighted imagination with
creations of as much immortality as we can reasonably demand. The
structural change would not be greater than the moral or material change
which has been wrought in it since it began as a yarn, gross and
palpable, which the narrator spun out of the coarsest and often the
filthiest stuff, to snare the thick fancy or amuse the lewd leisure of
listeners willing as children to have the same persons and the same
things over and over again. Now it has not only varied the persons and
things, but it has refined and verified them in the direction of the
natural and the supernatural, until it is above all other literary forms
the vehicle of reality and spirituality. When one thinks of a bit of Mr.
James's psychology in this form, or a bit of Verga's or Kielland's
sociology, or a bit of Miss Jewett's exquisite veracity, one perceives
the immense distance which the short story has come on the way to the
height it has reached. It serves equally the ideal and the real; that
which it is loath to serve is the unreal, so that among the short stories
which have recently made reputations for their authors very few are of
that peculiar cast which we have no name for but romanticistic. The only
distinguished modern writer of romanticistic novelle whom I can think of
is Mr. Bret Harte, and he is of a period when romanticism was so
imperative as to be almost a condition of fiction. I am never so
enamoured of a cause that I will not admit facts that seem to tell
against it, and I will allow that this writer of romanticistic short
stories has more than any other supplied us with memorable types and
characters. We remember Mr. John Oakhurst by name; we remember Kentuck
and Tennessee's Partner, at least by nickname; and we remember their
several qualities. These figures, if we cannot quite consent that they
are persons, exist in our memories by force of their creator's
imagination, and at the moment I cannot think of any others that do,
out of the myriad of American short stories, except Rip Van Winkle out of
Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and Marjorie Daw out of Mr. Aldrich's
famous little caprice of that title, and Mr. James's Daisy Miller.

It appears to be the fact that those writers who have first distinguished
themselves in the novella have seldom written novels of prime order.
Mr. Kipling is an eminent example, but Mr. Kipling has yet a long life
before him in which to upset any theory about him, and one can only
instance him provisionally. On the other hand, one can be much more
confident that the best novelle have been written by the greatest
novelists, conspicuously Maupassant, Verga, Bjornson, Mr. Thomas Hardy,
Mr. James, Mr. Cable, Tourguenief, Tolstoy, Valdes, not to name others.
These have, in fact, all done work so good in this form that one is
tempted to call it their best work. It is really not their best, but it
is work so good that it ought to have equal acceptance with their novels,
if that distinguished editor was right who said that short stories sold
well when they were good short stories. That they ought to do so is so
evident that a devoted reader of them, to whom I was submitting the
anomaly the other day, insisted that they did. I could only allege the
testimony of publishers and authors to the contrary, and this did not
satisfy him.

It does not satisfy me, and I wish that the general reader, with whom the
fault lies, could be made to say why, if he likes one short story by
itself and four short stories in a magazine, he does not like, or will
not have, a dozen short stories in a book. This was the baffling
question which I began with and which I find myself forced to end with,
after all the light I have thrown upon the subject. I leave it where I
found it, but perhaps that is a good deal for a critic to do. If I had
left it anywhere else the reader might not feel bound to deal with it
practically by reading all the books of short stories he could lay hands
on, and either divining why he did not enjoy them, or else forever
foregoing his prejudice against them because of his pleasure in them.


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