by Margaret Kolb
Published by Melville House, 2011 | 211 pages
Frank O’Connor (1903 – 1966) is famous principally, perhaps, as the last major light of the Irish Renaissance, a literary movement – inspired by nationalism and the revival of traditional and folk heritages – of the latter 19th and earlier 20th centuries. He got his start, as so many of his fellow Renaissance writers did, as a poet and translator of Irish medieval literature. At the peak of his career he was managing director of Yeats’s Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and John F. Kennedy even referenced him in a speech. But, as Russell Banks notes in his introduction here, by 1961 O’Connor was in his sixties and had long ago fallen “off the bus” that the young writers of the time had packed themselves onto. And yet, he delivered in that year a series of lectures at Stanford University on the nature of the short story which evolved first into a campus, and then literary world, sensation (among his attendees sat the likes of Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, and Robert Stone). The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story, first published in 1963, is comprised of the contents of these lectures.
The Lonely Voice is, fundamentally, an attempt to nail down what a short story is and is not. In it O’Connor argues that “the conception of a short story as miniature art is inherently false,” a notion as apropos today, in the era of microfiction and the 5,000-word submission limit, as it was in its own time. Shortness, O’Connor argues, is not the defining aspect of the short story. Rather, the short story is defined by its engagement with the “submerged voice” – the voice of the silenced population. As both a writer and political revolutionary, much is clearly at stake for O’Connor regarding these populations.
To paraphrase a Russian writer (whose exact identity is, perhaps appropriately, submerged), we are all but footnotes to Gogol’s “Overcoat.” O’Connor would agree. He suggests that “The Overcoat” marks “the first appearance in fiction of The Little Man,” O’Connor’s term for the individual actor within the submerged population, and foil to the traditional hero. The hero is at home in society; by its rules, inevitably, he finds his place. In contrast, the Little Man is rooted in something “we do not often find in the novel – an intense awareness of human loneliness.” The clerk in Gogol’s “Overcoat,” Turgenev’s peasants, Maupassant’s prostitutes, D.H. Lawrence’s coal miners: all exist in a particular world – solitary, without rule or values.
O’Connor’s attention is not solely focused on the nature of the characters within the novel, however. He delights in explicating a variety of its different aspects. At one point, for example, he breaks down fiction structurally (as in Forster’s Aspects of the Novel), laying down the three essential elements of a short story – exposition, development, drama. “Exposition,” he writes, “we may illustrate as ‘John Fortescue was a solicitor in the little town of X’; development as ‘One day Mrs. Fortescue told him she was about to leave him for another man’; and drama as ‘You will do nothing of the kind,’ he said.” He takes so much delight in explications, in fact, that he often pursues his analyses to the point of negating arguments he previously made. Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is celebrated in English courses as a model for excluding extraneous detail. O’Connor agrees, then dismisses this description as inadequate. O’Connor’s discussion of the logistics of Joyce’s use of adjectives within the crystalline perfection of “The Dead” and why, after having written it, Joyce “would never again be able to deal with characters,” is as insightful and balanced as his notes on the idle lives of the populations in Hemingway’s stories (in which “everybody seems to be permanently on holiday or getting a divorce”), as sharp as his dissection of the class envies in the stories of A.E. Coppard, or the dissemblings of Katherine Mansfield.
Inevitably, not everyone will agree with O’Connor’s claims that short-story characters are exempt from the heroicisms of the novel form. O’Connor, in fact, is too subtle a critic to insist too strenuously on them himself. Indeed, he suggests that it may well be that the short story has already been drifting for a while away from the Gogol mode and into what O’Connor dubs the Salinger mode. All of Salinger’s characters, O’Connor notes, notably his precocious Glass family, are “Hamlets,” elevated and, in one way or another, uncommon. Nor are short stories are only “a lonely art.” They are and have always been entertainment as well. Very much to his credit, O’Connor always keeps this in mind. As are Aspects of the Novel and Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading, The Lonely Voice is personal as well as theoretical.
Young writers are dazzled today – in this McSweeney’s era – by the ballooning number of print and electronic literary publications catering to flash fiction, oddities, and experimentation for experimentation’s sake. These, in turn, began in reaction to the traditional offerings of mainstream and/or ivy-covered magazines such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Between these two extremes the modern short story writer is trapped. O’Connor writes that “the saddest thing about the short story is the eagerness with which those who write it best try to escape from it…They seem forever to be looking for company, trying to get away from the submerged population that they have brought to life for us.” Just as Coppard longed to escape from the working class, today’s short story writers are, perhaps more than ever, on a desperate hunt for somebody, somewhere, to sanction their efforts. They ought to read O’Connor, if only to find some serenity in the notion that they, and not just their art, indeed have a voice.
Claire Shefchik received an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Revolution House, Compass Rose, Underwater New York, and placed in University of New Orleans Contest For Study Abroad. She received a grant to attend the 2012 Key West Literary Seminar. She lives in Minnesota and is working on a memoir about sailing tall ships as a modern-day pirate princess.