The Great English Short Story Writers Vol 1

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The short-story commenced its career as a verbal utterance, or, asRobert Louis Stevenson puts it, with “the first men who told theirstories round the savage camp-fire.”

It bears the mark of its origin, for even to-day it is true that themore it creates the illusion of the speaking-voice, causing the readerto listen and to see, so that he forgets the printed page, the betterdoes it accomplish its literary purpose. It is probably an instinctiveappreciation of this fact which has led so many latter-day writersto narrate their short-stories in dialect. In a story which iscommunicated by the living voice our attention is held primarily notby the excellent deposition of adjectives and poise of style, but bythe striding progress of the plot; it is the plot, and action in theplot, alone which we remember when the combination of words whichconveyed and made the story real to us has been lost to mind. “Crusoerecoiling from the foot-print, Achilles shouting over against theTrojans, Ulysses bending the great bow, Christian running with hisfingers in his ears; these are each culminating moments, and each hasbeen printed on the mind’s eye for ever.”[1]

[Footnote 1: A Gossip on Romance, from Memories and Portraits, by
R.L. Stevenson.]

The secondary importance of the detailed language in which an incidentis narrated, when compared with the total impression made by thenaked action contained in the incident, is seen in the case ofballad poetry, where a man may retain a vivid mental picture of thelocalities, atmosphere, and dramatic moments created by Coleridge’sAncient Mariner, or Rossetti’s White Ship, and yet be quiteincapable of repeating two consecutive lines of the verse. Inliterature of narration, whether prose or verse, the dramatic worth ofthe action related must be the first consideration.

In earlier days, when much of the current fiction was not writtendown, but travelled from mouth to mouth, as it does in the Orientto-day, this fact must have been realized—that, in the short-story,plot is superior to style. Among modern writers, however, there hasbeen a growing tendency to make up for scantiness of plot byhigh literary workmanship; the result has been in reality not ashort-story, but a descriptive sketch or vignette, dealing chieflywith moods and landscapes. So much has this been the case that thewriter of a recent Practical Treatise on the Art of the Short-Storyhas found it necessary to make the bald statement that “the firstrequisite of a short-story is that the writer have a story totell.”[2]

[Footnote 2: Short-Story Writing, by Charles Raymond Barrett.]