Goal and Scope of the Course
A short description
The aim of the course is to learn to read sophisticated short fiction with intense and appropriately focused attention. We will take up a limited but various body of stories, chiefly (but not exclusively) from Europe and America, and from the 19th and 20th centuries. We will be trying to see how different types of stories telegraph to the reader certain expectations that the reader is supposed to fulfill. We'll also practice doing what we need to do in order to fulfill those expectations. There will be two examinations and two short writing assignments. Points will also be awarded for active student participation in threaded-message board discussions. The textbook is available from Claflin Bookstore (in the strip mall on the SW corner of the intersection of Claflin Road and Denison Avenue in Manhattan, Kansas).
A more detailed idea of what we'll be up to -- and not.
The term short story as it is generally used today, covers an immense variety of fictions. But despite this dizzying scope of reference, the term is not synonymous with the phrase "a story that is short." Our initial task will be to get some general idea of what "the short story" (in the special sense which that phrase has come to take on for informed readers) has in common with other kinds of stories that are short, and what marks it off from them.
In fact, the kind of creature we have to do with here is a relatively recent invention. Although it develops out of a long history of fictional (i.e., "made up") narratives (tellings of things happening in the course of time), it is importantly different from the forms of short narrations that preceded it in history.
Some of these (like the stories we now call "fairy tales") were, to begin with, not even "literature" (in the sense of things composed in letters), since they are the product of oral tradition, tales (from Old English talu, "told") passed on from teller to teller, stored in memory and altered in each retelling.
And much older, too, than the short story (from here on we'll dispense with quotation marks!) is the kind of brief story that has come to be called the fable. The term "fable," too, embraces a rich family of individual critters, many of them with identifiable authors, who worked them up by successive revisions of manuscripts, a composing process quite different from that of the oral tale (even though many other fables that have come down to us are probably the products of oral tradition, too).
Another traditional form of short narrative worth our attention at the outset (and later in the course as well) is the parable. We will begin by trying to get clear on what the chief features are that short stories (in our special sense of the term) share with these ancestors, and what the chief features are that distinguish them from these.
Our point in doing this is to sharpen our sense of what kinds of interests short stories are designed to evoke and satisfy for their readers. This is something we need to get focused upon if we are to be appropriately curious in reading them -- if we want to be "where they're at."
This will cause us to start reflecting on the kinds of decisions that writers of short stories make in designing the stories that they are presumptuous enough to put in front of a sophisticated reading public. We'll see that between writers and readers what is going on is a series of games, and that one of the fundamental choices a writer makes (sooner or later, in the course of constructing his or her narrative) is what sort of game this is going to be. This means that one of the first thing that a reader has to tune into is: what are the clues in this story as to what sort of game I'm confronted with? (What particular sorts of puzzlements am I supposed to get hooked on, and how am I supposed to go about gratifying these curiosities?) We're going to see that one of the first things we have to get beyond is the idea that the only thing curiosity a story might play with is "How will things turn out?)
Once a writer has consciously or unconsciously settled upon a particular type of game, the emerging story has to be played into shape as an interesting version of that game. The reader's job, then, is to tune into the way the story does this.
The point of the various critical concepts that we will take up is that they focus us in profitable ways on the specific ways in which different kinds of stories lead the reader they presuppose through the playing out of some particular version of some recognizable type of game. Getting clear about these notions is important because, if we learn how to use them, we more quickly realize what game we are confronted with, and what moves we as readers need to be prepared to make in order to hold up our end of the stick.
The bulk of our reading will be thus be of short fictions that seek to interest us in a concentrated way in the complexities of individual human character, and which are generally focused on a moment of particular intensity in which something of importance about that character becomes clear -- sometimes to the character himself or herself, but, most importantly (and sometimes only) to the reader. Often this moment is not the be-all and end-all of the story, but is such as to get us to "hang with" the story after we have put down the page. That is: some of the most interesting, most powerful of these fictions does not stop with what we ordinarily think of as "reading." We are invited to continue to explore implications, in feeling as well as in thought, as we carry the story away from the moment in which we finished processing the final sentence. One of the marks of a particularly excellent piece of literature in the broader sense -- this goes for poems and plays and films as well as for prose narratives, and for oral performances, too -- is that they make us want to re-experience them, at least in part. Not because we want to know what happened, or even to figure out why, but simply because we want to "go over it" and "go through it" again. Strange is the person who has no favorite pieces of music. Impossible is the person who has favorite pieces of music but no desire to hear them again! Yet many inexperienced readers suppose that any especially well-told story will yield up everything it has to offer to a skilled reader on a single reading. Something like this is true for a many newspaper stories, and even for some quite artful short fictions. But even simple fables fascinate us -- and not only as children -- into wanting to hear it again. At a certain point we become curious on a different level: what might be some of the reasons that these tales are so compelling? And since the satisfaction of this curiosity may not be a simple matter, the curiosity is the more compelling. This sort of curiosity is always on the table, with any narrative that engages our attention. But especially with what we call "short stories," the moment of intensity that offers to satisfy our curiosity about some facet of character turns out to do so only on very special terms: it points the way (and we have to see how) to insights that are not immediate, and that we have to find our way to by tracing out implications knotted into it. This, too, is a skill, and like any skill it takes practice. And only as skill increases do the rewards of exercising it come to full fruition.
We should soon start to see something of the variety of games that have been invented for engaging our interest in the psychological and social aspects of individual character. That is, we'll find out that "realistic" is a term covers an immense variety of ways of trying to afford us experience of (and reflection on) quite different possible kinds of "reality."
Towards the middle of our course we will start complicating our initial picture of the short story yet further by taking note of the fact that, after all, many writers of the last two century have experimented with reintroducing allegory into their fictions, often preserving an interest in the complexities of character and social fabric. Sometimes they seem to enter more purely into the domains traditionally occupied by the fable and parable, but end up offering a kind of complexity and mystery generally not sought in the traditional examples of these genres. We'll find out that some of the games we are invited to play in these "surrealistic" stories are different from what we are challenged to do in the more familiar "realistic" short stories. But we will also find that some of the most basic games we learned to play with "realistic" stories are going on as well in these weirder fictions, and that if we bring to bear some of the fundamental curiosities prompted by our growing stock of critical concepts, these fictions, too, will start to tell us what further moves we need to work through if we are going to enjoy the kind of pay off they are designed to provide.
Note that our interest is not in memorizing plots, or acquiring a recall of famous characters in fiction, or of being able to spout off definitions of concepts basic to the field of literary criticism. (What earthly -- or unearthly -- use could such baggage, as such, ever be?) As we will see, any story does require us to be interested in the details of its shape and content sufficiently to retain these in our memory long enough to make ever-richer connections with the details it discloses later on in the course of its unfolding. If we try to live only "in the present moment" of the story we will not even be able to understand that moment itself, to say nothing of the other instants of the narrative that it illuminates, and the piece as a whole. And you will, I hope, find that at least some of the stories we try our teeth on do hang tenaciously in your thoughts and feelings. But these memories, these retentions, are not the point of a course like ours.
The kind of knowledge this course is designed to increase for you is of a very special sort: skill (or rather a battery of skills), not facts. The test of whether the course has worked, for a given student, will be whether he or she has picked up a particular repertoire of moves -- the moves a person needs in order to make sense of a representative variety of short stories. This is much more like driving a car, or swimming the crawl, or playing the guitar, or holding up your end of the stick in a pickup basketball game: can you do it -- i.e., make the called-for moves when they are called for?
This is also something quite different from a survey course in the short story, where we might try to get an accurate sense of how and why the short story might have developed over the course of time -- or even from a course in masterpieces of the short story, in which we might undertake to touch bases with someone's idea of the greatest 30 or 50 or 100 stories written over the last two centuries. Such courses are quite worthwhile! But they presuppose that the people who participate in them already have the supple repertoire of skills available to bring to bear in such an enterprise. Our job here is arguably more important: to work up those skills in the first place.
To do this, our reading needs to be not extensive, but intensive. If our condition is that at present we tend to read too superficially (not out of stupidity but for want of having seen the point asking for something more), we will not help ourselves by trying to read a huge number of stories. Since skill comes only with practice, we need to slow down -- to practice. We need to rehearse and rehearse. And that means not reading something new, but re-reading something we're made ourselves initially familiar with to be on a footing to read it with eyes we were not able to see it with in the first instance.
This fact accounts for an obvious feature of the Course Schedule: we don't take up a huge body of stories. But at the same time, the presumption is at work that students will not just read the ones assigned and stop. They will read them several times, each time with a more advanced agenda of curiosity.
How do we pick up moves? In general, we watch those who have them go through them, catch on to what they are and what they do, and rip them off, by practicing, to make them our own. That's how we learn from coaches, formal and informal. Here, one of your main resources will be the series of questions the editors of our textbook often provide after the stories they have chosen. Another will be the occasional study guides I send you to. Your job is not just to try to see what, in a story, might be relevant to answering this or that question. Just as importantly, you want to be speculating "behind" the question, as it were. You want to start trying to figure out what might have led that person to ask that question (if it is one that didn't already occur to you). More particularly
That's how we learn to play basketball, but it's also how we learn to make sense of a basketball game (something quite different, but quite complicated, and something that playing basketball, as a spectator sport, presupposes). It's how we learn to play the guitar, but also how we learn what it is to be a lawyer or a doctor or run a business or do physics or come up with computer programs, or any other sort of engineering. We don't just memorize facts and principles: we have to see what their point is in use, and get competent to make that use of them, by using them that way.
There is an even more detailed discussion of my assumptions and methods that you can consult if you wish. If you are interested, you can take a look here.
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Contents copyright © 2001 by Lyman A. Baker.
This page last updated 20 August 2001.