CFP: American short story writers and the American short story as cultural institution

The following call for papers has been selected by the organisers of the 53rd annual Congress of the French Association for American Studies, which will take place at the University of Bordeaux (Michel Montaigne) from 31st May to the 3rd June, 2022. The theme of the congress is “Legitimacy, Authority, Canons”.

American short story writers and the American short story as cultural institution

Maurice Cronin, (University Paris Dauphine)

The short story holds a paradoxical institutional and cultural status in the United States, where it has, by turns, been exalted as the ‘national art form’ and relegated to the role of poor relation to the novel. Since the 1890s, when Brander Matthews designated the “short-story” as a genre in its own right, quite distinct from, and implicitly superior to, the novel, seen as the canonical form of European fiction—a designation that Andrew Levy has described as “an informal declaration of independence from … cultural subservience to European literature” (Levy, 34)—the short story has frequently been accorded an exceptional place in U.S. culture. This is partly attributable to institutional factors specific to the country. The establishment of a modern Anglo-American literary canon to rival the classical canon was a key element in the endeavor to legitimize modern English departments emerging in the early twentieth century in the US. Establishing an American literary tradition was an important part of that endeavor throughout the first half of the century, and the designation of the short story as candidate for the role of “national art form” a notable feature of it (Levy 84).

The genre’s candidacy was subsequently bolstered by the appearance of the New Critical anthology-text books, such as Brooks and Warren’s influential Understanding Fiction (1943, 1959), which gave the short story an important role in high-school and college literature pedagogy, and the emergence of the first creative writing graduate programs, in which the short story was almost immediately adopted as the apprentice genre for aspiring writers of fiction. In the U.S. today, the short story is associated with prestige publications like the New Yorker, and is more than ever at the heart of creative writing pedagogy in graduate workshop programmes. And yet, despite this strong institutional presence—or perhaps even because of it—the short story still gives the impression of a genre caught up in a perpetual quest for legitimacy. This is precisely what makes it a rich subject for exploring the related questions of legitimacy, authority and canons in American studies. The genre’s paradoxical status is attributable partly to the nature of the institutions that have been instrumental to its development in the U.S., and partly to the specific nature of the question of legitimacy in the literary domain more generally. As Patrick Charaudeau shows, legitimacy can generally be defined as a form of social recognition that is always, in some way or another, institutional in nature and origin (Charaudeau, 3). In a sense, literature is itself an institution in the usual sense of the term, but it is also a strange, paradoxically “institutionless institution”, as Jacques Derrida puts it, insofar as “in principle” it “allows one say everything, in every way” (Derrida, 42, 36). As such, what is thereby ‘instituted’ is literary authors’ freedom “to break free of rules, displace them” (37). As a field, then, literature is a relatively weakly institutionalized one. Literary texts do not emerge in a situation in which the rules or norms governing their emission and reception are entirely pre-defined once and for all. As such, they must reflexively negotiate their own emergence, and as it were, legitimize themselves. It follows from this that in the literary domain there is always a potential tension between legitimacy, understood as a form of institutional recognition or sanction, and authority, which in this case must always have a more or less pronounced “charismatic” dimension, insofar as its source is not socially or institutionally visible. This tension between legitimacy and authority is especially relevant to the position of short story writers in the United States precisely because the short story is a genre in which the mediating role of the institutional structures crucial to its development is particularly visible, whether it be in the form of magazine or anthology editors, anthology text books or creative writing workshops. As such institutional factors do not merely surround works, but affect them in their very structure and “content”, this workshop seeks to explore the question of how writers in the U.S. negotiate and renegotiate them within their works. All approaches that help us understand how, since the post-war era, short story writers have managed to construct distinctive literary identities and gain canonical status in a so-called minor genre that has been so heavily institutionalized are welcome.

This question of authors’ negotiation and renegotiation of the cultural and institutional status of the genre is, of course, not just a textual matter. Mode of publication is a particularly crucial institutional factor that all short story writers have to contend with. As Bruno Montfort has argued, what truly distinguishes the short story from the novel is that the former is almost always published alongside other texts. Unlike the novel, its “verbal unit” (the text) very rarely overlaps with its “material unit of publication”, i.e. the book (Montfort 158, my translation). In a culture in which the single-author book still very much remains the prestige publication format for fiction, short stories and short story writers always potentially suffer from a deficit of legitimacy and cultural authority. Given that prior publication in magazines and journals is more than ever a pre-requisite for short-story writers to gain subsequent access to publication in more prestigious formats, contributions that deal with short story writers’ relations with magazine editors—through, for example, examination of author-editor correspondence—are of obvious relevance to this workshop.

The publication of single-author collections would appear to represent a form of consecration for short story writers. Yet whether re-publication of magazine-published stories in single-author collections offers a solution to the deficit of legitimacy and authority that short-story writers have to contend with is moot. Bruno Montfort points out, for instance, that the authority of such collections is more often than not quite restricted, an argument supported by the fact that, to a far greater extent than novels, they are subject to being “dismembered” (Montfort, 165, my translation) and subsequently republished in different formats. The chequered publication history of short story collections in the United States, even those of canonical writers like Hemingway and Faulkner, lends credence to this view. Yet the short story collection as a genre continues to enjoy a degree of presence and cultural prestige in the US today that is unrivalled in most other national literatures. Furthermore, one might wonder whether re-publication of magazine-published stories in single-author collections constitutes a re-assertion of writers’ authority over their texts. Proposals that involve comparative analyses of magazine and book-collection versions of authors’ stories would offer an interesting way of exploring this question.

Re-publication of their stories in short story anthologies may also represent a form of consecration for short story writers. National anthologies are frequently designed to ‘reflect’ a national tradition, or the cultural and social concerns proper to a nation, but in reality they are also instrumental in shaping the traditions they purport to reflect. Editorial selections, and the introductions or prefaces that usually present and justify them to readers, help shape or change readers’ conception of the genre and play an important role in the on-going process of canon formation. The short story anthology genre is no exception, but it has not as yet received the critical attention it undoubtedly deserves (D’hoker, 115). As the tradition of inviting short story writers to edit short story anthologies is very much alive today in the US, contributions that study the prefaces and editorial choices of such anthologies would add to our understanding of the role writers themselves have played in (re)shaping the canon and the short story as a genre.

The roles writers have played as anthology editors show, if it were necessary, that the relationship between writers and the institutions of the literary field is often a symbiotic one. U.S. writers’ widespread involvement as instructors or former students in university creative writing workshops provides further evidence of this. Mark McGurl claims to show that the presence of the workshop system is “everywhere visible … like a watermark” in post-war US prose fiction, manifesting itself most characteristically in the new forms of institutional self-reflexivity that he detects in the texts of novelists and short-story writers of the so-called “program era” (McGurl, 4). However, McGurl’s work is not focused specifically on the short story, and his account of the institutional effects of the workshop system on the genre and on the practice of short story writers is necessarily patchy. Contributions that either build on McGurl’s approach, or pay greater attention than he does to the shaping effects that writers themselves have had on the workshop system through their involvement in it would thus also be very welcome.

500-word (max) proposals for 25-minute conference papers related to the above topics, and a short biographical statement, are to be sent to Maurice Cronin (mcecronin@yahoo.fr) no later than 17th January, 2022.

 

Works cited

Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Fiction, 2nd edition, Prentice-Hall, 1959.

Charaudeau, Patrick. “Le charisme comme condition du leadership politique.” Revue Française des Sciences de l’information et de la communication [en ligne] 7, 2015. Web. 17 November 2021.

Derrida, Jacques. “This Strange Institution Called Literature: An Interview with Jacques Derrida.” Acts of Literature. Ed. Derek Attridge. New York: Routledge, 1991. 33-75.

D’hoker, Elke. “The Short Story Anthology.” Ed. Paul Delaney and Adrian Hunter, The Edinburgh Companion to the Short Story in English. Edinburgh UP, 2019. 108-124.

Levy, Andrew. The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story. Cambridge UP, 1993.

Matthews, Brander. “The Philosophy of the Short-Story.” Short Story Theories. Ed. Charles E. May. Ohio UP, 1976. 52-59

McGurl, Mark. The Program Era and the Rise of Creative Writing. Harvard UP, 2009.

Montfort, Bruno. “La nouvelle et son mode de publication, le cas américain.” Poétique 90, 1992. 153- 171.

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