A great story is not necessarily short at all, and the conception of the short story as a miniature art is inherently false. Basically the difference between the short story and the novel is not one of length. It is a difference between pure and applied storytelling.
Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer and critic died on this day fifty years ago. Born Michael O’Donovan in Cork in 1903, he went on to wrote plays, biographies and essays and has become known as one of the twentieth century’s greatest short story writers. His book The Lonely Voice, based on lectures he gave at Stanford University in the 1960s is now considered to be one of the first in depth and most influential examinations of the short story form.
Raised in relative poverty by his mother in Cork, O’Connor had little in the way of formal education. He joined the Irish Republican Army in 1918 and was briefly imprisoned in the 1920s. He ended up working as a librarian in Dublin and became a member of the Irish literary scene, working with WB Yeats at the newly founded Abbey Theatre and eventually serving as Director of the theatre in the 1930s. During World War II he worked as a broadcaster for the British Ministry in London while publishing his essays and short stories.
Many of his stories appeared in The New Yorker in from 1945 – 1960 and his popularity in the United States led to work as a visiting professor at several American Universities, Stanford included, where his students included Larry McMurtry and Ken Kesey.
He published numerous volumes of short stories throughout his life and his Collected Stories, which includes his most famous works – Guests of the Nation, My Oedipus Complex and Crab Apple Jelly – was published in 1981 fifteen years after his untimely death following a stroke and heart attack.
The short story remains by its very nature remote from community – romantic, individualistic, and intransigent
The Lonely Voice – his study of the short story – is often considered the seminal critical work on the art form. He discusses the short story – a form where ‘a whole lifetime must be crowded into a few minutes’ and looks at the work of his favourite short story writers including Turgenev, de Maupassant, Chekhov, Joyce and Katherine Mansfield.
His main theory is that the best short stories focus on ‘submerged groups’ – marginalised people who live at the fringes of society and have no effective voice.
That submerged population changes its character from writer to writer, from generation to generation. It may be Gogol’s officials, Turgenev’s serfs, Maupassant’s prostitutes, Chekhov’s doctors and teachers, Sherwood Anderson’s provincials, always dreaming of escape.
I recently heard Donal Ryan speak about his new collection of short stories, A Slanting of the Sun (which I shall review later in the week) and he said that it was nearly impossible to name a happy short story. O’Connor too believes that the best short stories are focused on the loneliness of an individual rather than the individual as part of the community of a novel.
…there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in a novel – an intense awareness of human loneliness. Indeed, it might be truer to say that while we often read a familiar novel again from companionship, we approach the short story in a very different mood. It is more akin to the mood of Pascal’s saying: Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie
The Cork International Short Story Festival was set up in 2000 to celebrate O’Connor’s work and passion and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award is awarded yearly to the best short story collection published in English anywhere in the world in the preceding year. Previous winners include Miranda July, Haruki Murakami, Edna O’Brien and Jhumpa Lahiri
You can read My Oedipus Complex, one of Frank O’Connor’s most famous short stories here.
If one wanted an alternative description of what the short story means, one could hardly find better than that single half-sentence, “and from that day forth everything was as it were changed and appeared in a different light to him”