One can get into a terrible snarl talking about the matter of narrative, but it's hard to avoid the subject entirely when considering a collection of short fiction, partly because the stories are likely to vary in their aims, partly because there's no overarching plot on which to hang the discussion, and partly because good stories suggest questions about what plot, or (to use the words interchangeably here) narrative, is. That is to say, a plot, of course, is an account of a sequence of events, but how are those events related— really—and why do we believe (when we do believe) that they are?
It could be said, as an expedient, that the plot of a given piece of fiction is a phantom organism—an embodiment and enactment of the author's preoccupations and obsessions—and that this organism is what allows us to experience the piece's deep pleasures: its insight, its beauty, its mystery, its power—whatever are the essential properties of the piece; that a plot, like a grammatical structure, is an expression of innate relationships in the mind. Long fiction has room to fill things in whereas short fiction, due to the stringency of selection it imposes, tends to demand a more active role from the reader, who must supply a chargeable receptivity, a medium in which compressed signals can unfold and send an associative web of sparks flying out between them. And it seems to me—to make yet another broad and possibly somewhat rickety generalization—that because a work of short fiction must so quickly and unerringly present evidence of the world that lies under its surface, the plot of a good story is likely to be a stranger, more volatile, and more evanescent sort of thing than the plot of a novel.
22 May 2009
In the middle of her recent review-essay, "The World We Live In," Deborah Eisenberg unfurls a two paragraph thesis on the philosophies girding up short form fiction. Appraising Wells Tower's story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Eisenburg argues: