by Santiago Rodríguez Guerrero-Strachan. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Edited by José Francisco Fernández and translated by Leticia de la Paz de Dios
Almería: Editorial Universidad de Almería, 2020. 288 pp.
Sean O’Faolain, the penname of John Francis Whelan (1900-1991), is one of the three writers who set the standard for the Irish short story in the twentieth century, along with James Joyce and George Moore. It is no coincidence that both O’Faolain and Frank O’Connor wrote two essays on the short story, The Short Story (1948) and The Lonely Voice (1962), respectively, since both writers felt the need to define the genre and to offer some reasons for its popularity. O’Faolain, an editor himself, also published several essays on the genre in The Bell in 1944, under the title “The Craft of the Short Story”, and these form the basis for the current book. As an editor and a practitioner of the genre, O’Faolain did not establish fixed rules for new writers, preferring to analyse various authors and provide his own opinions as to what makes a short story great.
The book opens with a brief introduction in which he stresses the importance of technique and the author’s personality, followed by three broad sections, each containing several chapters, that deal with the necessity of literature, a detailed analysis of the short fiction of Alphonse Daudet, Anton Chejov and Guy de Maupassant, and an exploration of the narrative techniques of the genre.
The first section is a preliminary one, and in it O’Faolain sets out the scope of his endeavour. The book is intended to help new authors in their careers, and here the tone and structure of the book is explained. It begins by asking rhetorically why people feel the urge to write and continues with a warning to such would-be writers about the hardships that they will probably face throughout their lives. He goes on to deal with one of the central topics of the book: a good work of literature must balance the author’s personality and the circumstances in which it has been written. In O’Faolain’s opinion, no piece of narrative can be successful if it is not born of the writer’s own experience. Life nurtures literature, he argues, with the technical aspects of literature relegated to a secondary level.
He briefly discusses English, Irish and American fiction, concluding that English insularity has resulted in a kind of short fiction that is inferior to that being written by Irish and American authors, this largely a consequence of the English derision for the artistic personality. The English have fine novelists because their lives are centred in society, while the Irish tend to be rather unconventional, which in turn results in good short stories.
In the second section of the book, the author discusses the personal struggles involved in writing short fiction, looking at three authors who are not Irish. While there is little doubt that Chejov and Maupassant are masters of the short form, Daudet may come as a surprise to the reader, who may wonder whether O’Faolain’s poetics of realism led to a biased selection here. O’Faolain discusses the French author’s work in terms of one of the most important aspects of short fiction: the centrality of characters, to which he adds the role of a poetics of Realism.
It is this poetics of Realism that drives the second section. The three writers are examples of Realist fiction, and O’Faolain explores the particularities of each author. While Daudet is true realist, focusing as he does on tiny aspects of life, Chejov is the supreme master of suggestion. He writes about common people, often creating archetypal characters, and showing sympathy towards these while keeping himself at some distance as a writer. His gaze is detached and objective, and he never seeks to romanticize the lives of his characters. O’Faolain provides a detailed analysis of how suggestion works in Chejov’s stories and how the external world is subordinated to the creation of an atmosphere or an impression, one which is most often poetic. He was a realist sui generis, what we might now term an impressionist.
Finally, Maupassant is described as being the least influenced by literature, an author who developed as a writer capable of simply observing the life around him and making from this a story. As a realist he simply observes and reports. He does not sermonize or condemn his characters’ actions. In a similar way to Chejov, he strips the story of everything that is not essential, and his stories thus serve as an indication of the path that the short story would follow in the twentieth century with James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway.
The third section is devoted to technical aspects of the genre in what is a somewhat rambling exposition. O’Faolain’s belief in the unteachability of writing leads him to argue that it makes no sense to teach the narrative strategies that the author might use when writing short fiction. Rather, he discusses narrative conventions, and gives copious examples to illustrate the various points he makes. He does not rely in this section on the authors whose work he had previously explored, turning instead to writers like Elizabeth Bowen and Henry James. He acknowledges that there are two important conventions at play: to start the story without a preamble, and to use the art of suggestion when providing the reader with information. However, O’Faolain is aware that the short story is a convention in itself, since it does not deal with a whole life but with pieces of that life that have been carefully selected. For the Irish author, the openings and the closures are since the short story is a condensed type of narrative. However, he never mentions Poe as one of the initiators of the modern short story, a writer who put the emphasis – albeit indirectly – on the importance of openings and closures, as is clear from a story like “The Black Cat”. In the first paragraphs here, Poe provides information as to the type of narrative which will follow. Indeed, a great deal of recent research into short fiction has focused on closures. Similarly, O’Faolain’s notion of the short story as a fragment of life retains its relevance if we consider Raymond Carver and Alice Munro’s short fiction; different as their narratives are, they both take the form to constitute the description of a slice of life.
In any case, and despite O’Faolain’s insistence in the author’s personality when writing a story, he explores aspects such as point of view, topic, structure, and language itself, which is obviously more condensed than in a novel. He favours intensity and uniqueness, this a consequence of the kind of suggestive narrative he argues for, as well as the centrality of the author’s personality. O’Faolain started writing in the period after Joyce had published Dubliners, which explains his explorations of the limits of Realism and Naturalism.
The edition has been prepared by José Francisco Fernández Sánchez, a specialist in the Irish short story. His introduction provides the biographical and historical contexts in which O’Faolain wrote. It is brief, intense and personal, thus reflecting the tone of work itself, which has been beautifully and accurately translated by Leticia de la Paz de Dios. I would only point to the translation of “short story” (“relato corto”) and suggest that it might have been replaced with “relato breve”, since “corto” refers to length and “breve” to duration, and Poe argued that the brevity he referred to when writing about the short story was that of duration. I would also suggest that we might all make use of other Spanish terms when translating, such as “cuento literario” or “cuento modern”, the type of short fiction that Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Nicolai Gogol initiated in the nineteenth century as different from the traditional tale. In any case, these are minor suggestions for a translation which is accurate, has a fluent feel, and is thankfully free of typographical blemishes.
The Short Story may seem a piece of historical criticism with little contemporary interest for some readers. This is far from the truth. It is a book that can indeed appeal to young authors and readers, as well as to scholars and critics. O’Faolain’s opinions on the short story, and his analysis of both authors and specific stories, shed valuable light to a genre which, despite being scarcely 200 years old, has already led to a variety of masterpieces.