The Evolution of Short Story Criticism: Then and now

Oct. 27, 2023, 1:11 a.m.

“We have professors of poetry and professors of ethnicized literature, but no professors of the short story,” Michael J. Collins said to a Stanford crowd on Tuesday. He joked that it may be because it would then be one’s job to read very little. 

On Oct. 24, Stanford University’s English, creative writing and American studies departments inaugurated Short Story Week with a gathering of eminent academics and writers from across the world, titled “Futures of Short Story Criticism: A Roundtable.” The Terrace Room at Margaret Jacks hosted excited undergraduates, graduate students and visiting academics for lunch with a side of a good story.

The event celebrated the publishing of the brand-new “Cambridge Companion to the American Short Story,” edited by Michael J. Collins and Stanford English professor Gavin Jones. Collins, who is the deputy head of American studies at King’s College London, was joined by eight other speakers from Stanford and other universities.

Like the “Companion,” Tuesday’s roundtable explored the definition of short story criticism, its evolution throughout literary history and the genre’s somewhat ambiguous relevance to readers and writers today. In his opening talk, Collins portrayed the short story as the underappreciated “gawky kid” of the literary family, hinting at the challenges it faces in an academic landscape and readership dominated by longer, “more glamorous” narratives like novels.

To lend context to the role of short stories today, Associate Professor Mark Algee-Hewitt gave an overview of the form’s history, noting that it emerged after the dominance of novels in the 19th century. Algee-Hewitt, who is a Stanford English department faculty member and the director of Stanford’s Literary Lab, underscored how the short story maintained its uniqueness while adapting over time. 

Inherently different in length from both poetry and novels, this form occupies a distinct literary space, according to speakers. Algee-Hewitt said that even today, in an era marked by rapid technological advancements, short stories continue to find their place in various media and genres. Their presence in modern formats like fanfiction, cell phone novels and screenplays challenges the notion that longer narratives are the sole literary currency of the digital age, he said.

Still, speakers explained that short stories struggle to garner attention in commercial publishing today due to their perceived lack of profitability and reader appeal. Seventh-year Ph.D. student Jessica C. Jordan spoke to one paradox of short story consumption today: short stories can be financially lucrative when distributed through magazines as a quick, enticing choice for readers, but the same stories tend to lose their appeal when bundled together in collections.

According to Jordan, this dichotomy encapsulates the short story’s unique market dynamics. Brevity captures the reader’s attention as a standalone piece, while the aggregate diminishes the allure.

McGill University assistant professor Alexander Manshel Ph.D. ’19, said that amid the shifting landscape of short story publishing, these works have found a niche in the mass educational system, particularly within high school English curricula. He identified this as another site of friction.

While short stories thrive on brevity and the ability to convey depth through minimalism, the English classroom environment often decompresses these details, leading to what Manshel termed “analytical maximalism.” In this academic setting, every element within a short story becomes a subject of scrutiny, emphasizing the stark contrast between the literary world’s perspective on short stories and their role within education.

Long Le-Khac, an assistant professor in the ethnic studies department at University of California, Berkeley, opined that short story analysis is at its best when it acknowledges and embraces the format’s unique place in the literary ecosystem. This intricate relationship between the literary form and its academic interpretation underscores the short story’s capacity for both brevity and depth.

Across the roundtable’s varied segments, speakers emphasized the enigmatic duality and endurance of the short story form.

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