Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction, Yiddish Literature, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality historical novels are some of my Literary Interests





Monday, May 16, 2011

The Lonely Voice-A Study of the Short Story by Frank O'Connor

The Lonely Voice-A Study of the Short Story by Frank O'Connor (1963, 211 pages)


A Brilliant But Sadly Flawed Study
of the Short Story

As my interest in the Short Story genre has grown over the last year, I began to wonder about books about short stories that I might enjoy reading.    There seems to be only one  widely endorsed book on the short story and that is Frank O'Connor's (1906-1966-Cork City, Ireland) The Lonely Voice-A Study of the Short Story.   Frank O'Connor is considered one of the best short story writers of the 20th century and was also a scholar in the field.   (I first read Frank O'Connor during Irish Short Story Week I and there is some additional background information on O'Connor in my post on him for that week.)

O'Connor devotes a lot of time (the book originated as a series of lectures at Stanford  University in 1961) to Chekhov, de Maupassant, Joyce,  Turgenev,  Hemingway, D.  H. Lawrence,  Katherine Mansfield,  Issac Babel,  Mary Levin, Kipling and A. E. Coppard.    He begins his opening chapter with a discussion of Gogol's "The Overcoat" which he sees as the well spring of the modern short story.    He also talks about the stories in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio.  He gives a lot of reading suggestions and is not at all shy telling us what we should read and what not to bother with.    He says if he had to give an answer he would say the greatest short story ever written is Turgenev's "Punin and Baburin" and the greatest book of short stories is his Sketches of a Sportsman.   He  loves the best of Anderson and lists his top three.   He also helped me see the importance of George Moore, a writer I wanted to read for Irish Short Story Week I but never got to.

O'Connor's main thesis in his lectures is that the short story is uniquely about what he called "submerged groups".    By "submerged groups" he means marginalized people belonging to occupations, social groups, or ethic backgrounds that leave them with little voice in society.    In Chekhov it is his doctors (at the time a tradesman's type of position), in de Maupassant it is prostitutes,  in Mansfield it is displaced young female travelers,  in Turgenev it is the second or third sons of Russian nobles and peasants.    O'Connor loves the short story and his readings of the stories he talks about are  often very inspiring.   He for sure made me want to keep reading on and on in the genre.    He also states that the short story at its best is deeply focused on loneliness.   Anyone can become or make him or herself a member of a submerged group.    O'Connor does not consider any counter examples to his claim and pretty much has a dismissive  attitude toward contrary views.

Two parts of this book really bothered me.    As much as I wanted to love this book based on the first half, when I got to the chapter on Katherine Mansfield, "An Author in Search of a Subject" I was shocked to see him describe her as "a brash young shop girl" (maybe he did not know how rich her father was?) and says when he reads her stories he likes them a lot but finds he cannot remember them.   He does include her story "The Prelude" as one of the greatest Short Stories of all times.   I tried to imagine a lecturer in a major university like Stanford telling a class full of eager young would be authors that Katherine Mansfield was a "brash shop girl" and I cringed.  Of course Mansfield's current readership is much wider than O'Connor's.    It was as though O'Connor was dumb founded that a mere "girl" could write so well.    O'Connor makes some very ignorant homophobic conjectures about Mansfield that are beyond merely offensive.   O'Connor seems to have a hateful attitude toward  any form of homosexual behaviour.     Mansfield had been dead for almost 40 years when O'Connor lectured about her.    O'Connor is a far from stupid person but much of what he says about Mansfield is stupid.   I will do a more detailed post on this chapter the next time I do a post on one of Mansfield's short stories.    I wish O'Connor had an editor that cut this chapter out of the book.  


When I got to the section on Issac Babel (1894-1940-Russian-famous for Odessa Tales-he was killed at the orders of Stalin) I was really pretty shocked.   My reaction was "No Frank, please do not ruin your wonderful book" when I read his comments about Babel being an exemplifier of the character of the Jew.   Here is a quote:  "Babel would have been a very queer Jewish boy-an indeed a very queer boy-if he had not imagined himself as the avenger with the gun....the Jewish character--an instinctive apprehension that  though money is excellent and power is good,  books are in some way better:a conviction  of the  supremacy of the mind over matter,  of the word over the deed."     This is just flat out ugly and I felt ashamed of O'Connor when I read it.    If the chapter on Babel had been the first chapter in the book I might have stopped reading it.



I felt sad as I finished this book.   Much of what O'Connor says shows such a deep love for the reading life and the short story but that does not excuse some of what he says.   I learned a lot from this book and I wish I could just say "it is great, go read it" but parts of it are just too ugly for that.   I will take the reading suggestions of O'Connor seriously and will be posting on a number of his reading suggestions.   I think one could learn a very lot about the short story by reading the stories O'Connor talks about and pondering whether or not you agree with him.

I think this book is probably not suited for class room usage.   This is really a shame because one could make a very good class on the short story out of the works he talks about and his commentary.

I would endorse this book for anyone who wants to learn more about the short story as long as you know in advance parts of the book are offensive.   I know students of the history of the short story and academics could probably tear much of the book apart but it gave me a lot of reading ideas I am excited about and it increased my understanding of the short story.    I really liked  his chapters on Chekhov, de Maupassant (he was really illuminating on him, to me),  and Turgenev.   I will be reading for the first time stories by A. E.  Coppard thanks to O'Connor.  

O'Connor knew nothing of the Japanese Short Story (not his fault as it was not much at all translated in his life time) so I will also be sort of testing the stories in this reading area against the thoughts of O'Connor.   I cam already see that just as the best of the short stories of de Maupassant, as seen by O'Connor deal with prostitutes and their world the same can be said of the many Japanese short stories devoted to the so called "water world" of geishas, tea houses, and such.  

When I post on writers he covers I will,  in the near future at least,  be pondering the remarks of O'Connor.     I will also be sort of "test reading" his main thesis about submerged groups.  

If you know of any other books I might enjoy about short stories, please leave a comment.

I closed this book thinking O'Connor has something of value to say about the short story but found my respect for him as a person diminished by his Homophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes.     



Mel u







7 comments:

JoAnn said...

What a great post! I loved the single story I read by O'Connor ("First Confession") and would love to learn more about short stories in general. Have just requested this title from the library - thanks.

Will Ellwood said...

The comment about Katherine Mansfield being "a brash young shop girl" I think is from Virginia Woolf. I remember it being mentioned in the Ali Smith introduction to the Penguin Complete Works of Katherine Mansfield.

I'm interested in buying a copy of this book. What does he say about Hemingway?

emeire said...

The Lonely Voice is aseminal work and one interested in she short story should read it as it presents some useful ideas. However, I believe it is outdated. Amongst classical text on the short story, one should also read Poe's essays, Bowen's intro to the Penguin anthology (I think), O'Faolain's The Short Story and Reid's The Short Story (how imaginative). Charles E. May published a collection of essays on the short story and in it you can find some of these authors and many more, thus giving you an idea of the evolution of short story theory. Susan Lohafer also published an interesting collection with many contemporary essays on the short story, some actually been dedicated to teaching the short story.

O'Connor is very selective in his choice of short stories and I believe that it does not reflect the variety of short stories published at the time...

Em

Em said...

The Lonely Voice is aseminal work and one interested in she short story should read it as it presents some useful ideas. However, I believe it is outdated. Amongst classical text on the short story, one should also read Poe's essays, Bowen's intro to the Penguin anthology (I think), O'Faolain's The Short Story and Reid's The Short Story (how imaginative). Charles E. May published a collection of essays on the short story and in it you can find some of these authors and many more, thus giving you an idea of the evolution of short story theory. Susan Lohafer also published an interesting collection with many contemporary essays on the short story, some actually been dedicated to teaching the short story.

O'Connor is very selective in his choice of short stories and I believe that it does not reflect the variety of short stories published at the time...
Em

mel u said...

Emeire-thanks for your great suggestions-I follow Charles May's blog and might read his book one day-I checked the Reid book-out of print and very expensive on Amazon-I would for sure like to see O'Faolain's study-sadly there are no libraries where I live so I would have to buy these books to read them and I hesitate to buy literary criticism type of books

mel u said...

JoAnn-parts of the book are really annoying but it is very much worth reading

Will Elwood-thanks for the information-I will post on a couple of the Hemingway short stories that O'Connor talks about soon and will look at what he says about Hemingway-thanks for stopping by my blog

Em said...

The Reid book is certainly not worth spending too much money on...
Amazon.com can be quite expensive. I usually use bookfinder.com, which is a search engine comparing prices of many online booksellers (Amazon. com, .de, .co.uk, abebooks, alibris, and so on) and the advantage is that it includes the postage, so is easier to compare...