What is a self? What is a short story? Those questions intersect at the moment of writing and the moment of reading but mostly at some pre-conscious level. There is however a growing mass of short story theory, research into the nexus of philosophy, psychology, genre and form. María Jesús Hernáez Lerena (see complete bio at the bottom of the essay) is a prolific Spanish scholar, critic and theoretician (also dg’s friend and a startlingly intelligent interpreter of his work). It’s a great pleasure to reprint here María’s essay (first appeared in the Journal of English Studies, full citation below) on Carol Shield‘s great novel The Stone Diaries (winner of the 1993 Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the National Book Critics Circle Award). Though the subject is a novel, the essay itself deals with novel and short story as distinct genres and examines the ways they each deploys personal consciousness (the theoretical cousin of “point of view”). Dense with reference and argument, the essay is intricate and perceptive—a good “reading” of a text always opens up a wider world. And, as often is the case with scholarly work, it has not been easily available to the general reading public (who might actually be hungry for such information). You can use this essay (and bibliography) as a jumping off point to explore short story and narrative theory (as usual, dg could not get the footnotes to work as “jumps” in WordPress; you’ll just have to scroll down and back).
Though she teaches at the Universidad de la Rioja, María will shortly be flying to St. John’s, Newfoundland, for a summer of research (hence we get the second photograph inside of a month taken on Signal Hill—St. John’s is the Paris of the North; everyone goes there.)
Narrative Genres and THE ADMINISTRATION OF CONSCIOUSNESS: The Case of Daisy Goodwill’s Rebellion
By María Jesús Hernáez Lerena
ABSTRACT. The Stone Diaries (1993), a novel by Carol Shields, examines the strategies characters use to render their selves accountable: they turn life into an ensemble made up of historical, scientific, novelistic or biographical discourse. In contrast, Daisy Goodwill, who is the subject-matter of this fictional autobiography, remains close to the epistemology of the short story, whose potential has been described by critics as a challenge to knowledge or synthesis (Cortázar 1973; Bayley 1988; Leitch 1989, May 1994; Trussler 1996). There seems to be agreement that the only condition of coherence necessary for the short story is a pointing to the evasion of meaning in life, also that the genre allies itself to the way in which the past is attached to our memory (Kosinski 1978; Hallet 1998; Lohafer 199; Wolff 2000). This essay will analyze the implications of its protagonist’s stance with a view to pinning down some of the ideological grounds of the novel and of the short story in their approach to the question of identity.
[H]ow are we to understand the project of telling a life story
where it must be organized in terms of what is anomalous,
difficult, and resistant to narration?
(Gilmore 2001: 33)
This article deals with the question of how we articulate our consciousness by focusing on the proposals of two major narrative genres: the novel and the short story. One of society’s demands upon the individual is precisely self-articulation, the creation of an identity of one’s own made manifest by an exercise in verbalization. This task is performed through the adscription of meaning to a sequence of incidents and emotions, that is, through the making of a story. Thus, the psychological structures we use to make sense of ourselves seem to put us unavoidably in a narrative dimension; we read ourselves as characters in a story. The interplay between storyness and personal biographical composition will be the object of this study.
The finality of a life story is knowledge, or at least, intelligibility, a goal reached thanks to certain formulaic beliefs which allow us to connect events within a sequential pattern of progress which—we imagine—moves us towards the future and diminishes the chaos of existence. We like to believe that experience leads to maturation, that the cause-effect binomial organizes our life and explains the conditions of our present situation, that the passing of time brings about learning (intellectual, emotional, ethical). These assumptions, which no degree of postmodernism will be ever able to uproot, act like joints which help interpret the succession of occurrences in one’s life—or in a character’s life—as the dramatization of the efforts towards self-understanding, a path sanctified with the aura of redemption. These ethical dynamics of narrative is grounded in the religious precedent of sacrifice followed by reward. It is the metaphor of life as a river or as a journey which starts as blankness or as confusion and achieves its climax in an adjustment of perception (an awareness of wrongness) or in a more satisfactory appreciation of the relationship between a person and his/her world. However, not all narrative genres share the same joints or the same sense of finality. Indeed, the short story has been often defined as contrary to the ingrained idea that stories have to make transitions plausible or intelligible. In its search for truth in the clash of experiences which do not cohere, the short story shows ample disregard for other genres such as the novel or the biography, which often equate reality with a slow display of psychological interiors. Aspirations toward knowledge also fare differently in both genres: whereas the short story is said to have constituted itself in its challenge to knowledge and has a penchant for situations that cannot be rationalized (Leitch 1989: 133; Trussler 1996: 560), the novel has historically sought the “expropriation” of life’s mystery (May 1994: 135); it evidences a will to dissect the machinery of connections at play in an individual’s existence. Our culture has made us mainly inheritors to the legacy of the novel, a form of discourse which reveals life as an ongoing pattern connecting the past to the future. The novel’s appearance as a life-long companion is firmly rooted in a sense of biographical time: its embodiment of learned ideas of self as history makes it possible to envision life as a path that is psychologically self-sustaining.