Morphologies is a collection of essays by fifteen contemporary short story writers who offer ‘structural appreciations’ of their favourite past masters and a list of ten essential stories that everyone should read by that master. Each essay is an introduction, a literary analysis and also a celebration of a particular writer and the inspirations and models for writing generated from their works.
The intention behind the collection, which is to valorize the short story form, has also led to a series of on-going lectures, or informal masterclasses. Filmed versions of these are available here and the next session is scheduled for Thursday 26th May where Stephen Baxter and Ramsey Campbell will be giving lectures on H.G. Wells and H.P. Lovecraft respectively at Bluecoat, Liverpool, as part of the Writing on the Wall Festival.
The short story has remained an under-appreciated form. However, the project of Morphologies can be contextualised within the recent resurgence of interest in short story scholarship. Over the last few years, several ambitious works have emerged in the field. Paul March-Russell wrote The Short Story: An Introduction in 2009, while 2014 saw the publication of The Classic Short Story, 1870-1925: Theory of a Genre by Florence Goyet.
What is unique to the project of Morphologies is that contemporary practitioners of the short story evaluate the achievements of their predecessors and the inspiration they have found in their works. It is a book of writers writing on writers. The practice of current forms therefore meets the practice of past forms and in the encounter we catch a glimpse of what short story writing has been, is and will be.
The focus of the book is on widening the community of readers and hence works out of copyright have been chosen which can be easily accessed for readers and aspiring short story writers. The historical period of the works selected is also from 1835-1935 because it is suggested that this time frame saw the emergence of most of the major forms (vi).
The cover of Morphologies is an illustrated parody which illuminates the aim of the work. It is the pseudo-scientific drawing of an insect with the parts of the insect’s body labelled with the names of short story writers from the past. The structural act of reading that the visual-textual complex represents is precisely what the book does not attempt: it is instead a heteroglossia. Page suggests in his introduction that there is no agreed, basic form of the short story and that it comprises no single set of structures, no recognisable identities (v). The collection aims to foreground the multiplicity of forms to “draw out and celebrate the idiosyncrasies of the author in question; to point readers to texts they might not have considered before; to encourage people to re-read old favourites” (v).
For such a slim book, the scope is wide and its mixture of approaches is genuinely eclectic. There is a real suppleness in the idea of ‘structure’ in the short story form, from questions of beginnings and endings, from the ordering of changing power relationships in the work of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (20-21) to the role of the recurring central image in D. H. Lawrence’s short story ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ (121-124).
Similarly, we move from traditional methods of literary biography and literary exegesis to psychoanalytic concepts (65) and questions of science (77-8). The book’s languages are a testament to its multiplicity: they range from the coarsest of profanities in Toby Litt’s essay on Franz Kafka to the abstruse meanings of ‘gnomon’ and ‘simony’ in Ali Smith’s essay on James Joyce. The book situates writers in terms of past and present criticism and considers weighty questions such as the nature of literature (110), the relationship between fiction and truth (134-135) and the very ‘inscrutability’ or ‘unreadability’ of great writing (105).
There are, however, some obvious criticisms that could be made of the work. I am not sure how useful it is to an aspiring writer of short stories, despite the book being marketed as appealing to this audience. Although the essays show a practitioner where to begin to read and a few tricks of the trade, the emphasis on classical models to be emulated does not help a writer to develop a contemporary, politically transformative, distinctive voice and vision of their own. A further criticism is that there is generally no serious discussion of the political nature of the short story form and how it has related to existing political and social frameworks. In addition, it could be argued that the collection of essays is non-inclusive since the focus is on the dead, white male. The canon that the writers allude to is very traditional, aside from the inclusion of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. To widen the accessibility of short stories there has thus been some sacrifice of diversity.
Having said this, it is clear that the collection of essays is a beginning in the field, not a comprehensive survey. If the book asks the reader to demand more reading then one of its major aims has been accomplished. There is indeed some redress of marginalisation. There is in fact a conscious effort by the authors to claim attention for those short stories that have been relegated in relation to novels and short stories which have traditionally been underestimated.
The book sustains the interest and is an inviting prompt for further exploration of the field. The stimulating and creative interpretations of Toby Litt on Kafka and Frank Cottrell Boyce on Anton Chekov are particularly impressive. They understand how to seduce and fascinate the reader through the act of writing on writing, and how to bring a personal response to a writer and their work to life: that a reading is to be presented as an art form.
Indeed, the essays in the collection are consistently well thought out and written, including Sara Maitland’s brave and unexpected reading of Nathanial Hawthorne through the concept of ‘magical realism’. For the student of the short story, the collection of essays is a genuinely valuable resource to be dipped into again and again: it is illuminating, imaginative, incisive and informed.
Want to read more? You can also buy the full collection of ten recommended short stories by each classic writer with critical introduction from Comma Press.
About the Publisher: Comma Press is a not-for-profit publishing initiative which aims to promote new writing. It places a particular emphasis on the short story. The Press declares on its website that it is committed to “a spirit of risk-taking and challenging publishing, free of the commercial pressures on mainstream houses”. Comma began life as an artist’s group in 2003 with a series of short story booklets in four cities across the North of England (distributed as free supplements with each of the cities’ listings magazines). This project then developed into a series of book-length anthologies. In 2007 Comma also launched a translation imprint (again specialising in short fiction) to bring new masters of the form to British readers. Comma also publishes poetry collections and the occasional novel.
Review by Suneel Mehmi
Suneel Mehmi is a scholar and an amateur writer, poet and artist. He is a member of the British Asian community and lives in East London. He holds degrees in Law and English Literature from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Brunel University and the University of Westminster. He has published academic work on the concept of Law and its relationship to violence in the adult short stories of Roald Dahl. He has previously contributed scholarly book reviews to the Literary London journal and to the London Fictions website.