Short Story Writers

Short Story Writers

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Short Story Writers

"And then I woke up."Thus goes the kind of "trick ending" that every first year writing student is told to avoid, a mark of cheap theatrics and poor craftsmanship.Historically, this kind of ending is often associated with Guy de Maupassant, the prolific French writer of the 19th century, or his 20th century American heir apparent, O. Henry (William S. Porter).In this well researched and at moments insightful book, Richard Fusco argues that Maupassant's bad rap as first and foremost the inventor and disseminator of the "trick ending" is undeserved.What Fusco feels Maupassant does deserve is recognition as perhaps the single most important influence on American short story writers of the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly Ambrose Bierce, Kate Chopin, Henry James, and of course O. Henry.However, even as Fusco's readings of these writers are laudable in their thoroughness (with the exception of his treatment of O. Henry), his overall argument seems finally too dependent on an understanding of "trick ending" which does not make necessary distinctions, and is therefore superficial enough to accommodate nearly any writer one cares to name.

Not that Fusco doesn't differentiate between types of trick endings.In fact, he develops his own seven categories of stories--from the simplest (linear) to most complex (sinusoidal)--based on their varying "placement and number of discovery points for the reader."The first two chapters, where Fusco limits himself to a thorough and interesting analysis of narrative structure in Maupassant, are the best of the book.However, in shifting his terms from "trick endings" to "discovery points," Fusco deprives his argument of its specificity and thus its power.

To cite one example: Fusco argues that Maupassant and Bierce were similar in that they "favored fictive structures that depended on last-second, ironic reversals in the reader's perception."He then uses this theorized similarity to compare Maupassant's much-anthologized "The Necklace" to the that of Bierce's equally popular "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."In analyzing these (and other) stories by the two writers, Fusco uses Poe's "unity of effect" as a synonym for "discovery point" (which is in itself too reductionist a reading of what Poe meant).However, unity of effect for Maupassant in "The Necklace" is utterly dependent on information unavailable to the reader, i.e., that the necklace is paste, and thus the reader's "discovery" depends entirely on an absence, a trick of concealment, as in a "bad" murder mystery.In "Owl Creek," on the other hand, one need only read closely in the section where Peyton first falls from the bridge (and, in reality, dies) to obtain all the information necessary to correctly interpret the rest of the story as an hallucination.

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The revelation (more than "ironic reversal") of the ending isn't so much a single point whose removal would change the entire story (as in "The Necklace"), as it is a final confirmation of an explanation the story has already pointed toward.

Fusco's reading of key O. Henry stories is similarly insufficient. For instance, though the ending of "Springtime a la Carte" does indeed depend on a missing piece of information (a lost letter), it is throughout a quite metafictional piece, filled with advice, obvious and otherwise, about how to write a successful short story; and the final message of the story is that narrative derives its power from mistakes, in deviations from formula and expectation.No such deeper commentary is available in Maupassant's works.

Though Fusco is absolutely right in arguing that Maupassant's reputation by the turn of the century was nearly unsurpassed, he finally makes too large a claim for Maupassant's influence on American writers (or at least those he chooses to discuss).And, though Fusco's book is filled with interesting historical connections among editors, their magazines and key writers, he finally leaves out any larger historical commentary which might serve to remind the reader that the sort of "trick endings" he examines were not in fact invented by Maupassant, but have been around as long as narrative itself.
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