TEXT review

Theorising the short story

review by Linda Weste


Carolyne Lee
Our Very Own Adventure: Towards a Poetics of the Short Story
Melbourne University Publishing: Carlton, 2011
ISBN 9780522858686
ebook, AUD39.99
Pb (print-on-demand), 304pp, AUD49.99


In recent years, the narrative turn in the humanities (Kreiswirth 2008) has seen a resurgence of interest in narrative inquiry, often to revisit research gaps and marginal areas of theory. Carolyne Lee’s monograph Our Very Own Adventure: Towards a Poetics of the Short Story seeks to redress an identified research gap: the ‘absence of the articulation of short story conventions in the corpus of short story theory’ (3).

As Lee notes in the introduction, both the existing corpus of short story theory and the related teaching texts are troubled by conflation with the novel. Lee’s research seeks ‘to provide a framework for renewed discussion regarding the teaching of short story reading and writing’ (17-18), and more specifically, to clarify and demonstrate the conventions of the short story in a systematic manner without defaulting to novelistic comparison.

Lee theorises the short story through reader-response theory, drawing from narratological text-based typologies to inform her approach. Clearly there is a tension between utilising narrative theory to explain the short story, while simultaneously uncoupling short story theory from theories of the novel, yet Lee’s approach draws upon studies of the novel to elaborate key points without losing sight of the short story’s imperative.

The opening chapter reviews the corpus of short story theory from Edgar Allan Poe (1842) to the present, and includes research by Janet Burroway, Susan Suleiman, Stanley Fish, Suzanne Hunter Brown, George E Haggerty, Charles E May, Susan Lohafer, Suzanne C Ferguson, Valerie Shaw, Clare Hanson and Hupert Zapf. Lee identifies ‘Zapf’s theory of the two ways in which readers can be “in” a text’ as pivotal to her own theory of how readers of the short story appropriate the storyworld (275). Lee additionally reviews narrative theory that pertains to narrative perspective or the short story genre, and discusses theorists such as Gerard Genette, Susan Sniader Lanser, Jonathan Culler, and Franz Stanzel.

A further five chapters in the volume examine five broad groupings of short stories deploying the broad generic types found in Franz Stanzel’s typology of narrative perspective. Stanzel’s typology is seminal, and generally serves many practical applications well, although the limitations of Stanzel’s theory to convey more recently theorised first person + present tense narrative perspective are noted elsewhere by Dorrit Cohn (1999). Lee eschews Cohn’s ‘more accurate distinguishing terms… because they do not seem to be widely used by most critics’ (232).

The study develops an understanding of the ‘main convention of the short story… the heightened reader response’ that Carolyn Lee terms ‘“narratorial presence”’ (18). Narratorial presence is built on a type of close identification with fictional characters and interpolation into a fictional world. Lee points out that this occurs when we read novels as well, but since the latter involves interrupted readings due to its length, with the short story this experience is heightened and unified, due to the text’s brevity. 

Readers of Lee’s monograph are likely to be well aware of the criticism levelled at reader-response theories. In the words of Phelan:

as anyone who has followed the reader-response movement even in passing must already recognize, this mode of analysis depends on the repression of one crucial fact: different readers bring different subjectivities to texts and therefore sometimes have different experiences of the same textual phenomena. (Phelan 1994: 231)

These criticisms scarcely diminish the significance of this application of narratology for its capacity to rejuvenate short story theory. Arguably Lee’s analyses will reach beyond proponents of reader-response theory. Nevertheless there are areas of research that warrant further explication: namely Lee’s identification of plural speaking positions within the short story form; or indeed, the use of framed narrative within short stories, a practice which Lee claims, is even more complex and intense than a single level story. The theoretical conversation, begun by Lee, is thus likely to continue.



Linda Weste’s doctoral dissertation Productive Interplay: Poetic and Narrative Strategies in the Twenty-first Century Verse Novel was recently completed at the University of Melbourne, and included CXSIX: a Novel-in-Verse set in late Republican Rome. Previous creative writing credits include Best Australian Poetry and Westerly


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Vol 15 No 2 October 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy