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Special Section: Affect and the Short Story and Cycle

Introduction: On the Stickiness of the Short Story and the Cycle

Paul Ardoin et Fiona McWilliam
p. 21-29

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1The title of this introduction—“On the Stickiness of the Short Story and the Cycle”—refers to a number of concerns investigated in the roundtable and articles that make up the special section that follows: how stories in a cycle seem to stick together more cohesively than they do in other contexts, for example, and how and why the cycle form continues to stick around (in fact, even seems to be growing in popularity). This section aims to bring these questions of stickiness into conversation with another brand of stickiness—one that might be able to speak persuasively to the meeting of reader and cycle, or the meeting of characters within a cycle, or the meeting of different stories within a cycle. More broadly, the content in this section turns to short stories in general—the effects of their brevity and their necessary exclusions, their methods of making meaning (and of making readers make meaning), their historical and cultural roles. These concerns turn us toward the meaning of “stickiness” that has emerged in the context of studies of affect, emotion, and feeling—all concerns of this section, “Affect and the Short Story and Short Story Cycle.”

2Sara Ahmed describes this brand of stickiness in The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Emotions, in her reading, are not in people—they shape people: “Emotions shape the very surfaces of bodies, which take shape through the repetition of actions over time, as well as through orientations towards and away from others” (4). Her project seeks to “track how emotions circulate between bodies, examining how they ‘stick’ as well as move” (4) and to investigate moments of emotional impression. About impressions, Ahmed writes the following:

Forming an impression also depends on how objects impress upon us. An impression can be an effect on the subject’s feelings (“she made an impression”). It can be a belief (“to be under an impression”). It can be an imitation or an image (“to create an impression”). Or it can be a mark on the surface (“to leave an impression”). We need to remember the “press” in an impression. It allows us to associate the experience of having an emotion with the very affect of one surface upon another, an affect that leaves its mark or trace. (6, emphasis in original)

  • 1 See various by philosopher of affect Gilles Deleuze, especially Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thou (...)

3When one surface (of a body, for example, or a text) comes into contact with another (or within a “zone of proximity” as other thinkers might put it1), an impression is made, and the repetition of such impressions results in “stickiness.”

4Stickiness, as conceived by Ahmed, is “an effect of the histories of contact between bodies, objects, and signs” (90, emphasis in original); it is the outcome of repeated impressions. For an example in our relationship with art, we could think of hearing the same song in the same situation. In language, we could think of how when “a word is used in a certain way, again and again, then that ‘use’ becomes intrinsic” (92, emphasis in original). What we might imagine as an emotion we feel in reaction to the word or the song in fact does not reside within us—it exists in the contact between us and the song, and its “stickiness is an effect” that emerges from “histories of contact.” The meaning of that emotion is and emerges from cultural and personal exchanges, and as those exchanges repeat, meaning and resonance collect, and what results is an “accumulation of affective value” (92): this is “stickiness.”

5Through this perspective, we can imagine productive new ways to investigate both the short story and the short story cycle. In this section’s roundtable, for example, Justine Murison refers to the “affective loops and leaps” that necessarily take the place of exhaustive detail in the short story: might Ahmed’s framework help to explain how such loops become sticky, solidifying the resonance a story by Poe or Joyce has for readers? We might imagine the refrain of a musical work here, looping and repeating and returning and resonating. In one of this section’s articles, in fact, Kuo Chia-Chen asks us to imagine a Woolf short story through this image: music departs almost immediately as it is played, but the related affect continues to act on the audience.

6These threads are also traced into entire collections of short stories. For example, multiple article contributors and roundtable respondents review the debated characteristics of the short story cycle form. Is it the repeated appearance of a character across stories that makes a collection a cycle? Is it a unifying theme or location? Each of these definitions—as our contributors point out—create their own complications. We might add one more possibility here, as an example of the potentially useful role to be played in such a debate by an attention to affect: perhaps a short story cycle can be defined by its stickiness. Perhaps the stories of a cycle impress upon the reader and upon each other. Perhaps this brand of impression is depicted inside a story. Perhaps an impression is created at the meeting of the reader and a character, or a theme, or a location. Perhaps the trace left by that meeting gains in meaning through repetition—another story, another instance, another meeting. (Roundtable respondent Miriam Wallace suggests as much when she writes, “It is in the reiteration of words, settings, names, and the differences among those repetitions that they invoke a kind of recognition that ascribes affective content to them.”) Perhaps that repetition grows “sticky,” accumulating an affective value that binds a simple collection into something more.

7We hope that this particular collection—a special JSSE section on “Affect and the Short Story and Short Story Cycle”—manages to serve as a “something more” through its collection and arrangement of voices. The section begins with seven new articles that represent innovative approaches to issues surrounding the short story and the cycle. At the same time, these articles represent an array of approaches to the diverse field of Affect Studies, delving into affect, emotion, feeling, and sentiment, by attending, for example, to mood, atmosphere, and shock. The second part of the section is a sort of virtual roundtable, made up of respondents from the fields of the short story, form/genre studies, narratology, and Affect Theory. Their discussions range across centuries and traditions of literatures, offering useful new close readings, histories, and provocations along the way, and suggesting (in the words of contributor Dennis Meyhoff Brink) that “short stories and short story cycles will undoubtedly be propitious objects for literary analyses inspired by affect theory.”

8Daniel Davis Wood opens the first part of the section with his article, “To See the Lives of Others Through the Eyes of God,” a study of two particularly intriguing collections of short fiction, both by Edward P. Jones (and “structured synchronically”). Following Altieri, Davis Wood is interested in art’s ability to shock or disrupt audiences out of habit in a way that “escapes articulation and leaves the beholder with a sense of not knowing how to name exactly what he or she feels.” The more atypical the approach, the more “hostile towards conventional modes of representation,” the greater the degree of shock and the more “forcefully” the affective “experience is triggered.” Jones’s strange short story cycles provide a suitable (in fact, ideal) model here, in part because their interconnectivity expands to the point of challenging canonical definitions of the cycle and potentially rewriting “the short story cycle’s capabilities as an art form.”

9Rachel Lister turns to more canonical figures in her “‘Preposterous Adventures’: Affective Encounters in the Short Story Cycle,” but she, too, pays special attention to moments that disrupt conventions. In this study of cycles by Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Alice Munro, Lister highlights successful moments that challenge the norms of “affective communities” and “defy the tyranny of linearity” by utilizing “a positive form of repetition.” We might think again of “stickiness”: here, a positive brand of repetition works to overcome a restrictive one. Lister highlights “representations of the kinds of women most likely to resist communal, hegemonic notions of happiness in favor of unlikely experiences that open them up to new ways of apprehending their lives and identities.” Ahmed again serves a linchpin, and the cycle again emerges as a particularly appropriate form, this time for depicting affective experience: the “cycle is the perfect vehicle for dramatizing” this content, in part because it “galvanizes the synchronic sensibility of the reader.”

10Rebecca Cross is also interested in repetition, but in the case of her contribution, the repetitions under examination are “patterns of absence,” reached or reversed in pivotal “return stories” of cycles. Her article, “Yearning, Frustration, and Fulfillment: The Return Story in Olive Kitteridge and Kissing in Manhattan,” focuses on contemporary cycles by Elizabeth Strout and David Schickler and the ways in which they work “to direct and influence the reader’s reaction.” Her project, then, serves to investigate questions of potential stickiness at the same time as it contributes to a repeated concern voiced in the roundtable about our affective expectations of the story reader. Cross argues that the reader is helped to identify the cyclical or circular structure of these texts’ cumulative themes and concerns through absences, repetitions, and sudden fulfillments located at key moments in the cycle. At the same time, these absences (for example) simultaneously work to remind us of genre and form, “prompt[ing] a reflection on the ways” and workings of the cycle.

11The other four articles leave aside questions about the cycle in order to intensively focus on individual stories, though Fiona McWilliam’s essay “The Young and Romantic Will Like It” attends to the important roles of paratext and publication context in shaping reader response. In reading abolitionist writer Lydia Maria Child, McWilliam returns to a brand of nineteenth-century literature that intentionally sought to both depict feeling and “manufacture” it in readers, in an attempt to spur them to political action. Her article examines Child’s correspondence in order to reveal a writer keenly attuned to likely reader response and willing to adjust her writing strategies with that response in mind: Child’s approach, we find, “is less about feeling as or like the object of sympathy and more focused on directing readers’ sentiment outside the text.” Usefully, McWilliam also highlights the curious operation of feeling within one of Child’s stories, which itself focuses on the tendency of readers—both fictional and not—to feel for others (even if only fleetingly) through texts. Through a close reading of this story, “The Black Saxons,” McWilliam explores the emotional impacts of fact and fiction, and she investigates intersections between race and slavery, empathy and identification, and subjectivity and agency.

12Dennis Meyhoff Brink remains in the nineteenth century, but his “Affective Atmospheres in the House of Usher” tackles an entirely different brand of affect at work in an entirely different brand of literature. Brink uses Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” to elucidate and expand discussions of affective atmosphere. Poe, of course, could not be a more appropriate choice: he makes of “the human skin […] a porous border that is perpetually crossed by affects,” and he requires that we expand our affective vocabulary to recognize elements like “affective emission, affective ecosystem, or affective possession.” Like Ahmed (and Brian Massumi), Brink reminds us that our emotion is rarely “ours.” Instead, following thinkers like Teresa Brennan, we should imagine affect as shared “in the air” and transmissible. Along the lines of Murison and others in this section, Brink suggests that the very shortness of short stories make them uniquely positioned to deal with such concerns: “Short stories seem, due to their very brevity, to be particularly disposed to highlight and examine shared atmospheres.”

13Much of Kuo Chia-chen’s investigation seeks to address the question of the potential affective impact of the short story, “a genre in which scope and length are necessarily limited.” She also revisits a particularly modernist discussion about content and form through her Deleuzo-Guattarian argument about music in a single short story. Kuo’s “The Affectivity of Music in Virginia Woolf’s ‘The String Quartet’” argues that Woolf’s story is both about music and “accomplishes musicality as an affective writing style.” To support this claim, Kuo traces both the long influence of music on Woolf’s life and work and the long interest Woolf critics have had in that relationship. Ultimately, part of Kuo’s original contribution is to depart from many of those critics and reconceive of musicality as pre-conscious—“as audience members’ instantaneous experiences and synaesthetic sensations […] enveloped or whirled around.”

  • 2 See, in particular, Gerald Lynch’s study of English-Canadian short story cycles, The One and the Ma (...)

14Though Kuo does not touch on the topic of the cycle, her view of musicality as Deleuzian “assemblage of multiple and diverse sensations” reminds us that Deleuze’s concepts might offer as intriguing a lens on the cycle as does Ahmed’s idea of “stickiness.” That is, might we reconceive of the long cited quality of the cycle to act as both one and many2 through Deleuzian terms like “multiplicity” and “assemblage”? Can we re-imagine the cycle’s curious position as neither collection nor novel through a Deleuzian lens of both-and? Is the moment when collection becomes cycle so difficult to pinpoint because we search for a moment, for a stable turning point, rather than attending to the productive movement of a mobile becoming-cycle?

  • 3 In The Forms of the Affects, Eugenie Brinkema offers a sort of checklist for describing useful appl (...)

15Rob Welch deploys a lens from yet another branch of affect studies in his article, “Reading Structures of Feeling in Stephen Crane’s ‘The Blue Hotel.’” Welch examines the intersection of narrative and the operation of felt human thought (and “feeling as thought”) through Raymond Williams’s concept of “structures of feeling.” Again, we could think of the cycle here, and its cultural and historical place and conditions, but Welch also shows the structures at work at the level of content. In “The Blue Hotel,” “incidental social structures […] attach themselves to the sharing of a drink or the profession of an acquaintance,” and a reading of this process might “provide the key to understanding” certain aspects of the story. While Welch’s excellent close reading surely stands as evidence that useful explication can exist alongside attention to affect, respondents to the roundtable that follows draw attention to other potential perils and suggest we temper our enthusiasm for the possibilities of affect theory.3

16The roundtable, completed through a series of e-mail exchanges, presents a more direct conversation between thinkers, and deals with many concerns raised in the articles. Patrick Colm Hogan’s responses, for example, insist that narrative and emotion are inextricably linked—that, in fact, emotions actually “generate particular genres,” and stories are “guided by […] emotion systems.” James Nagel notes in response that the more recognizable of such systems are often sidestepped in the fiction of figures like Crane and Hemingway by brands of internal, psychological growth most effectively read through more traditional modes of literary scholarship. The two views both seem to note that some sort of affect is central to the event, or epiphany, or moment of being, but Hogan argues that emotion is what actually marks the bounds of the event, making readers or characters aware of the beginning or end of a narrative event.

17The guarantee of reader awareness is a bit of a sticking point for some, including Nagel, whose responses attend to the unpredictable emotional reactions of the reader. Nagel suggests that misreadings complicate a reader’s affective exchange with a text in ways significant enough to undermine some of the very questions posed in the section. At the same time, he reminds us that “the history of serious commentary about the nature of the American short story begins with a concern for affect,” expressed by Poe.

18Miriam Wallace also turns to history: her responses both historicize affect and use the concept of affect to help historicize the category of the short story and to expose what gets excluded from that category. Like McWilliam’s article on abolitionist fiction, Wallace’s commentary attends to stories that are “overtly calling for an affective response from the reader” and doing so through an attention to storytelling itself and a portrayal of sympathy. Turning toward how such intersections of emotion and literature operate in the classroom, Wallace evokes Ahmed by encouraging us to think “about how we evoke, use, or allow affect to circulate in the classroom and how textual bodies ‘stick’ to or even construe student bodies.”

19Gerald Lynch’s responses turn to the particular advantages of the cycle form—especially its ability to order stories and to draw attention to that order, both of which work to train the reader, rather than necessarily expecting something from the reader. The cycle form, argues Lynch, guides a developing affective experience, one that is distinguishable from the experience of, for example, a novel. In response, Hogan extends Lynch’s perspective “to other forms of coherence,” as a way to contemplate “bodies of work by a single author that are not designed as story collections” but still cohere strongly or weakly (in Lynch’s terms) and still manage to train the reader.

20Justine Murison also notes an “inextricable” link between “affective work” and “generic work.” Attending to this link in the short story, argues Murison, can help expose the strategies we do not notice in novels, as well as the affective expectations readers bring to their engagements with novels. Elsewhere, Wallace points out that this approach might show us a way past the limited attention to what “characters or stories ‘have’ affect,” by showing us instead how stories “operate by creating affect to which attuned readers are called to engage, participate, or reject” (That quality of being “attuned” as a reader is important: Nagel, for example, notes that some readers “are stunningly obtuse, and have very little affective response” because of that). Importantly, Murison reminds us all to “mind the [various] gaps” at work in texts, whether between volumes, between stories, or between diegetic levels within frame narratives. These gaps provide “affective effects”—a term to which Wallace and Murison both turn. “Short stories,” argues Murison, “resonate and vibrate with affect,” far beyond the emotions and feelings they depict in their content.

  • 4 Brinkema reminds us, after all, that “the ‘turn to affect’ in the humanities is and has always been (...)

21Jane Thrailkill reveals the diversity of affective avenues we might travel by attending to elements like time, trauma, or humor in narratives. In her turn to the last of these, Thrailkill also returns to the affective response and role of the reader: the humor in a story by Charles Chesnutt, for example, “seems oriented” toward “helping readers think right about others’ feelings and affective investments.” While Nagel takes issue with the humor (or lack thereof) in Chesnutt by pointing toward the context of Chesnutt’s wider body of work, Lynch points to a different tradition, investigating the humorous work of Stephen Leacock. Thrailkill also returns us to the line of questions raised by Davis Wood’s study of paired short story cycles: she suggests that rare forms evoke rare experiences. The short story sequel, for example, has the possibility to complicate our narratological and affective experiences with texts. Interested, like Murison, in the gaps, or “dead centers,” created by sequels, Thrailkill demonstrates that there is room for much more discussion of the intersections of form and affect than allowed by a single issue of any journal.4

22A single section in a single issue is all we have, though, so we will have to rely on the potential stickiness of the questions and claims at work throughout it to leave an impression. Our thanks to all of this section’s contributors, respondents, and reviewers, for providing the stimulating and the sticky. Our thanks as well as to the editorial staff of JSSE, as well as to the peer reviewers of the articles in this section.


Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Brinkema, Eugenie. The Forms of the Affects. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2014. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 1987. Print.

Lynch, Gerald. The One and the Many: English-Canadian Short Story Cycles. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2001. Print.


1 See various by philosopher of affect Gilles Deleuze, especially Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus.

2 See, in particular, Gerald Lynch’s study of English-Canadian short story cycles, The One and the Many.

3 In The Forms of the Affects, Eugenie Brinkema offers a sort of checklist for describing useful applications of theories of affect: “Has the turning toward affect in the theoretical humanities engendered a more complex understanding of texts? Have accounts of affects produced more nuanced, delightful interpretations of forms in texts—and have they recovered the dimensions of being surprised by representation” (xii). Perhaps even more clearly, James Nagel suggests in this section’s roundtable that we remember to skeptically ask, “Is this kind of reading what affect studies has wrought?”

4 Brinkema reminds us, after all, that “the ‘turn to affect’ in the humanities is and has always been plural, a set of many turnings that are problematically lumped together in a false unity that imagines that one singular intellectual arc could describe them all” (xii).

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Paul Ardoin et Fiona McWilliam, « Introduction: On the Stickiness of the Short Story and the Cycle », Journal of the Short Story in English, 66 | 2016, 21-29.

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Paul Ardoin et Fiona McWilliam, « Introduction: On the Stickiness of the Short Story and the Cycle », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 66 | Spring 2016, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2018, consulté le 07 août 2020. URL :


Paul Ardoin

Paul Ardoin is assistant professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His work on affect and literature appears or is forthcoming in numerous venues, including the Counter/Text; Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities; Journal of Modern Literature; and the edited collection Rhys Matters: New Critical Perspectives.

Fiona McWilliam

Fiona McWilliam is lecturer in English at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She received her doctorate from Florida State University in 2014. Her work has appeared in Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture and Studies in American Fiction.

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