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Book Review

Book Review: Liminality and the Short Story: Boundary Crossings in American, Canadian and British Writing, Ed. Jochen Achilles and Ina Bergman (London, Routledge, 2015)

Beryl Pong
p. 195-198

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1“Liminality as a concept of both demarcation and mediation between different processual stages, spatial complexes, and inner stages is of obvious importance in an age of global mobility, digital networking, interethnicity, transnationality, ecological reconsiderations of species boundaries as well as technological redefinitions of the human” (3). The first sentence of the editors’ introduction to Liminality and the Short Story: Boundary Crossings in American, Canadian, and British Writing captures perfectly the book’s immediate strengths and potential weaknesses. This is, on one hand, an ambitiously diverse collection that makes a strong case for the concept of liminality as an approach to literary and cultural criticism. On the other hand, if liminality both demarcates and mediates across such a wide spectrum of social, cultural, and political issues, its own boundaries are actually not that obvious. What exactly isn’t liminal?

2Conscious of liminality’s applicability to seemingly everything and anything, the editors have assembled a collection of essays focusing on short fiction. The genre is an excellent and productive pivot for examining various socio-cultural and philosophical understandings of liminality, as well as the way they intersect with, and manifest in, aesthetic form. As Achilles and Bergmann point out, the short story is liminal because its brevity and often episodic nature privilege ambiguity and transitoriness. It is also liminal because the genre’s own classifications are often unclear and porous, and several essays in this volume address works of generic indeterminacy. Structured around three parts—“Liminality and the Short Story”, “The Liminality of the Short Story,” and “Liminality in the Short Story”—this volume tackles the slippery concept from a variety of angles, addressing the way texts cross geographical, theoretical, epistemological, and artistic thresholds.


3Because Part I comprises solely of Achilles’ and Bergmann’s introduction, the bulk of the collection lies in Parts II and III. Part II is subdivided into three thematic sections. The first, “Conceptualizations of Liminality,” includes essays that consider the theoretical underpinnings of liminality, especially as they pertain to Victor Turner’s use of the term in cultural anthropology. Here, Achilles’ chapter offers the book’s first substantial delineation of liminality by exploring the relationship between Turner’s liminality and Foucault’s heterotopia. The next chapter is by Claire Drewery, who scrutinises how Turner’s distinctions between liminality and liminoid function in British modernist women’s writing. In the third chapter, Florian Zappe applies Turner’s ideas to William Burroughs’ satirical and generically amorphous short fictions, which he called ‘routines,’ and which are part prose, part poetry, and part autobiography.

4The second section in Part II, “Methods of Approach,” analyses the liminality of short fiction in terms of perception and cognition. Michael Basseler’s chapter argues that the short story is an apposite genre for philosophical and epistemological questions because textual brevity foregrounds what the reader does and does not know about the fictional world. This is followed by Renate Brosch’s chapter which draws from the field of neuroscience to argue that short fiction, again as a result of brevity, necessarily involves reading strategies of projection and visualization. Susan Lohafer then examines the borders between fiction and non-fiction, “storyness” and “essayness,” by interpreting empirical data collected in relation to the experience of reading different genres.

5The third section of Part II, “Concerns of Publication,” features the most thematically interpenetrating trio of essays in the volume, and it is concerned with periodical and book history. Here, Oliver Scheiding explores liminality as a product of contexts of transatlantic magazine circulation in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century short fiction. Alfred Bendixen then argues that the short-story cycle is a liminal genre inflected by periodical contexts, focusing on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories, which were published in isolation before being conceived as part of a larger work. Finally, Kasia Boddy assesses liminality as the interplay between unity and diversity in the short-story anthology, elucidating the form’s resonances for issues of American communal and national identity.

6There are intuitive links between the chapters’ and clusters’ main concerns thus far. Part III, however, which offers more focused readings of specific texts, feels more disjointed. The first subsection, “Contexts of Writing,” covers an essay on magic realism in the short stories of T. C. Boyle and William Kennedy (by Bergmann); an essay on the theme of disability that compares Edgar Allan Poe with Charles Sander (by Suzanne Rohr); an essay on heterotopia and mental illness in Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Ernest Hemingway (by Carmen Birke); and an essay on ambivalent cultural integration in immigrant short fiction through the theme of food (by Jeff Birkenstein). The chapters are interesting and stand well on their own, but while Rohr’s and Birke’s essays pair nicely, they are bracketed by chapters of very different concerns, making for a somewhat dislocated reading experience.

7The last group of essays in the book, “Topics of Liminality,” is better integrated. These five essays all deal with short-story writers whose identities are liminal, whether in relation to ethnicity, sexuality, or postcolonialism. First, Glenda R. Carpio’s essay considers how Richard Wright’s fiction is doubly concerned with world literature and with the specific predicaments of being African American. Second, Paul March-Russell’s essay plays the contrarian card by arguing against over-determined uses of liminality in short fiction criticism itself; he then analyses how lesbian and science-fiction writer Joanna Russ recuperated her own liminal status for critically transgressive ends. Third, Ailsa Cox reads Alice Munro’s liminality in relation to tropes of spectrality, ghostliness, memory, and perception. Fourth, also looking at Munro, Katherine Orr uses her writing as a case study for how metaphor can operate as a liminal device which cultivates both ambivalence and oppressiveness. Finally, Evelyn P. Mayer discusses the cross-cultural border between America and Canada in Thomas King’s fiction to address the incompatibility of indigenous identities with national boundaries.

8Interestingly, the only three chapters concerned with Canadian writers are clustered in this last section. It would be helpful if the editors acknowledged more explicitly the implications of privileging liminality as a topic in postcolonial short fiction. Similarly, Drewery’s chapter is the only one on British writing, and the rest of the collection focuses on American short fiction. Although the editors attribute this imbalance to the particular prominence of the genre in America, one again wonders why liminality might appear to be more relevant for certain traditions than others, beyond reflecting and replicating academic interests.

9As this summary of the book’s contents suggests, introducing such a wide-ranging collection and choosing which intersections to highlight would be a very difficult task for any editor. Achilles’ and Bergmann’s introduction offers a thorough overview of the volume’s thematic architecture, and it also provides extended bibliographies on the concept of liminality and on short fiction genre criticism, which are very helpful indeed. Furthermore, they identify interesting ways that the essays hang together, pointing out, for instance, the conjunctions between essays which deal with issues in versus of short-story writing, and finding thematic echoes between Parts II and III. However, the introduction is also top-heavy in its detailed explication of its contents, and it acts more as a road-map for reading the collection than for the questions which arise. In doing so, it misses an opportunity to distinguish liminality’s relationship to short fiction in a broader, more field-defining way. What are the stakes of conceptualizing liminality in relation to form? How are liminality and short fiction mutually illuminating, or is this only a one-way street, as most of the essays seem to suggest? So much weight is placed on that first, dense sentence in the introduction to capture liminality’s relevance that it is repeated, in part, in the book’s abstract, and verbatim, as the first sentence of Achilles’ own essay in the collection. But without addressing the particular question of why liminality and the short story need to be read together in reciprocally productive ways, one cannot help but have a nagging feeling that the book risks “doing academic criticism while failing to admit the prejudices of the professional academic,” to borrow from March-Russell’s own contribution: that a book “argu[ing] that the short story’s characteristic mode of expression is itself liminal could also be read as crudely deterministic in its construction” (225).

10Nevertheless, while this issue is not addressed in the introduction, the collection as a whole does reward understanding the two in relation to each other—whether in terms of liminality as a mode of open-minded textual interpretation, or as a concept exemplified by the unclear boundaries of the short story genre itself. In sum, this is a useful book for those thinking about liminality and the short story, separately or together, and it represents some of the most stimulating avenues of current work on the short story form. To quote from C. Alphonso Smith, the American critic and philologist discussed in Boddy’s chapter, this critical volume has “variety in unity and […] unity in variety” (147). In this sense, Liminality and the Short Story’s true subject is not liminality at all, but the rejuvenating state of short fiction criticism today.

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Beryl Pong, « Book Review: Liminality and the Short Story: Boundary Crossings in American, Canadian and British Writing, Ed. Jochen Achilles and Ina Bergman (London, Routledge, 2015) »Journal of the Short Story in English, 69 | 2017, 195-198.

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Beryl Pong, « Book Review: Liminality and the Short Story: Boundary Crossings in American, Canadian and British Writing, Ed. Jochen Achilles and Ina Bergman (London, Routledge, 2015) »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 69 | Autumn 2017, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2019, consulté le 13 avril 2024. URL :

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Beryl Pong

University of Cambridge

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