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Jean-Michel Ganteau et Christine Reynier
p. 17-26

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1That humbleness and the short story go hand in hand does not appear as strongly paradoxical. As indicated in several articles included in the present issue of the journal, comparisons with the novel clearly point in this direction, and short fiction, on account of its defining traits—brevity, particularly—has been associated with less flamboyant, more ordinary themes and contents. Clearly, the time span devoted to the short story makes it particularly averse to accommodating the amplitude of the epic. The critical tradition has associated it with other genres, formal characteristics or abilities: it is notoriously apt to focus on “a single moment of intense or significant experience” (Hanson 55), to evoke submerged minorities (O’Connor 86), or else to privilege omission or an elliptical method (Hunter 24; 44). Such a humbleness of subject matter associated with a high degree of formal scarcity is exemplified in some of Katherine Mansfield’s late stories, like “The Fly” (analysed by Ann-Marie Einhaus later in this volume) or else “The Canary,” texts in which space, time, and theme are apparently reduced to their bare minimum—the eponymous canary abstracting itself into the nail from which its cage used to hang, bringing the elliptical strategy to the threshold of evanescence (Mansfield 359). Virginia Woolf took the experiment even further by devoting a whole short story, “The Mark on the Wall,” to a snail, paring down fiction and plot to a bare minimum. And another great master of the modernist short story, Joyce, is reputed for framing Dubliners in a style of “scrupulous meanness” that gives pride of place to the daily and builds its epiphanies on a ground which is particularly that of the ordinary: “the soul of the commonest object . . . seems to us radiant, and may be manifested through any chance, word, or gesture,” or through “the vulgarity of speech or of gesture” (Joyce 211).

2The affinity between humble content and form in poetry and narrative fiction has been signposted by various studies. Romantic poems such as Wordsworth’s “Michael” (1800) or John Clare’s rural poems have been acknowledged for their attention to the humble—rural workers and their humble work (Gifford; Bate); Victorian novels have been associated by their own practitioners with humble characters, settings and subjects—what George Eliot called “my every-day fellow-men” and “commonplace things” (162). In an earlier publication in collaboration with Isabelle Brasme, we drew attention to the meanings and figures of the humble. We commented on the etymology of the term (humus), referring to what is low and close to the ground, and attaching to subjects “who are low in rank, quality, or station, who are unimportant and obscure” (Brasme, Ganteau, and Reynier 11). We also took care to envisage various fields of application and experience of the humble like precariousness, exclusion based on gender, or invisibility, among others. What appears as central to the notion is an inescapable sense of vulnerability, whether it is sociological, economic, or downright ontological. And it is precisely this ability to be wounded or, more specifically, to fail, that Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz singles out as the defining trait of the humble in her study of failure in late modernist fiction, the first chapter of which evokes the failing protagonists in three short stories by Julian Barnes using Ricoeur’s concept of narrative identity (it is interesting that Ricoeur, who devoted a volume to human fallibility should be present here). The “fragility” of modern life the short story reflects, according to G.K. Chesterton (85), finds a new meaning in this context: it extends beyond the mere “fleetingness” of existence he associated it with and comes to cover the very vulnerability of the various facets of modern life.

3Among the philosophers that have addressed the issue of humbleness prominently features French author Corine Pelluchon who, in Éthique de la considération, devotes a whole subpart to humility in relation to magnanimity. She does comment on the etymology of the term and moves on to envisage humility as a refusal to stand above the other subject or other elements from the natural world. For her, humility is dependent on perception: perception on a level with the object observed, and certainly not from a vantage point granted by any kind of misplaced superiority of posture, whether it is physical, psychological or moral. She contends that our relationship with others and the world depends on our relation with ourselves that must be based on humility: “not an affect but the recognition of the fragility of the human condition and of the opaqueness in which we are plunged” (32; translation ours). Through humility, one is able to see the other and the world in detail, to perceive specificities, to renounce abstraction and long-distance contemplation the better to take on board singularities and consider them through a magnanimous attitude of openness.

4Indeed, consideration seems to be at work in many of the short stories analysed in this issue, in so far as they thematise characters, objects, situations of a common type, moving in an ordinary context. The tininess and fragility of ephemera and of gestures, whose significance radiates from their flaunted insignificance, the submerged individuals and groups who tremble on the verge of invisibility, the geographically displaced and the unostentatious displacements of the human subject are all accommodated within the paradoxically capacious form of short fiction that creatively twists and reinvents itself in the process of presenting the humble. What the short stories under review do is precisely this: promote a practice of consideration that attends to the humble subject matter from a position of humility of apprehension and form. Nowhere is this more obvious, perhaps, than in the contributions focusing on various types of social marginalisation and invisibility where the short stories are shown to promote and practice an ethics of consideration by creating the thematic and formal conditions for the emergence of the reader’s “attention to fragilized life forms,” in Guillaume Le Blanc’s terms (89; translation ours). In other terms, the short stories that the following selection of articles addresses contribute to an ethics of fiction because they care about what is not salient or flaunted, thereby partaking of a “negative phenomenology” (Le Blanc 91; translation ours) that resists the power of denial or of the absence of recognition (Le Blanc 33) affecting a wide range of contemporary experience. By shifting the goalposts and changing the norms for recognition, they allow for the consideration of humble subjects that would otherwise go unattended.

5In other words, the corpus on which this issue is based favours an ethics of the ordinary, i.e.: an ethics based not on a series of moral rules but one putting the responsibility on the subject—and text alike—, the responsibility to determine what matters by considering the other and the world. In such a practice of consideration as an ethics of the ordinary that pays attention to what is made and/or kept invisible through its humility, the short story shares many of the tenets of the ethics and the politics of care which “has given voice to the ordinary [and] draws our attention to the ordinary, to what we are unable to see, to what is right before our eyes and for this very reason invisible to us” (Laugier 218). It could also be suggested that by making visible the invisible or, more specifically and paradoxically perhaps, the visible, short fiction becomes the ally of ordinary language philosophy, “a philosophy that calls our attention to ordinary lives by attending to ordinary details of language and expression and having moral weight and importance” (Laugier 218). The humble, a notion and figure that does not appear so clearly in the works of the specialists of the ethics of care or ordinary language philosophy, may appear as a pivotal category to such disciplines thanks to the focus on the humility of form and content that the short story allows for.

6By showcasing the existence of humble fragments, ephemeral perceptions, tenuous moments and submerged subjects, the short story harnesses the powers of vulnerability, fallibility and humbleness to remind the reader that what looks isolated and autonomous is in fact characterised by its dependence on other fragments, moments and subjects. Not because, by gathering bits and fragments together, it succumbs to the illusory task of mapping out in a totalising claim, which would run counter to any ethical claim to openness. But more precisely because the attention to smithereens and the consideration of ephemera is a way to invite the reader to perceive that there is no such thing as autonomy, that there are only embeddings and entanglements, in Karen Barad’s acceptation of the term, i.e. that to be embedded (in and among other subjects or the world) is “to lack an independent, self-contained difference” (ix). Such an absence of autonomy, which appears prominently in the last two articles in this issue, may be envisaged in its stark materiality, as shown in Ali Smith’s and Daisy Johnson’s “compotist narratives” or in Edwige Danticat’s concrete heterotopias. In such instances, as in many short stories analysed here, separation and isolation have a positive counterpart in the shape of connection, which is one of the mainsprings of short fiction’s ethical agenda (Reynier 147).

7The first three articles address various forms of human frailty as they are highlighted by the genre of the short story. In a bold and convincing move, Ann-Marie Einhaus brings together short stories and ephemera, contending that there is a conceptual affinity between them. When published in magazines, or even in anthologies, short stories are as ephemeral and disposable as the media in which they appear; they also take a specific meaning in such a context. Similarly, wartime letters, photographs and mementos record war experience from a private point of view and are ephemeral objects, preserved by families and now sometimes in archives. Some writers have acknowledged this affinity and represented ephemera in their short stories, as Katherine Mansfield did in “The Fly,” analysed here. Einhaus also explores the similarities between the engagement of the short story—Julian Barnes’s “Evermore,” for instance—and of the ephemeral documents with the memory of the war. She uses the method of the historian to approach war short stories and track the importance of ephemera in them while showing how short fiction writers meet historians and archivists by making ephemera live beyond the war in their own fiction. Most of all, Einhaus argues that the short story is particularly close to ephemera as a humble genre; as such, it is more apt to capture the memory of the war as a humble experience and transmit the very fragility of its everyday aspects through its own vulnerability. Einhaus thus emphasises the memorial and documentary functions of the war short story—the paradoxical strength of a humble literary genre.

8Jane Alexander, as for her, addresses the issue of chronic illness in relation to the genre’s brevity, arguing very convincingly that it is on account of a series of formal traits inherent in conciseness that the short story welcomes the evocation of long-term pathologies and their marginalising effects. She therefore focuses on short fiction’s attention to the present moment, its capacity to challenge closure and its ability to turn feelings and thoughts into narrative nuclei as particularly useful in narrating chronic illness, a theme reputedly averse to novelistic presentation. She uses a comparative method to make this point, first going through the evocation of two novels: Nasim Marie Jafry’s The State of Me and Karen Havelin’s Please Read This Leaflet Carefully. She contrasts those to the poetic efficiency of two short stories: her own “Chronic” and Mireille Silcoff’s “Chez l’arabe,” showing that the shorter form, in its creative humbleness, provides an appropriate medium for the presentation of the marginalising experience of chronic illness that might become a mass experience in post-COVID times.

9In the third article, Maxwell Donaldson focuses on American writer J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories (1953) and contends that, like The Catcher in the Rye (1951), they are worth reading for the humble details they flaunt, mainly gestural ones. The various short stories in the collection are here explored in the light of gesture understood as physical as well as linguistic gesture. The characters’ many trivial bodily movements and verbal gestures are shown to be at the heart of Salinger’s art, bestowing as they do verisimilitude to the characters’ doings and psychology, and highlighting their frailty and humanity.

10The second set of articles focuses on the form of the short story as a humbling form. Briony Randall examines the single typescript on which the text of “Ode Written Partly in Prose on Seeing the Name of Cutbush Above a Butcher’s Shop in Pentonville” is based and reads it as an experiment in genre in which Virginia Woolf voices her interest in the potentialities and limitations of prose and poetry, as she does in most of her writings of the early 1930s. Randall also sets the short story within Woolf’s 1930s attempts at imagining lives of Londoners and renewing biographical writing. Taking her cue from Hammond’s analysis of the text and resorting to Susan Dick’s 1985 version of the short story as well as the recent digital interactive one, Randall then embarks on a discussion of the details of the text—the absence or presence of line-breaks, its so-called authorial and editorial errors and inaccuracies—and reads them as significant of the various destabilisations of hierarchies—in terms of gender, class, race or art—the short story explores and as giving rise to legitimate alternative readings. Randall thus argues in favour of a humble material and genetic reading while bringing out the tensions within Woolf’s short story between the humble and the noble understood in social as well as generic terms.

11Ashutosh Bhardwaj similarly compares the dynamics of the novel with those of the short story by poring over Nirmal Verma’s A Rag Called Happiness (1979) and “Under Cover of Darkness” (1987), both works presenting the reader with the topos of a child narrator coming to terms with the world. Basing his analysis on the longer and shorter fiction of masters like Tolstoy, Bhardwaj argues in favour of the humbler form’s capacity to evoke epiphanic experiences of a paradoxically irresolute, open type. Verma’s short fiction thereby appears as a locus of ethical tentativeness as it privileges openness and uncertainty over the apparent strengths of monologism and closure, providing grist to the mill of aesthetic and ethical humbleness.

12Xavier Le Brun, as for him, renews the understanding of humility in his reading of Malcolm Lowry’s Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961). Instead of dealing with Lowry’s desire for a humble simple life, as some critics have done, Le Brun focuses on the writer’s paradoxical treatment of vision and his specific use of a figure of speech usually connected with the epic and the tragic, namely, hypotyposis. Le Brun traces the use of the figure from “The Bravest Boat” to “The Forest Path to the Spring” and shows in illuminating close readings informed by a thorough knowledge of rhetoric as well as of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, how Lowry gradually appropriates hypotyposis and “humbles” it, displacing it from tragedy to comedy and finally, from the realm of the visible to that of the invisible, thus deconstructing the mastery of hypotyposis while renewing its function and impact, and reconciling it with a literary genre initially alien to it, the short story.

13Social invisibilities within the short story is the topic broached by the next articles. Diane Drouin draws our attention to the neglected short fiction of poet Mina Loy which was only published in 2011. In these short stories of the 1920s and 1930s, Loy draws on her own experience of poverty to devise Victorian-like social tales and plays with the fairy-tale tradition, renewing these genres through her experimentation with language. Interweaving British literary tradition and North American settings, Loy brings to the fore humble invisible characters, exposing the prejudices of those who exclude them from their community. Drouin gives us a whiff of many of these short stories by Loy, their surrealist, parodic or humorous intent. She also analyses Loy’s satirical stories that deconstruct the modernist aesthetics and thus highlights the blending of sophisticated techniques and humble subjects, of humour, parody and satire together with the celebration of the ordinary and vulnerability in Loy’s short fiction.

14Dealing with short stories of the same period, Tina Terradillos shifts the focus away from “Miss Ogilvy,” favoured by critics and Radclyffe Hall herself, to the other short stories of the writer. Retrieving them from oblivion, she vindicates them as valuable writings about the humble, as relating not simply to the poor but also to processes of invisibilisation—for example, during the First World War—that make the characters passive, humbled as well as humble and dispossessed. Through a close reading of these neglected texts, Terradillos deconstructs the processes of marginalisation of the characters as well as of the genre of the short story; pointing out that dispossession is not at odds with a form of resistance, she identifies Hall’s ethics as an “ethics of the flawed” where sympathy prevails. Informed by a thorough knowledge of Hall’s fiction and the reading of Butler and Athanasiou as well as Le Blanc, this contribution renews our reading of Hall’s work and of the genre of the short story within it.

15Sylvie Maurel focuses on Jean Rhys’s “Let Them Call It Jazz,” originally published in 1962 in Tigers Are Better-Looking, through the similar prism of social invisibility. She also uses the theoretical leverage provided by French philosopher Guillaume Le Blanc’s work on precariousness and provides ample, convincing evidence of the way in which the short story as a genre dominated by a substractive aesthetics is particularly adapted to the evocation of the lives of some marginalised representatives of excluded, invisible groups. Still, she takes care to demonstrate that Rhys’s short story does not add bleakness to bleakness and traces the female protagonist’s itinerary from precarious to ordinary life. In the end, she reads the narrative as a story of empowerment that testifies to the ethical import of Rhys’s short story—and what may well be seen as its singular contribution to a politics of literature.

16The last two articles take us from the humble to the relational. Diane Leblond’s piece provides a challenging, innovative reading of Ali Smith’s “The Beholder” and Daisy Johnson’s “Starver” from a neo-materialist, eco-feminist perspective, showing the affinities between the post-human, trans-corporeal contents of the texts and the economy of form characterising shorter narratives. Drawing on Donna Haraway’s analyses, she offers a reading of the texts as “compotist narratives,” paying attention to the poetics, the ethics and the politics of the sub-genre. The humble origins of short fiction and its formal traits encouraging a scarcity of means are harnessed to a vision of the humbleness of contents as the short stories foreground the humility of the human by narrating inter-species experiences and realities. In so doing, the short stories under review expose the myth of human exceptionalism and relay some of the main anxieties—ethical and ecological concerns—of our times.

17Building up on her expertise in diasporic studies, Judith Misrahi-Barak pores over a series of short stories by Haiti-born, US author Edwige Danticat. She is interested in the various figures of the migrant, the asylum-seeker and the refugee and provides ample definition of the sundry categories. She draws from Agamben on biopolitics, from Derrida on hospitality, and from Foucault on heterotopia, among others, to provide a very convincing demonstration on the short stories’ humble, fragmented form that espouses the themes and figures of separation and isolation in a violent, even traumatic context. She ends up on a more positive note by evoking Glissant’s take on relationality and envisaging the modalities of connection and interdependence that creatively compensate for severance and dissociation, thereby opening up to the perspective of resilience.

18The articles collected here, like those published in the February 2021 issue of Short Fiction in Theory & Practice, are the outcome of a conference that was held at the University Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 in pre-COVID times thanks to a close and fruitful collaboration with ENSFR, the European Network for Short Fiction Research.

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Jean-Michel Ganteau

Jean-Michel Ganteau is Professor of Contemporary British Literature at the University Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 (France) and a member of the Academia Europaea. He is the editor of the journal Études britanniques contemporaines. He is the author of three monographs: David Lodge: Le choix de l’éloquence (2001), Peter Ackroyd et la musique du passé (2008) and The Ethics and Aesthetics of Vulnerability in Contemporary British Literature (2015). He is also the editor, with Christine Reynier, of four volumes of essays: Impersonality and Emotion in Twentieth-Century British Literature(Publications Montpellier 3, 2005), Impersonality and Emotion in Twentieth-Century British Arts(Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2007), Autonomy and Commitment in Twentieth-Century British Literature (PULM, 2010) and Autonomy and Commitment in Twentieth-Century British Arts (PULM, 2011). He has also co-edited, with Susana Onega, The Ethical Component in Experimental British Fiction since the 1960s (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), Ethics and Trauma in Contemporary Narrative in English (Rodopi, 2011), Trauma and Romance in Contemporary British Literature (Routledge, 2012), Contemporary Trauma Narratives: Liminality and the Ethics of Form (Routledge, 2014), Victimhood and Vulnerability in 21st Century Fiction (Routledge, 2017) and Transcending the Postmodern: The Singular Response of Literature to the Transmodern Paradigm (Routledge, 2020). He has published extensively on contemporary British fiction, with a special interest in the ethics of affects, trauma criticism and theory, and the ethics of vulnerability. His work appears in edited volumes or in such journals as Miscelánea, Anglia, Symbolism, The Cambridge Quarterly, Textual Practice.

Christine Reynier

Christine Reynier is Professor of English Literature at Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3, France. She has published on major modernist writers, edited books and journal issues on Virginia Woolf and published Virginia Woolf’s Ethicsof the Short Story (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Her latest publications include Reconnecting Aestheticism and Modernism, co-edited with Bénédicte Coste and Catherine Delyfer (Routledge, 2017) and Modernist Non-fictional Narratives ofWar and Peace (1914–1950), co-edited with Adrian Paterson (Erea 17.2, 2020). Recently, she has published a monograph, Virginia Woolf’s Good Housekeeping Essays (Routledge, 2019) and the first critical edition in France of A Room of One’s Own translated by Marie Darieussecq (Un lieu à soi, Folio classique,Gallimard, 2020). She has also published “Beyond Cinema: Daphne du Maurier’s Intermedial Experiments in ‘The Little Photographer’ (1952),” Short Fiction in Theory & Practice 8.1/2 (2018): 89-97, and edited Short Fiction as Humble Fiction in Short Fiction in Theory & Practice 10.2 (Feb. 2021).

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