THE LOST STORIES OF RICHMOND REED: The Recondite Flash Drive
One of the things we should be most anxious to learn is the psychology of the American reader. We want to know how he reacts to what he reads in the magazine, whether it is a short story, an article, or an advertisement. We want to know, for example, what holds the interest of a reader of the Atlantic Monthly , and what holds the interest of the reader of the Ladies' Home Journal.
It is my belief that the difference between these various types of readers is pretty largely an artificial difference, in so far as it affects the quality of entertainment and imaginative interest that the short story has to offer. Of course, there are exceptional cases, and I have some of these in mind, but for the most part I can perceive no essential difference between the best stories in the Saturday Evening Post and the best stories in Harper's Magazine for example.
The difference that every one feels, and that exists, is one of emphasis rather than of type.
It is a difference which is shown by averages rather than one which affects the best stories in either magazine. Human nature is the same everywhere, and when an artist interprets it sympathetically, the reader will respond to his feeling wherever he finds it. It has been my experience that the reader is likely to find this warmly sympathetic interpretation of human nature, its pleasures and its sorrows, its humor and its tragedy, most often in the American magazines that talk least about their own merit. We are all familiar with the sort of magazine that contents itself with saying day in and day out ceaselessly and noisily: "The Planet Magazine is the greatest magazine in the universe.
The greatest literary artists and the world's greatest illustrators contribute to our pages. It has repeated this claim so often that it has come to believe it. Such a magazine is the great literary ostrich. It hides by burying its eyes in the sand. It is an axiom of human nature that the greatest men do not find it necessary or possible to talk about their own greatness. They are so busy that they have never had much time to think about it. And so it is with the best magazines, and with the best short stories.
The man who wrote what I regard as the best short story published in was the most surprised man in Brooklyn when I told him so. The truth of the matter is that we are changing very rapidly, and that a new national sense in literature is accompanying that change. There was a time, and in fact it is only now drawing to a close, when the short story was exploited by interested moneymakers who made such a loud noise that you could hear nothing else without great difficulty. The most successful of these noisemakers are still shouting, but their heart is in it no longer.
The editor of one of the largest magazines in the country said to me not long ago that he found the greatest difficulty now in procuring short stories by writers for whom his magazine had trained the public to clamor. The immediate reason which he ascribed for this state of affairs was that the commercial rewards offered to these writers by the moving picture companies were so great, and the difference in time and labor between writing scenarios and developing finished stories was so marked, that authors were choosing the more attractive method of earning money.
The excessive commercialisation of literature in the past decade is now turned against the very magazines which fostered it. The magazines which bought and sold fiction like soap are beginning to repent of it all. They have killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. This fight for sincerity in the short story is a fight that is worth making.
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It is at the heart of all that for which I am striving. The quiet sincere man who has something to tell you should not be talked down by the noisemakers. He should have his hearing. He is real. And we need him. That is why I have set myself the annual task of reading so many short stories. I am looking for the man and woman with something to say,—who cares very much indeed about how he says it. I am looking for the man and woman with some sort of a dream, the man or woman who sees just a little bit more in the pedlar he passes on the street than you or I do, and who wishes to devote his life to telling us about it.
I want to be told my own story too, so that I can see myself as other people see me.
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And I want to feel that the storyteller who talks to me about these things is as much in earnest as a sincere clergyman, an unselfish physician, or an idealistic lawyer. I want to feel that he belongs to a profession that is a sort of priesthood, and not that he is holding down a job or running a bucket shop.
gothic horror story
I have found this writer with a message in almost every magazine I have studied during the year. He is just as much in earnest in Collier's Weekly as he is in Scribner's Magazine. I do not find him often, but he is there somewhere. And he is the only man for whom it is worth our while to watch. I feel that it is none of my business whether I like and agree with what he has to say or not.
All that I am looking for is to see whether he means what he says and makes it as real as he can to me. I accept his substance at his own valuation, but I want to know what he makes of it. Each race that forms part of the substance in our great melting pot is bringing the richest of its traditions to add to our children's heritage. That is a wonderful thing to think about. Here, for example, is a young Jewish writer, telling in obscurity the stories of his people with all the art of the great Russian masters.
And Irishmen are bringing to us the best of their heritage, and men and women of many other races contribute to form the first national literature the world has ever seen which is not based on a single racial feeling.
Why are we not more curious about the ragman's story and that of the bootblack and the man who keeps the fruit store? Don't you suppose life is doing things to the boy in the coat-room as interesting as anything in all the romances? Isn't life changing us in the most extraordinary ways, and do we not wish to know in what manner we are to meet and adapt ourselves to these changes? There is a humble writer in an attic up there who knows all about it, if you care to listen to him. The trouble is that he is so much interested in talking about life that he forgets to talk about himself, and we are too lazy to listen to any one who forgets to blow his own trumpet.
But the magazines are beginning to look for him, and, wonderful to say, they are beginning to find him, and to discover that he is more interesting and humanly popular than the professional chef who may be always depended upon to cook his single dish in the same old way, but who has never had time to learn anything else. Now what is the essential point of all that I have been trying to say? It is simply this. If we are going to do anything as a nation, we must be honest with ourselves and with everybody else. If we are story writers or story readers, and practically every one is either one or the other in these days, we must come to grips with life in the fiction we write or read.
Sloppy sentimentality and slapstick farce ought to bore us frightfully, especially if we have any sense of humor. Life is too real to go to sleep over it. To repeat what I have said in these pages in previous years, for the benefit of the reader as yet unacquainted with my standards and principles of selection, I shall point out that I have set myself the task of disengaging the essential human qualities in our contemporary fiction which, when chronicled conscientiously by our literary artists, may fairly be called a criticism of life.
What has interested me, to the exclusion of other things, is the fresh, living current which flows through the best of our work, and the psychological and imaginative reality which our writers have conferred upon it. No substance is of importance in fiction, unless it is organic substance, that is to say, substance in which the pulse of life is beating. Inorganic fiction has been our curse in the past, and bids fair to remain so, unless we exercise much greater artistic discrimination than we display at present.
The present record covers the period from October, , to September, , inclusive. During this period, I have sought to select from the stories published in American magazines those which have rendered life imaginatively in organic substance and artistic form. Substance is something achieved by the artist in every act of creation, rather than something already present, and accordingly a fact or group of facts in a story only attain substantial embodiment when the artist's power of compelling imaginative persuasion transforms them into a living truth.
The first test of a short story, therefore, in any qualitative analysis is to report upon how vitally compelling the writer makes his selected facts or incidents. This test may be conveniently called the test of substance.
But a second test is necessary if the story is to take rank above other stories. The true artist will seek to shape this living substance into the most beautiful and satisfying form, by skilful selection and arrangement of his materials, and by the most direct and appealing presentation of it in portrayal and characterization. The short stories which I have examined in this study, as in previous years, have fallen naturally into four groups.
The first group consists of those stories which fail, in my opinion, to survive either the test of substance or the test of form. These stories are listed in the yearbook without comment or a qualifying asterisk. The second group consists of those stories which may fairly claim that they survive either the test of substance or the test of form.
Each of these stories may claim to possess either distinction of technique alone, or more frequently, I am glad to say, a persuasive sense of life in them to which a reader responds with some part of his own experience. Stories included in this group are indicated in the yearbook index by a single asterisk prefixed to the title.
Gregory White (Author of Emergency Childbirth)
The third group, which is composed of stories of still greater distinction, includes such narratives as may lay convincing claim to a second reading, because each of them has survived both tests, the test of substance and the test of form. Stories included in this group are indicated in the yearbook index by two asterisks prefixed to the title. Finally, I have recorded the names of a small group of stories which possess, I believe, an even finer distinction—the distinction of uniting genuine substance and artistic form in a closely woven pattern with such sincerity that these stories may fairly claim a position in our literature.
If all of these stories by American authors were republished, they would not occupy more space than five novels of average length. My selection of them does not imply the critical belief that they are great stories. A year which produced one great story would be an exceptional one.
It is simply to be taken as meaning that I have found the equivalent of five volumes worthy of republication among all the stories published during the period under consideration. These stories are indicated in the yearbook index by three asterisks prefixed to the title, and are listed in the special "Roll of Honor. To the titles of certain stories, however, in the "Rolls of Honor," an asterisk is prefixed, and this asterisk, I must confess, reveals in some measure a personal preference, for which, perhaps, I may be indulged.
It is from this final short list that the stories reprinted in this volume have been selected. It has been a point of honor with me not to republish an English story, nor a translation from a foreign author.