InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellers Contact Us
Access Author Profile Pages by:
 Resource Centers
Textbook Site for:
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor
The Heath Anthology Newsletter
Sprint 2000

Bigger is Not Always Better:
Teaching Medium-Length and Shorter Works in Diverse Genres

Karen L. Kilcup, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

From Wal-Mart to SUVs, from Star Wars to the Grand Canyon, people from the U.S. usually believe that bigger is better (unless it's a credit card bill). In spite of the fact that, as a recent New York Times Book Review article bemoaned, the blockbuster novel—whether Moby Dick or Uncle Tom's Cabin—is taught less and less frequently, even in advanced courses in many universities, many readers both inside and outside of academe still think that such monumental texts represent the best and most serious contributions to American literature. Today's overemphasis on the novel compared to, say, the short story means that serious writers of fiction must show they can produce sustained work. Readers and critics assume that writing shorter pieces is somehow easier and that the pieces themselves are less complex. While I enjoy teaching and reading the leisurely giants, I invite students as well as scholars to reconsider the virtues of intensity over expansiveness, my appreciation for Melville and Stowe notwithstanding.

Reading, let alone teaching, shorter and middle length texts raises a number of theoretical questions: How can we most usefully distinguish between shorter genres (sketch, short story, advice essay)? What is the relationship, if any, between them? What is the relationship between the short short story (The Story of an Hour) and the long short story or novella (Old Mrs. Harris)? What kinds of imagined readers do various sorts of texts propose? What versions or reinventions of conflict and character, to use two terms customarily associated with the novel, do shorter works encode? What varieties of pleasures and challenges do shorter works uniquely propose? How might the responses to some of these questions vary over time, region, gender, race, class, or ability? How do the complexities of what I have called genre mixing or genre hybridity contribute to (or interfere with) our understanding of a text? I will attempt to respond to these questions first by reflecting on some of my experiences as both a reader and a teacher, and then by offering a few classroom strategies that have worked well at various types of institutions.

I'd like to address my last question first. One form of marginalized writing, advice writing, proliferated in a nineteenth-century America negotiating with an increasingly diverse population; often domestic and personal in character, such writing sought to mediate (or, alternatively, to prevent) movement between social classes. Yet, I would argue that in spite of its apparently specialized character, it represents one voice in a "circulatory" system in which "writers often cross the generic boundaries in which we have confined them; from this perspective, 'advice writing' often possesses aesthetic ambitions, while 'fiction' incorporates a body of practical advice that negotiates norms of respectability" 1.

How might we apply such a perspective to specific pieces of literature? It is possible, in this context, to consider such diverse texts as John Smith's A Description of New England, the alphabet verses from The New England Primer, Judith Sargent Murray's On the Domestic Education of Women, Phillis Wheatley's To the University of Cambridge, in New England, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft's The Forsaken Brother, and Emerson's Self-Reliance (all in the Heath Anthology, Vol. 1), and Chesnutt's The Passing of Grandison, James's Daisy Miller, Millay's Spring, and Yezierska's America and I (in Vol. 2) as syntheses of advice writing and other genres. Analogously, we might regard texts ranging from the journals of Columbus to Daisy Miller or Jewett's The Foreigner as amalgamations of travel writing and other genres.

Such a consideration of genre hybridity enables us to acknowledge a kind of complexity in shorter texts other than, say, complexity of plot (because many texts are amenable to being read simultaneously, and differently, within distinct genre categories). It also enables us to raise productive questions with which to frame such texts. Here we might return to the idea of the imagined audience. Situating Daisy Miller as a form of travel writing propels us to consider whether the audience is "foreign" or "native," for example, and what those terms meant in the context of late-nineteenth-century American culture. It also invites reflection on how gender inflects even an audience theorized as the "same." Perhaps a better question to ask, then, is, how does the narrative (and our understanding of it) alter if we overlay a series of imagined audiences in turn: middle-class American white men, "nouveau riche" American white women, immigrant persons, European men, and so on. Thinking about such matters as the relationship between the domestic and the public, as well as domestic and foreign, can be productive not only to James's expatriate tale but to indigenous productions by immigrant and Native American writers. Using this template of genre hybridity enables us also to invite students to consider how such terms as plot and character are translated into shorter works.

From one perspective, it is possible to argue that shorter works are more, not less, complex than their book-length counterparts. Reflecting on the role of the reader, for example, and drawing from the model of lyric poetry, we could argue that shorter works demand more imaginative work, that they insist that the reader fill in putative gaps and make connections. One of my students recently wrote about the phenomenon of "the lazy audience;" her discussion suggested that some novels and longer works more readily satisfy students' desire to receive information passively and to have matters resolved for them. This passivity emerged in the comments of a recent class reading Hope Leslie. Required to write weekly on the text, many complained at the end of the first week that they had nothing to say or could have nothing to say until they knew "how it ended." That is, they found it difficult to participate in a process of understanding while intuiting that their first impressions might finally be "wrong." This desire for completion or wholeness, either at the level of plot or character, is one that many shorter works, whether fictional or not, fail to satisfy. Perhaps, then, we need to direct our attention to the questions, the loose ends, the imaginative openings that many shorter textsŃespecially sketches and non-fiction prose—offer us.

Shorter works such as Chopin's The Story of an Hour may also require a slower, more process-oriented reading. I will never forget discovering this story a number of years ago and, bowled over by its brilliance, sharing it with a colleague, who read it quickly and returned it with the comment, "A pleasant, if slight, story. No character development, of course." I was crushed, but these remarks compelled me to attempt to articulate—for myself if not for my colleague—what the internal aesthetics of the story were, and how they functioned to provide me with an experience "as if the top of my head were taken off," to borrow Emily Dickinson's comment about recognizing poetry. Intensity emerged in part because of my own life experience at the time, but Chopin encourages it with a series of strategically misleading images. Attending to the process of reading, rather than to the conclusions enabled by completion, fostered a more textured appreciation of the complexity of this "slight" story. When I read it with students, I attempt to advance this reader-response perspective by asking them to cover the page and read by paragraphs, almost as if reading stanzas of a poem. Conversely, I also ask them to take this approach to longer texts, whose cumulative developments, as I was reminded by my students' response to Hope Leslie, is often erased in favor of broader considerations of plot and character.

How might some of these reflections translate more directly into the classroom? Having taught at institutions ranging from private and public universities to small colleges, both here and abroad, I have found that students are remarkably similar in their initial responses to survey courses, which they often see as both overwhelming in scope and frustrating in pace. Part of this response is due to the number of shorter texts that such surveys often encompass. Moreover, students are finely attuned to locations of social and cultural power; if "bigger is better," they are often inclined to diminish the value of shorter works. The principal challenges, then, are to make such works accessible and to enable the students to feel they own or have some investment in the texts. There are a number of ways in which I negotiate the difficulties and delights of teaching shorter works, and I'll focus on only three strategies here: dramatizing texts, considering narratives as poetry, and focusing on genre. The exercises that follow address some of students' common complaints about shorter texts: there's little character development, the conflict is non-existent (as is often true in sketches), and it's not really literature.

Dramatizing texts is one of the best ways to involve students in understanding the subtle character portraits that appear in many shorter texts. It also helps students develop a more sophisticated understanding of the author's perspective. Here a specific case will be useful. Alice Cary's Uncle Christopher's provides a wonderful opportunity for students to investigate such matters as the patriarchal family, the role of religion in nineteenth-century American culture, the problem of child abuse, the ability of women to use their voices, and the legal situation for women and children in the period depicted. Constructing a mock trial, I divide students into several groups, with the number of members varying according to the size of the class: two students act as judges, four to six as prosecuting attorneys; four to six as defense attorneys; two to four as witnesses; and a few as the jury. This classroom dramatization also requires them to provide arguments closely linked to the text.

I direct the prosecuting attorneys to bring a charge of murder or manslaughter against Uncle Christopher, with whatever additional charges they elect to bring. While they construct their arguments, as well as the questions they plan to ask the witnesses, the judges decide on the disposition and length of each part of the trial (which they usually divide into opening arguments, witness examination and cross-examination, and closing arguments). Like the prosecuting attorneys, the defense attorneys consult with witnesses and plan their questions. The jury's responsibility is to determine the outcome of the case, and while the other groups are preparing, they also review the evidence. Because most of them have seen either The Practice or Law and Order, most of the characters I've assigned are familiar, and they are remarkably inventive in envisioning their roles and allotting their time.

During the preparation time, which usually takes about 20-25 minutes, I circulate to the various groups and, if need be, help discuss their challenges. For each group, deciding what evidence will be admissible, and what testimony they will object to, is important. The attorneys have to develop questions, and the witnesses have to develop answers, based on the textual evidence. A strong feature of this assignment—like the related one I will mention in a moment—is that it asks students to argue a perspective with which they may not agree; this feature requires that both sides consider the ambivalences and complexities within a particular text, as well as the author's perspective and how that perspective is articulated. In organizing the groups, it is important to assign at least one or two good close readers to each group, as well as at least one student who is comfortable speaking in class and assuming a leadership role.

Initiated and enacted in a single class of 75 minutes, this assignment usually elicits energy, humor, and insight. Although I would prefer to assign it in the previous class period and ask students to prepare prior to the class in which we have the mock trial, such a format is not practical with the student body at UNCG, which is largely a commuter campus; also, the majority of students hold jobs, many full-time, outside of school. In some sense, being pressed for time is familiar to them, and they are energized by the challenges of this very intense assignment. In fact, the compression often generates a sense of wishing to continue—very desirable in this environment as in many others where many students are punching the academic clock. Additionally, because all of my survey courses are writing-intensive (students write a short essay every week, as well as a minimum of two longer revisions), many of the issues that emerge in the mock trial are ones they have already contemplated.

I have used this assignment with success in both lower-level surveys and more specialized upper-level courses; a number of texts in the Heath lend themselves well to this assignment, including Trifles and A Good Man is Hard to Find. Another approach is to put the author on trial for siding too strongly with one character. In a related assignment, I have frequently divided the class in half to consider "The Revolt of 'Mother'"—specifically, to argue whose perspective is the "correct" one, that of "Mother" or "Father." They prepare arguments based on the text, again attempting to anticipate what the opposing arguments might be. After the debate, we back up, so to speak, to discuss Freeman's perspective. What does she think of "Mother?" Of Janie and Tommy? Of "Father?" Is she merely male-bashing? What do students make of the minister's role, having thought through the arguments on behalf of the principal protagonists? Again, this assignment is fun, energizing, and enlightening; as with the mock trial, students can see how finely nuanced are the portraits of the characters (and how ambivalent the author's alliances), as well as appreciate the intensity and compression of the story's conflict. Given the gender tensions in the story that many have seen enacted in their own lives, this exercise also brings the story home to them, often in powerful and unpredictable ways.

The second in-class approach that I take to shorter texts is to consider them as poetry. This project works best in conjunction with a reading of narrative poetry. Frost's "The Fear," "The Death of the Hired Man," "The Witch of Coös," and "A Servant to Servants;" Whitman's "Song of Myself;" and Olsen's "I Want You Women Up North to Know" are some useful touchstones for this approach. As I have constructed the assignment with Frost, we listen to a recording of the poet reading his poem, sometimes more than once; students are asked to jot down memorable phrases. Since many have what I call poetry anxiety (first cousin to math anxiety) I ask them first merely to share their memorable phrases without adding an analytical response. The examples are often those images that are most poetic or lyric, and I ask students what the phrases have in common. We explore the connotations of the images, and then the ways in which the poem is structured around such images—how they form the skeleton, so to speak, of the narrative, and how they ultimately influence its effect on the reader. We also explore the uses of voice and sound in the poem, and especially how repetition functions. Finally, we investigate the ways in which this "talk" is (or is not) poetry—how it fulfills our expectations of what constitutes a poem, regardless of its shape on the page or its printed status in the anthology.

This work provides the basis for a discussion not only of other, ostensibly more difficult poems by modernist writers, but also for a new perspective on the lyricism of many short stories. Some texts that work well in this context include: Hills Like White Elephants, with its aggressively metaphorical title and staccato, poem-like lines; America and I, with its first-person, confessional perspective that parallels in many ways, and yet departs from, A Servant to Servants; and Seventeen Syllables, recalling, with its jittery anxious undercurrent and striking images, The Fear. Many of the same questions that we investigate with the Frost poem become relevant: Who is speaking, to whom, and under what circumstances? What is the function of repetition? What images predominate and how do these images influence our understanding? How do ellipses, or spaces at the end of paragraphs sometimes function as stanza breaks? What kinds of imaginative work is the reader required to accomplish? Quite often students are able to articulate well how they feel after reading a short story or essay, but they cannot specify what elements of the text generate such feelings. This exercise helps them to reach toward such specificity; it also gives them confidence in the authority of their own responses because they learn to substantiate their feelings with textual evidence.

The final approach is one that I use every semester because of its ability to open for students the constructed, even fictionalized, nature of autobiography. Most (or at least many) students think of autobiography as writing that is merely "true"; they do not understand how writers consider such matters as audience, context, organization, detail, and voice in the artful construction of life narratives. This assignment invites them to ponder such matters via their own experience of writing autobiography; it also invests them more fully in autobiographical writing and creates a powerful sense of community.

I situate this assignment on a class day for which they have read an autobiography, especially an autobiography that will be in some respects unfamiliar to the majority, such as the selections by Zitkala-Sa, Sarah Winnemucca, or Sui Sin Far. Asking them to compose their own autobiographies, I give them about fifteen or twenty minutes in class, and I write my own narrative at the same time. At the end of the writing period, I ask them to read their work aloud if they are comfortable doing so; I also encourage them to take notes on their classmates' work (to establish a sense of engagement and to propel them toward more analytical thinking), centering on striking or familiar moments and repeated themes or structures.

Inevitably, students are able to identify commonalities as well as point to distinctive issues. We are able to talk about principles of selection, as well as about such concerns as audience and voice; we are also able to identify our biases and common understandings about what autobiography is "supposed" to do. This process is enhanced by the fact that I participate and always construct my own narrative as a single scene rather than as a complete life narrative. Finally, students begin to appreciate both the literary features of the ostensibly transparent genre of autobiography, and the courage that it often takes for a writer to tell his or her life story. In relation to non-white writers, the matters of audience, context, and purpose become particularly important if the class is predominantly white, for it enables students to appreciate more fully the complex voicing embedded in sometimes ostensibly simple narratives. This assignment works well in anticipation of short stories with a seemingly autobiographical, first-person narrator, such as Chesnutt's "The Goophered Grapevine."

Similar in-class activities work well for such genres as travel writing (Columbus, John Smith), which enables us to discuss such matters as the meaning of stranger and native; children's literature (the New England Primer alphabet poems), which fosters discussions of the different articulations of childhood over time; advice writing (Franklin), which initiates considerations of class difference and national identity; and even poetry (Bradstreet, Ginsberg), which can tell us about genre mixing. Here as elsewhere, comparisons are crucial to inviting them to think beyond traditional categories. Hence, I might ask such questions as: How does "The Problem of Old Harjo" (a story) negotiate the religious establishment in ways similar to and different from "The School Days of an Indian Girl" (an autobiographical essay)? How do concerns about identity figure in The School Days of an Indian Girl compared to The Foreigners. These exercises about genre slippage also enable us to take a broad view of the components of the course and the syllabus. Students are intensely interested in the politics and history of literary canon formation. Considering the hybridity of texts, as well as their aesthetic qualities, can lead to productive discussions about the processes of inclusion and exclusion and the construction of value.

I'll end with an exercise that I am in the process of developing. I hope to challenge students' sense that "bigger is better" by engaging them in a creative activity that will contextualize their understanding of novels. Because many nineteenth-century novels were serialized, I'll invite them to consider how we might see Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Scarlet Letter as a series of sketches. After disassembling one of the novels, by investigating (for example) the internal coherence of individual chapters, I'll ask them to write a pre-text or post-text for a short story, to imagine the story as a concentrated, important moment in a larger context. For example, what might we envisage about the characters, or about the plot, that would allow us to arrive at the beginning of the story we have in hand? I hope that the narratives they develop will help indicate how compression and intensity strengthen a writer's story, rather than making it smaller and less importan—even in the land of Wal-Mart and the Whopper.

1 "'Essays of Invention': Transformations of Advice in Ninteenth-Century American Women's Writing," in Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Critical Reader, ed. Karen L. Kilcup (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 186.