Thursday, May 10, 2012

A. E. Coppard on the Short Story

Recently, I bought for $1 at the local public library's book sale a copy of The Collected Tales of A. E. Coppard, published by Alfred A, Knopf in 1951.  Back then, Knopf's Borzoi Books were handsomely bound in cloth and well-crafted otherwise.  Now, Knopf, like almost all other publishers, binds in cardboard.  This is a sad decline from what once was.

Book publishers, like newspaper publishers, lament that fewer people are buying their products.  Who, however, can be reasonably expected to be willing to pay as much for a cardboard book as what he once paid for a clothbound book?  The cardboard-bound book is little more appealing than the paperbound book.  Meanwhile, the book publishers are attempting to promote electronic books or e-books, which may prove to be successful in the areas of popular fiction and handbooks, books to be consulted but not read from cover to cover.  Unfortunately, however, book publishers expect us to pay almost as much for an e-book as for a hardbound book. 

Although most of Coppard's short stories may not be worthy of being read again, his observations on the short story as a genre are so worthy.  Writing in the preface to this collection, Coppard corrects the common misunderstanding by which the short story is seen as "merely a remnant" of a more complete work, the novel.  This error is based on "the assumption that the short story and the novel are manifestations of one principle of fiction, differentiated merely by size."  On the contrary, "the relationship of the short story to the novel amounts to nothing at all.  The novel is a distinct form of art having a pedigree and practice of hardly more than a couple of hundred years; the short story , so far from being its offspring, is an ancient art originating in the folk tale, which was a thing of joy even before writing, not to mention printing, was invented.  Put the beginning of English printing in the last quarter of the fifteenth century and you light on a date when the folk tale lost its oral or spoken form and issued as a printed short story. , ,"

Coppard reminds us here that literature began long before what we think of as being literature.  Oral literature existed long before anything was written, much less committed to print or pixels.  Something of this oral tradition is alive in the Moslems' belief that the Koran has existed from all eternity,  being only written down when the angel Gabriel read it to the prophet Muhammad.  (Christians who think this strange should read the very last verse of the Gospel according to John.)

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