Short and sweet: Discussing an American century of short stories

Seasonal Aquinnah resident Philip Weinstein leads a series of literary discussion groups starting September 13. — File photo by Lucille Nawara

One literary benefit of year-round Island living is participating in the literary discussion groups created by literature scholar Philip Weinstein for Island residents.

Mr. Weinstein, a seasonal Aquinnah resident, is the Alexander Griswold Cummins professor of English Literature at Swarthmore College, about 11 miles southwest of Philadelphia. He has been teaching at Swarthmore since the 1970s and delights in shaping a curriculum for presentation at Island libraries during semester sabbaticals from his campus teaching career.

This is the fourth, or perhaps fifth, curriculum Mr. Weinstein has crafted for the Island from his teaching work. This year he will lead a four-part discussion of the development of 20th century American short story over different periods, beginning with Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s, Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver in the middle and later decades, and concluding with the work of 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout.

The first discussion will be held Sept. 13, from 5 to 6:30 pm at the old Aquinnah Town Hall. Hemingway’s 1925 volume “In Our Time” will be discussed with an eye for insights into modern America and the short story as a literary form.

The second discussion, using Ms. O’Connor’s “The Complete Stories,” will be held at the Chilmark Library on September 26 beginning at 5 pm.

The third session, using Mr. Carver’s collection, “Cathedral,” will be held at the Vineyard Haven Library on November 20. That group will meet at 7 pm. The final discussion, with selections from “Olive Kitteridge” by Ms. Strout, will be held at the Edgartown Library on December 5, from 7 to 8:30 pm.

In a conversation with the Times this week, Mr. Weinstein discussed the works in the series. He said they include varying styles and some surprising voices that readers may not have seen and heard, particularly from authors like Hemingway and Carver.

“I think the short story has had a continuously short lifespan because most of the work is published in journals and magazines like The New Yorker and, like the novel, is in some trouble because print is in trouble as [electronic media] gains popularity,” he said.

Mr. Weinstein believes that a stronger connection exists between reader and story when it is read in print rather than on electronic devices.

Has the short story been regarded in popular terms as a stepchild to the novel? “I agree in part but some writers are short story writers. That’s how they write. And some of the great novelists, Tolstoy and Henry James come to mind, have been successful in both forms. You can also make the argument that Hemingway was a short story writer who produced a couple of memorable novels.

“Essentially, novels are about a lengthened space and time and require more length to allow things to come together. Short stories, on the other hand, tend to be about a moment in time.

“In a practical sense, writers make more money with novels. The novel creates greater clout and reputation than short stories do. It is interesting, though, that [William] Faulkner made as much money writing short stories as he did publishing a novel,” he said.

“The short story is its own form. Some say the short story is harder to write than the novel and has its own demanding form. I think the short story is practical for this series because people have lives to live. I feel like I can ask [participants] to do six or seven hours of reading,” he said.

Mr. Weinstein noted that the experience is better if participants have read the stories. “Then we have a discussion rather than a lecture. I plan to speak for 40 minutes or so but use the majority of the time for discussion. Even if participants don’t say anything, they have an opportunity to turn over what they’ve read in their minds and compare that with the experience of others,” he said.

“Hemingway will be the most daunting because his stories lack the narrative of his novels. O’Connor’s work is longer, more filled in. Carver is Hemingway-esque in brevity but unmistakably has his own style and a refusal to be ‘smart.’ He follows the minds of his characters and the world they inhabit and solicits the intelligence from the reader. Strout’s work is typically about older people and their lives in Maine. They are generally sweet and Strout makes a lovely ending,” he said.

American Short Story Series, 5 pm, Thursday, Sept. 13, Old Aquinnah Town Hall. Refreshments. Free. 508-645-2314.