There is no “greatest” short story. There are only great short stories and great writers…
It’s wonderful to know literature. It’s great to have favorite writers. It’s even enjoyable to argue about who our best writers are, what their greatest works are. And of course, we live in a “list culture” that thrives on creating arbitrary lists of “the greatest” in about every category of human endeavor – including cat videos.
Knowing the Internets as we all do, I’m not sure why I let myself get exercised by James Parker’s essay published at Slate a couple of days ago proclaiming “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” the greatest short story of all time. People are constantly arguing about what literature was, is, will be, or should be. Including this guy.
But there were a couple of points that Parker attempted to make (and that I, for one, didn’t buy) that piqued my interest – and that set my crap detector to clicking.
So let us begin….
Parker’s first point had to do with what makes a great short story. His context is that, above all, a story should capture the reader/listener’s attention, should draw in the audience and hold them with its power:
It’s what fiction should be, basically, what it should be aiming at: the death-grip, the ultimate concern. The naked lunch.
I don’t entirely disagree with him. Anyone who has read the the actual greatest short story of all time, Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” (I kid, Mr. Parker, though I suspect you like Crane’s story, too – a lot, I’m betting, given your excellent taste) knows that a great writer, like a Crane – or a Kipling – has some instinct for riveting the reader’s attention from, well, in Crane’s story, for instance, the first line:
None of them knew the color of the sky.
There’s a grabber if there ever was one. And Crane’s story, about men trapped in a life boat trying to make it to shore without getting killed is as riveting as fiction can get. So that grabber opening leads the reader into a powerful story about humans vs. the elements that is heartbreaking and unforgettable.
Parker, of course, ascribes that quality of “the ultimate concern” to “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.” Which is is, I’d say, a reasonable assessment. But I’d also argue that the issues related to “Rikki-Tiki-Tavi” that Parker dismisses – its reflection of Kipling’s jingoism, his affirmation of the rightness of the British Raj (Rikki, for anyone who hasn’t read the story, and if you haven’t, shame on you, stop reading this right now and go read it here – you can come back to me later with a deeper understanding that you can then show off in your own essay somewhere or other), his celebration of the faithful native servant who, well trained (like Rikki!) can be less the dreaded “white man’s burden” (a term coined by the self same Mr. Kipling) cannot be ignored. They are part and parcel of any reading of Kipling’s story – and that “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” no matter how engrossing, entertaining, or fulfilling it is as a story has to carry the burden of the author’s oft expressed themes and preoccupations. It’s naive (or calculatedly cynical) to claim otherwise.
And don’t hand me that Intentional Fallacy crap. If we could all agree to ignore Kipling’s literary biography and history, he’d enjoy a much more esteemed place in the canon than he does. His literary reputation pays the price for his perceived intentions. An educated reader ignores Kipling’s racist Imperialist world view at his/her peril.
But I digress….
There’s another issue I want to take up – one which the tenor as well as the subject of Parker’s essay brought to mind. There seems to be some sort of argument going on the literary world. I don’t find it a particularly fair argument, since almost all those on one side of it are dead and can’t defend themselves, but it seems to be chugging along nonetheless. The argument has two main prongs, so let me rehearse those briefly for you: 1) Modernism and its literary giants are characterized by either figures like Joyce and Faulkner who intentionally make it hard on the reader in that they make the reader work to determine meaning or is just cleverly plagiarized rot; 2) literature should be about entertaining the reader – the reader is the writer’s customer and, as such, should be catered to rather than challenged – and God forbid literature upset anyone.
Whether he meant to or not, Parker’s assessment of “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” as “the greatest short story of all time” serves as yet more ammunition for that second part of the “literature should be fun!” argument. And whether he means to or not, he gives ammunition to people that I suspect he would cringe at supporting: people like the governor of North Carolina who just named a state employee who self-publishes her poetry NC’s new poet laureate.
“Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” is an engrossing story with action, thrills – and a happy ending. It’s part of a book Kipling wrote for children, after all. But it’s not the greatest short story of all time. It is a great story, though. On this point Mr. Parker and I agree. As a writer, Kipling is the shizzle.
“The Open Boat” (read it at link) is an engrossing story with an adult ending. Not everything turns out happily – given the audience Parker describes in his essay, it might have been an even better choice. It certainly would have been one that resonated with them. And I think Mr. Parker would agree with me that Stephen Crane is also the shizzle. But, as I mentioned earlier, that doesn’t mean that “The Open Boat” is the greatest short story of all time.
There is no “greatest short story of all time,” gentle reader. There are great stories. There are great writers. C’est assez, as the French would say.
One more observation that may or may not be salient – but that I’ll mention because it’s my essay and I can.
Remember that I mentioned early in this essay that the story reader was a priest? One of the concerns Parker mentions that the audience had was that the priest would give them a story that, instead of going for “the ultimate concern,” was, as one person mentioned to Parker, “all about God.”
Well, a suggestion for that priest the next time he has an audience longing for a story that will both grab that audience and that will allow him to work in a pretty good message “all about God.”