Understanding Fiction is a textbook/manual I have put together for my college classes in introduction to literature and studies in the short story. Like Writing for Real, it evolved out of materials I developed for a distance course. When I first undertook the project, I was presenting a course in short fiction and the novel, and I wrote explanatory sections for stories in an anthology I had ordered and for novels I had selected.
I did not offer the course more than once a year, and sometimes it did not come around for two years, so I had the inherent problem of updating my explanatory sections to fit the new editions of the anthology. I didn’t like being in the position of having to overhaul the basic content every time I taught the course, so I began to work up a core of out-of-copyright stories that I could use for explanations of the elements of fiction. At about the same time, people a little higher up on the chain suggested that I re-design the course so that it was exclusively a course about short fiction. So I cut the material on the novels and concentrated on short and not-so-short stories.
Although I had some work-study assistance in typing up the text of many of the stories, I still had to do all the editing myself, and as time went on, I continued to make decisions on stories to add or delete from the collection. At one point I boiled down a lean, trim version for use in introduction to literature, and then I blended that material back into the larger volume because I didn’t want to spend all of my waking time maintaining two separate, overlapping volumes.
What I have ended up with, at present, is a 500-page textbook that has seven chapters on the elements of fiction, a chapter on genre fiction, a chapter on relative value, a chapter on stories by Ernest Hemingway, a chapter on stories by Alice Munro, and a chapter on the novel with introductions to Emma, Great Expectations, O Pioneers! The Age of Innocence, and The Great Gatsby. The chapter on figurative language also has a separate discussion of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the chapter on genre fiction has a discussion of The Big Sleep, and the chapter on relative value has a discussion of Of Mice and Men.
The book also has a substantial section on the subject of writing about fiction, rounded out with several model essays ranging from one page to several pages. This way, I have a text that I can use in either the first-year or the second-year course, and with either course there will be some parts of the book I do not use. That, however, is pretty normal for college textbooks of this nature.
The core of the book consists of the seven chapters on aspects of fiction. Here, I have explanations of each topic, followed by selected stories ranging in length from a few pages to many pages. After an introductory chapter on reading fiction, subsequent chapters cover setting, narrative design, characterization, point of view, theme, and figurative language. The chapters feature sample stories by authors such as Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, Kate Chopin, John Galsworthy, Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, and Sarah Orne Jewett.
The chapter on genre fiction focuses principally on mystery writing, with a sample story by Arthur Conan Doyle. Then the chapter on relative value has stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Katherine Mansfield.
Because this work, like my other course projects, is a small-scale, one-person production of limited distribution, I have avoided the complications of securing reprint rights. With the exception of one story (which I translated, having met the author during a sabbatical in Mexico), everything reproduced in the manual is out of copyright. I have tried to maintain a balance between stories written by men and women, and I have tried to include stories that have stood the test of time. With the exception of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” and Kate Chopin’s “Désirée’s Baby,” which are short examples of gimmick stories in the narrative design chapter, all of the stories have, I hope, timeless value in speaking to today’s reader as well as in illustrating standard features of short fiction.
To balance the limitation of having old material, I am happy to have a chapter on Hemingway, a modern writer, and a chapter on Munro, a contemporary writer. Along the way in some of the first nine chapters, I also mention standard classics in modern short fiction such as “The Lottery” and “Why I Live at the P.O.,” as well as classic novels such as Moby-Dick, Great Expectations, and The Great Gatsby.
To begin with, this book, like other textbook/manual projects I have undertaken, came in the format of 8½ x 11 pages bound in a plastic comb binding. I used it in that format for about three years, during which time I discovered a few items to correct. Then Endeavor Books of Casper, Wyoming, published Understanding Fiction in book format. I have used it in book format in both first- and second-year courses for about eight years, and it has worked well for me.
I have not aspired to market this book commercially, as I composed it mainly for use in my own courses. However, it could be of interest to someone out there (a reader or writer of fiction) who wanted a basic explanation of how fiction works.
Understanding Fiction is available at Amazon.