The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines a short story as “a prose work of fiction, differing from a novel by being shorter and less elaborate.”1“Short,” Oxford English Dictionary Online, Oxford University Press, 2007. According to this definition, all of the texts assembled in this digital collection would be considered short stories. Yet the term is not that simple.
First of all, it is important to note that there was no term used consistently by nineteenth century writers, editors, and readers to mean the same thing that we mean by short story. The OED did not include the term until 1933, though it now traces the first use of the term in print to an 1877 article in The Independent. The time between this first use in 1877 and its inclusion in the OED was a key period in the development of the short story as a distinct genre.
The work of Brander Matthews, a professor at Columbia University from 1892-1924, illustrates the developments of this period. In 1884, before taking his post at the university, Matthews published an anonymous essay on the “Short-story” in London’s Saturday Review. He later expanded this essay and republished it in 1901 as The Philosophy of the Short-story.2Brander Matthews, The Philosophy of the Short-story, New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1901. In it, he argued for the merit of short fiction along the lines of Poe’s injunction that a tale can create a “unity of effect or impression” because of its relative brevity.3Poe, 135; Matthews, 15. As Matthews expressed it, “The Short-story is the single effect, complete and self-contained, while the Novel is of necessity broken into a series of episodes. Thus the Short-story has, what the Novel cannot have, the effect of ‘totality,’ as Poe called it, the unity of impression.”4Matthews, 17. This effort to distinguish the short story (or Short-story, as Matthews preferred) from the novel in more than mere length, and to root the concept of the genre in Poe’s theories, became a key turn in studies of short fiction of the time. By arguing for the legitimacy of a certain type of short story in comparison to the novel, critics such as Matthews elided a discussion of the remarkably diverse varieties of short fiction that did not fit their definition.
The 20th and 21st centuries have continued to see new twists and turns in the history of the genre and its terminology. The short story remains consistently resistant to concrete definition. For more information, see the sources on the history of the short story listed in For Further Reading.