'Through the Magic Door' - Conan Doyle on 'two excellences,' short stories and long books

'Through the Magic Door' - Conan Doyle on 'two excellences,' short stories and long books
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Among the sections I love in “Through the Magic Door” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is Chapter VI, the section on short stories. It begins:

“Which are the great short stories of the English language? Not a bad basis for a debate! This I am sure of: that there are far fewer supremely good short stories than there are supremely good long books.”

(Fellow Sherlock Holmes fans, I’ll save you a trip to look it up: Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four novels about Holmes. Still, stick with him here.)

He continues, “It takes more exquisite skill to carve the cameo than the statue. But the strangest thing is that the two excellences seem to be separate and even antagonistic. Skill in one by no means ensures skill in the other.”

He asserts that “great masters” — “Fielding, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Reade, have left no single short story of outstanding merit behind them,” except a possibility I haven’t found yet: “Wandering Willie’s Tale in ‘Red Gauntlet.’ ”

(No mention of which master wrote that one. Tsk, tsk.)

But Doyle notes that “The champion sprinter is seldom a five-miler as well,” saying that “very great” short-story writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Poe, and Harte, “have written no great book.”

(Catch up here on  my “meeting” with Robert Louis Stevenson.)

If you’re choosing your lists of short-story writers and novel writers, think of those standards of “very great” and “outstanding merit.” Can anyone you read be excellent enough for both short and long excellence?

Until next time (and a longer look at Doyle’s list), think it over!


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