A.E.Coppard published around two dozen collections of stories, most of them in the two decades between the World Wars.
The ones I have encountered, about half of the total, all have the subtitle 'Tales' beneath the main title. The Alfred Knopf collection (NY,1951) is called 'The Collected Tales' of A.E.Coppard. This is not coincidental, irrelevant, or an oversight. There is a difference between 'tales' and 'stories', not so much, I suspect, in what they are, but in how they are perceived. H.E.Bates, in The Modern Short Story, (Hale, 1988 edition) has something to say about it:
'his pieces are not stories but, as he is very careful to emphasize on
every fly-leaf, tales.'
- (Bates,1988, p135)
Bates, here is not merely endorsing the difference, but making sure that we understand also, by that parenthetical insertion, that Coppard is asserting it. Bates goes on:
'Behind this lies Coppard's theory that the art of telling stories......is
an oral and not a written one.'
- (Bates, 1988,p135
Here is the surface evidence, I believe, of a fracture line in what I think of as our literary culture. One the one hand we have those who regard the written as superior to the oral, and on the other those, like Coppard, who can say:
'The folk tale ministers to an apparently inborn and universal desire
to hear tales, and it is my feeling that the closer the modern short story
conforms to that ancient tradition of being spoken to you, rather than
being read at you, the more acceptable it becomes.'
-(his foreword to 'The Collected Tale, Knopf.1951)
Bates' response to this is defensive, to say the least:
'such a theory, worked out to a logical conclusion, would mean the end
He goes on to outline some of the inferiorities that the form would fall prey to:
'(it) would depend for its effect largely on pictorial simplicity, the
use of homely metaphor, and the entire absence of literary language.'
That 'homely' might need explanation. The word in English english means 'domestic', rather than unprepossessing, and I think that would be Bates' usage here. The fact is though, that Coppard is 'a very literary writer' – which Bates, seeming to want to have it both ways, goes on to attack him for. To do other would be to admit that his fears for the form, under a Coppard regime, would be unfounded!
Whilst doing my M Litt, questions of 'gateguards' and standards, and literary respectability came up in various guises. One was in dealing with Homer, a writer from an oral tradition. Robert Fagles in his introductions to both The Illiad, and The Odyssey, has some interesting remarks to make about the transition, but also still wanting to make the distinction. There is an interest that supports, promotes in fact, the view that the advent of writing, and perhaps more specifically, that of printing, has enabled stories to develop in ways that the oral tradition could not.
Coppard's theory, and I'm not sure I would choose to describe it as a theory so much as a set of ideas, suggests to me that writing a story down is like putting it on a shelf. In the pre-literate world that shelf was memory, and, if Homer is anything to go by, it was a pretty big shelf by the standards of most of our modern memories. That would make the writing, and reading revolutions, ones of scale. It makes writing and printing more like other labour, in this case mind-labour, saving devices.
There is of course the issue of silent, solitary reading, which is undoubtedly a different experience to noisy, public listening. Other technologies, dvds, I players, and the like, and now electronic readers, have brought those two closer together. We can turn back the page now, even to a story we are listening to. We can hear a recording of a book being read.
In a recent collection, the American writer Tobias Wolff discussed, in his introduction, his attitude to revisions of texts he had written originally many years before:
'Should I present my stories, of whatever vintage, in their original
form? Or should I allow myself the liberty of revisiting them here
-(Tobias Wolff, Our Story Begins, Bloomsbury,2009,p.xi)
He follows the arguments for a page, but makes the interesting statement: 'I have never regarded my stories as sacred texts'.
One of the side effects of the invention of printing (which brought a similar side effect of writing to a much wider population) is that, as a way of reproducing stories, it was expensive and required high inputs of both skill and knowledge. This might well be where our reverence for the 'written', and our dismissal of the 'oral' has come from. Anyone might tell a story, we think, but a writer has to be a cut above that, to get into text, let alone print. Coppard's 'tales' idea seems to sell that short.
As a writer, and teller of tales, Coppard is, at his best, a real master, certainly as good Bates. And those technologies that made writing seem superior, and gave it the cachet of 'sacred texts' are becoming ever more flexible, and available. They are becoming more shelf-like. Digital texts are the least set in stone of all. In fact, the malleability of digital text carries the threat of unfashionable stories simply being revised out of existence in the future. I think in my own lifetime I have been aware of films being emasculated in the transition to dvd (references to Chinese clients, for example, being excised from a later showing of McCabe and Mrs Miller, and references to the popularity of Hitler being 'because of' rather than 'despite' his treatment of the Jews, seemingly cut out of the dvd version of the tv adaptation of Geoffrey Household's 'Rogue Male'). What can be done to film can be done as easily to text – and with wi-fi supplied texts, licensed rather than owned, spirited into view, rather than set in stone-like print, it might be done in a single moment to all existing versions.
Our sense of 'a story', and our sense of 'a tale' may change. The two are bound together by our sense of 'story'. They are driven apart by our perception of their respective qualities, and that may be to do with our perception of the technologies that record them. Even when we read a story, our reading is a sort of telling, an imaginary one, and behind the telling is a tale needing to be told. Writing saves us from having to remember, but does it also tempt us to write in ways that will not be memorable? Oral tradition tempts us to story-tell in ways that will be memorable, but like a bad poet abandoning reasons when reaching for rhymes, might we lose the deeper values of the story?