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TTC - Masterpieces of Short Fiction


Dr. Michael Krasny, Professor of English at San Francisco State University and the host of KQED's award-winning news and public affairs radio program, Forum, guides you deep into 23 renowned works, illuminating the remarkable variety, breathtaking artistry, and profound themes to be found in these miniature masterpieces.

The Art of the Present Moment

Although short stories have been around throughout history in the form of myths, fables, and legends, the short story as a distinct art form arose only during the 19th century, just in time for the busy age we all live in.

More than simply a shorter version of the novel, the short story is a unique and rewarding literary form in itself. Great short fiction offers something you can find nowhere else: a world in miniature faithfully captured by the author's mastery of character, plot, setting, image, and theme. The time it takes to read a short story may be brief, but its impact lasts much longer.

"Short story writers see by the light of the flash," says author and Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. "Theirs is the art of the only thing that one can be sure of—the present moment."

Encounter the Ordinary and the Extraordinary

As Masterpieces of Short Fiction demonstrates, however, that flash can reveal many different kinds of truths. For example, in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," an embittered nobleman entombs his rival in a dank crypt, while in Grace Paley's "An Interest in Life," a deserted housewife maintains her good humor and hope while trying to raise her children.

Throughout the course, you encounter both of these extremes—the extraordinary and the ordinary moments of life—while you examine the craft of short fiction.

On one end of the spectrum, you see how great authors use the short story to capture the experience of the common man and woman. From Gogol's 19th-century underdog, the Russian scribe Akaky in "The Overcoat," to Raymond Carver's sympathetic portrait of a "plain man" in "Cathedral," short story writers use their remarkable powers of observation to record and often celebrate the unsung lives of ordinary people.

But you also sample the exotic and unusual as well, whether in Franz Kafka's satirical tale of an artist who turns starvation into a work of performance art ("A Hunger Artist") or in Gabriel García Márquez's Magical Realist allegory about a winged man who falls to Earth in a Latin American village ("A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings").

Each story, whether drawn from the closely observed details of everyday life or a richly imagined land of fantasy, offers you an exquisite and unique portrait of humanity.

How to Recognize a Masterpiece

How can stories that are so brief have such a strong emotional impact? What makes each of the works in this course a masterpiece? In Masterpieces of Short Fiction, you not only enjoy great literature, but you also develop an appreciation for how these great authors elevate the craft of storytelling into an art form.

In each lecture, Professor Krasny, who holds an Award of Excellence from the National Association of Humanities Educators, focuses on a single story written by a master of the genre. Using examples from the stories themselves, he illuminates each author's virtuosic development of character, plot, setting, imagery, theme, and language. As you progress through the course, you hone your ability to recognize and assess these elements.

You also learn fascinating facts about the author's lives and the artistic and historical contexts that helped shape these great works:
  • "Young Goodman Brown" reflects Nathaniel Hawthorne's stern Puritan upbringing and his guilt about his ancestors' participation in the Salem witch trials.
  • Like the main character of "My First Goose," Isaac Babel was a Jew who nevertheless rode with the notoriously anti-Semitic Cossacks as they undertook violent pogroms in Jewish neighborhoods and villages.
  • The terse literary style in Ernest Hemingway's "The Killers" (later dubbed "cablese" because it imitated the conciseness of telegram writing) was developed during the writer's early stint as a war correspondent.
  • Shirley Jackson's depiction of the village in "The Lottery" reflects her own feeling of isolation living as a progressive intellectual in a close-minded New England town.
  • Traces of James Baldwin's evangelical background remain in the poetic and biblical language of stories like "Sonny's Blues."
Discover the "Literary Form of Our Age"

Since 1970, Professor Krasny has taught courses on a wealth of subjects, including the short story, modern and contemporary American literature, ethnic American literature, transatlantic modern drama, and literary theory. Drawing on his considerable scholarly background, he provides you with an "insider's view" of the craft of short fiction that is as rare as it is valuable.

Join him on this survey of short fiction's hallmark works from its origins in the 19th century to its confrontation with the issues of the late 20th century and discover why this specific genre, in the words of Nadine Gordimer, is the "literary form of our age."

Course Lecture Titles
  • 1. Excavations—Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"
  • 2. Hawthorne's "Goodman Brown" and Lost Faith
  • 3. Under Gogol's "Overcoat"
  • 4. Maupassant's "The Necklace"—Real and Paste
  • 5. Chekhov, Love, and "The Lady with the Dog"
  • 6. James in the Art Studio—"The Real Thing"
  • 7. Epiphany and the Modern in Joyce's "Araby"
  • 8. Babel's "My First Goose"—Violent Concision
  • 9. Male Initiation—Hemingway's "The Killers"
  • 10. Kafka's Parable—"A Hunger Artist"
  • 11. Lawrence's Blue-eyed "Rocking-Horse Winner"
  • 12. Female Initiation—Mansfield's "Party"
  • 13. Jackson's Shocking Vision in "The Lottery"
  • 14. O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"
  • 15. Paley on Survival and "An Interest in Life"
  • 16. The "Enormous Wings" of García Márquez
  • 17. A New World Fable—Malamud's "The Jewbird"
  • 18. Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues"—A Harlem Song
  • 19. Updike's "A & P"—The Choice of Gallantry
  • 20. Kingston's Warrior Myth—"No Name Woman"
  • 21. Atwood's "Happy Endings" as Metafiction
  • 22. Gordimer's "Moment Before" Apartheid Fell
  • 23. Carver's "Cathedral"—A Story that Levitates
  • 24. Why Short Fiction Masterpieces?
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