Monday, April 09, 2012

A gryphon? A unicorn? A novel-in-stories? Some other strange beast?

If you happened to be listening to WYPR's Maryland Morning this a.m., you may have heard me chatting with Tom Hall about the book. (If you didn't, you can listen here.

At the start of the interview, Tom referred to the book's opening, which I've been calling "a story", as "the first chapter." Time and again he said, "Chapter," and I said "story." And then he noted that the front of the book says, The Greatest Show: Stories, but that he thought he was actually reading a novel. He said he couldn't imagine reading the stories out of order, as he might in what is usually advertised as a short story collection. So he asked: What is this book?

Last fall, I sat on a panel at the Baltimore Writers Conference, which panel also included Susi Wyss and Jerry Gabriel, who have both written books that include linked short stories. We talked about the linked stories in general and this question in particular. Jerry's in Drowned Boy are linked. He said so. Susi calls her book, The Civilized World, a "novel-in-stories." She points out what she thinks is a significant difference (and I'm paraphrasing here): that a novel-in-stories has a definitive narrative arc from the first story to the last. That arc, I think, might be one of plot or one of character, but the stories taken together do make for an experience akin to reading a novel, one of developing characters and tension that leads to a climactic and fulfilling experience at the end.

So, Edward Jones' stories, linked by place in All Aunt Hagar's Children and Lost in the City, are purely linked stories because there's not so much a rising arc of development. Winesburg, Ohio, in which we watch George Willard grow and change and eventually leave home, would be more "novel-in-stories."

Tom Hall pointed out, via a tongue-in-cheek definition from writer Chris Offutt, that a novel-in-stories might actually be best defined as a book that hoodwinks readers into buying a short story collection.

And that may be true, too.

In poetry, forms follow particular conventions. A villanelle is not a sonnet. There are clear differences in the number of lines and how the lines are structured. Even the parts of a poem are easily differentiated: a couplet is clearly not a tercet.

Fiction is more amorphous, but we still sometimes talk about the forms as if we want fiction to be like poetry; we crave definition. These sorts of arguments (is it a novella or a long story? A novel-in-stories or linked stories? A short short or a micro-fiction) are entertaining, sometimes, but I'm not sure they are terrifically useful. Fiction in all its forms is so wildly irregular. A novel is 1,000 pages or 150. It's in first person or omniscient or third or a mix.

Then, it seems, the question is less about what a book of fiction is, how we define it, and who is doing the defining. Does that work belong to the writer, the publisher, the reader?


A writer's intention might be to write a book of linked stories in the tradition of Dubliners, then find that an agent or a publisher "a novel" and the reader decides, "These are really just stories."

As I told Tom, my intention with The Greatest Show was to write stories. I didn't even know at first that I was writing a book. But when I figured that out, I began to knit the stories together and even to write some stories specifically to fit the book. I intended to write stories. I didn't have the experience of writing a novel. I'm doing that now. It's different.

Yet, when I write stories I do hope to grab something of the novel's largeness, of the sense that something in the lives of my character's is huge and changing, perhaps for all time. Maybe that's why my stories are so often long. And maybe a bunch of stories that try for something novelistic -- and are linked by character and place and tragedy -- gives a book the feel of a novel.

So what is The Greatest Show? A novel? Novel-in-stories? A collection of linked short stories? 

If you read it, maybe you'll let me know.

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