The Mysterious Case of Novel-in-Stories

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What does it mean exactly to claim that stories are linked, loosely or not? What must do the linking in order for the chain to hold?

I. Sherwood’s Dilemma

Sherwood Anderson was heartbroken by the initial reviews of Winesburg, Ohio in 1919. Some critics deprecated him for what they perceived as moral crudity and carnal obsession—astounding claims for such a placid book—while other critics scratched their beards attempting to classify the thing. He had had trouble getting it published in the first place, despite the three books already to his credit. Editors insulted him and stood him up; one left him sitting forlorn and baffled in Central Park. Finally, Ben Huebsch, future editor-in-chief of Viking Press, agreed to publish Winesburg with his own house. In his memoirs, Anderson recalls asking Huebsch on the telephone, “You do not want to tell me that they are not stories?” He too was worried about the taxonomy of what he had produced: story collection, novel, or some unholy, bastard hybridization that would, like Bigfoot, cause people either to recoil in horror or shoot it dead.

The reviews of Winesburg dragged him close to despair—“A kind of sickness came over me, a sickness that lasted for months”—even though Faulkner and H.L. Mencken recognized his achievement. Mencken wrote, “It lifts the short story, for long a form hardened by trickery and virtuosity, to a higher and more spacious level,” (the tricksters and virtuosos he refers to are O. Henry, Kipling, and the forgotten pens of formulaic yarns splashed like Gucci ads through the popular magazines of the day). Mencken acknowledges Winesburg as stories, but Faulkner stresses delight that the book was not written “as a full-length novel,” suggesting rather awkwardly that it might be a half-length novel. One lukewarm review dubbed the book “sketches of small town life”—a dreadful description indeed, one helped along by Anderson’s own unwise subtitle, “A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life.” Another displeased review called it “bits of fiction”—nothing of substance ever came from a bit. More recently, the Bantam Classics paperback declares: “Anderson’s loosely connected chapters, or stories, coalesce into a powerful novel.” Forget the indolence of that claim: chapters and stories are as different as apes and androids.

But that word “loosely” is important. John Updike applies it in a 1984 essay on Winesburg for Harper’s, “loosely linked short stories,” and Anderson himself in his memoirs writes:

The stories belonged together. I felt that, taken together, they made something like a novel, a complete story . . . I have even sometimes thought that the novel form does not fit an American writer . . . What is wanted is a new looseness; and in Winesburg I had made it my own form. There were individual tales but all about lives in some way connected . . . Life is a loose, flowing thing. There are no plot stories in life.

Some provocative suggestions there, not the least of which is that American history—unlike those of Russia and France, presumably—have neither the tumult, intricacy, nor maturity to provide a writer with the appropriate blueprint for a novel. Claiming that works of American fiction require a new looseness—Moby Dick is too taut?—is rather like claiming that the Parthenon could be strengthened against tremors if only we knock out a column or two. Without sound narrative structure that permits and coheres with characterization, a piece of fiction becomes merely a rumination or catalog of observations, no matter how beautifully wrought. So although life might often be “a loose, flowing thing,” it is not true that “there are no plot stories in life” (Anderson’s choice of phrase does not help clarify his intention: “plot story” pretends that a story can be a story without a plot, although Anderson could be following Forster in making a subtle if strained distinction. For Forster, plot differed from story in its emphasis on “causality”).

In Speak, Memory, Nabokov asserts that the only life stories worth telling are those with “thematic designs,” by which he means a trajectory that can be traced for implication, evolution, meaning. That trajectory works through plot, and there is not a plot anywhere to be found in Winesburg, which was part of the reason Anderson was worried about its classification and defensive of its “looseness.” The individual pieces of the book, twenty-four in all, might indeed be “some way connected,” but that way is only slightly more significant than the way you are tied to the other citizens who live on your block. Anderson fretted trying to convince himself otherwise.

The book often cited as the first American novel-in-stories resembles neither a novel nor a story collection but is rather a sequence of character sketches that are supposed to reach narrative cohesion through the limp fact that the people share a town and are acquainted with one another. George Willard might be the main character but only because his name appears more often than any other. When Anderson writes, “The tales that Doctor Parcival told George Willard began nowhere and ended nowhere,” he could very well be describing his own tales. They work neither as individual narratives nor as a single narrative because they are overly preoccupied with the quotidian—remember Hardy’s advice that “a story must be exceptional enough to justify its telling”—and cannot land on a unifying narrative track. Just as a loose net will not save a person falling from on high, a loose narrative will not hold the characters dropped into it. Death results from one, dull rumination and disengaged detail from the other.

II. Hemingway’s Hero

Updike contends that “the meager lives of Winesburg opened Michigan to Hemingway,” but Nick Adams would have been born with or without Anderson’s influence (in The Torrents of Spring Hemingway ridiculed Anderson’s style). Almost the only factor Winesburg and the adventures of Nick Adams have in common is that defenders of the novel-in-stories enjoy referencing both as early models of the form, and never mind that The Nick Adams Stories as we know it was not assembled until 1972, eleven years after Hemingway’s death. Unlike Anderson, Hemingway never intended for his tales to fuse, and certainly never claimed that they constituted “something like a novel.” Philip Young, in his preface to The Nick Adams Stories, reminds us that Nick’s experiences originally appeared in Hemingway’s collections “in jumbled sequence,” and then writes: “As a result the coherence of his adventures has been obscured, and their impact fragmented.” Young forgets that many Hemingway fans waited for a new Nick Adams story the way Sherlock Holmes fans waited for the next issue of The Strand. Coherence and impact were affected not at all if one was invested in Nick’s narratives and had more than a grade-schooler’s grasp on the nonlinear. If it is true that chronology offers a novel method of apprehending Nick’s life, it is not true that without chronology the stories buckle beneath the heft of obscurity or, in Young’s words, fail to “make up a meaningful narrative.” Hemingway composed each Nick Adams adventure—from “Indian Camp” to “Fathers and Sons”—as a self-contained tale that necessitated no correspondence with other tales. (The same is true for Updike’s own Too Far to Go, a collection of stories, arranged chronologically, about the marriage of Richard and Joan Maple.)

That does not mean he always succeeded. Some of Nick’s stories are indeed more complete and self-contained than others—“The Battler,” “The Killers”—and some of them can certainly help illuminate the circumstances of others, but the expectation of an all-inclusive whole is our expectation. Hemingway cared nothing for it. He had begun his Nick Adams novel, called Along With Youth, but discarded it after realizing that Nick’s life was suited to short fiction only. The story-as-chapter would have struck him as a hopeless, inane enterprise. Even when taken together, the Nick Adams stories fail to harmonize fully or proffer a seamless evolution of Nick’s psyche—often months or years elapse between adventures—and this for the simple reason that Hemingway never meant for them to harmonize. Those searching for the narrative continuity that would make The Nick Adams Stories a precursor to the novel-in-stories will have to search elsewhere.

III. The Missing Link

Today, when a work of fiction refuses to cohere by dismissing narrative continuity it is usually exchanging characterization for concept or intelligibility for intellect. Sherwood Anderson of course was up to no such nonsense in Winesburg; he simply misjudged his storytelling—the link was looser than he imagined—while aiming for a multifaceted Jamesian interiority. But what does it mean exactly to claim that stories are linked, loosely or not? What must do the linking in order for the chain to hold? Forster believed that a writer “must cling however lightly to the thread of his story, he must touch the interminable tapeworm.” Narrative—plot—is the track from first page to last; neglect the track and you can forget your destination; the book becomes, in Forster’s words, “a blunder.”

Plot has become a dirty word among highfalutin literary types: those writers who believe wrongly that in order for fiction to be “literary” or “serious” it must eschew narrative structure (and anything at all that Tom Clancy might be up to) while swearing somber allegiance to the inner lives of their characters. It hasn’t occurred to them that the emphasis should be both: plot and character. When Aristotle preached about the necessity of praxis—the central action that provides dramatic thrust for fiction—he did not mean that explosive mule-cart crashes should take precedence over the psychology of Oedipus, only that there should be active manifestation of that psychology as it attempts to solve the crisis at hand. No crisis, no story.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, lunatic and alcoholic in Hollywood near the end of his life, needed to scribble notes to himself in order to remember how to write; one read: “Character is plot, plot is character.” One springs from the other and in the end they become indistinguishable. Trollope defined “plot” simply enough: “the arrangement of incidents by which interest is excited,” and Maugham testified that plot, “a line to direct the reader’s interest,” is “the most important thing in fiction, for it is by direction of interest that the author carries the reader along from page to page.” Elizabeth Bowen, shrewd as ever, christened plot “the knowing of destination . . . Action of language, language of action,” and then declared that there is “much to be learned from the detective story” (what is Oedipus Rex if not the greatest detective story ever told?).

That remains the chief difficulty with Winesburg, Ohio and with most recent fiction that wishes to be born under the nomenclature of novel-in-stories: destination via narrative thread. Every story should rightly achieve its own destination, so a novel-in-stories ends up having several, whereas a novel can have only one. To say you’ve fashioned a novel from stories is to say you’ve fashioned an adult by standing one child on the shoulders of another.

IV. From Poe With Love

Why the popularity of this hybrid in recent years?  In the business of literature, a solution can be a solution only if the marketplace acquiesces. Thus part of the reason for this recent popularity: the concept was cooked up by the nonliterary minds in New York marketing who, on the one hand, wanted to sign young writers fresh from the M.F.A. mill and, on the other hand, didn’t want to wait for those young writers to learn how to write a novel. The question then becomes: why is the American marketplace so hostile to short stories that New York marketers are willing to engineer a nonsensical genre in order to sell books?

Writers and readers who esteem the short story—that admirable vanguard stewing in disappointment—tend to blame the savage, twenty-first-century idiocy of New York publishing for the demise of their cherished form. The truth is grimmer: the literary short story has never experienced triumph in the American marketplace. Story collections by our best writers have garnered outstanding critical approval: winners of the National Book Award include Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, Bernard Malamud’s The Magic Barrel, and the collected stories of Faulkner, Katherine Ann Porter, and Flannery O’Connor, among others. A few scant story collections have stumbled upon commercial success: in 1953 Salinger’s Nine Stories stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for three months. But the demoralized majority of story collections published since Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales in 1837 and Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1839 have entered the world with a whimper and disappeared with a sigh.

Poe, the most important and popular magazine writer of his day, found it nearly impossible to publish his collection of tales, and when the book finally appeared after much pushing and pulling, it was a financial debacle from which Poe received barely a nickel. In his commanding biography of Poe, aptly subtitled Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance, Kenneth Silverman writes: “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was in 1839 the most powerfully imagined and technically adroit collection of short fiction ever published by an American writer.” Even so, the publishing firm never recouped its printing costs. The American reading public felt nothing but indifference about powerful short stories, even when written by one of their most beloved magazine authors. Exactly one hundred years later, little had changed: when Faulkner’s collection Knight’s Gambit was released in 1949, his publisher skirted short fiction’s stain by referring to the collection as “a new book by America’s foremost novelist . . . his new book in six sections.” The publisher no doubt thought this a permissible description for a dust jacket because each of the six mystery stories centers on the same character, Gavin Stevens, the county attorney in Yoknapatawpha. As with the twelve stories in Doyle’s The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, the six stories in Knight’s Gambit do not come close to constituting a novel. The publisher’s refusal to tag the book a collection was a strategy to bamboozle buyers into thinking that the new Faulkner might be a novel.

The mass circulation magazines—those in vogue from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth—contributed to the story’s reputation as a waste of time, a refugee in the world of literature. After Hawthorne and Poe had established short fiction as a genre of respectability, the popular “family” magazines, perennially concerned about sales, began peddling mediocre stories to a mushrooming, mediocre middle class. These magazines—Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Redbook, McCall’s, and Good Housekeeping among them—were careful not to be too intellectually challenging or formally sophisticated; consequently, the stories in their pages—even those by the master who penned Gatsby—were considered filler, little more than entertaining distractions from the “real world” headlines of the moment. Today, most of the important magazines that helped introduce the nation to necessary story writers—Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Barry Hannah—have done away with the short story almost entirely: GQ, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly.  And the story’s dismal situation is not improving, even for our best writers.  One needs to dig to the title page of the most recent paperback edition of Tim O’Brien’s collection The Things They Carried to discover that it is “a work of fiction.” The dust jacket of the 2009 winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Olive Kittredge by Elizabeth Strout, announces the book as “fiction,” and the paperback announces nothing at all (the blurbs refer to it variously as “human narratives,” “stories,” and a “novel in stories,” and of course one contains the obligatory nod to Winesburg, Ohio).

VI. Lessons in Linkage

Strout’s Olive Kittredge, like Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award), follows Anderson’s Winesburg by using place or family as the central connector. Kittredge does not appear prominently in every story, and the town of Crosby, Maine is as much a character as Kittredge herself. In Mueenuddin’s collection, the stories are related through a wealthy Lahore landowner, K.K. Harouni: servants, family members, and business associates circle Harouni like electrons around an atom and struggle for the only two things people have always struggled for: money and love. Part of the success of these two books lies in their refusal to masquerade as novels: regardless of what the marketers, blurbists, and reviewers have to say, and regardless of the various connectors, they are secure in their identity as collections of stories because each story has its own skin.

On the paperback front cover of David Schickler’s Kissing in Manhattan, his publisher pasted a line from a confused reviewer announcing the book as a novel, even though the publisher itself, on the back cover, describes the book as a collection of linked stories. This cannot be stated enough: a novel is as different from a collection of stories as a truck is from a tricycle: they both have wheels, yes, and will get you where you need to be, though in decidedly dissimilar fashions and with dissimilar degrees of alacrity. Schickler’s publisher, like Faulkner’s in 1949, attempted to hoodwink the book buying public on the front cover while maintaining partial allegiance to truth on the back cover. If the “chapters” have titles and were published in magazines and journals as stories, you can safely bet that what you hold is not a novel.

Kissing in Manhattan is a lambent collection, captivating and unique in its choice of connector: not a narrator, family, or town, but a building, a Gothic apartment edifice called the Preemption (a name possible only if you wed presumption to redemption). The various characters—a priest, a writer, an heiress, an actor—conduct their troubled lives in this building as if in purgatory, Manhattan itself either heaven or hell. The building as connector is a masterful improvement over the most predictable link among recent novels-in-stories: the single character, each “story” another “chapter” in the life of the protagonist. Even Samuel Beckett tried it to miserable effect in his 1934 collection More Pricks Than Kicks, about a Dublin loser named Belacqua Shuah: each story is worthless without the others, and all of them together of interest only to a Beckett scholar or masochist.

When will American readers jar themselves awake and realize that despite the short story’s origins in Gogol, American writers dominate the genre, and that this domination should be a wellspring of honor, of national pride. Our novelists thus far have not been able to touch the Russians and the French, our poets and dramatists cannot touch the English, but no other country in the world has produced story writers whose genius rivals that of Ernest Hemingway and Katherine Ann Porter, Raymond Carver and John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor and John O’Hara. We have made the modern form an American original, a form perfectly suited to modernity’s fundamentally Freudian method of accessing phenomena: in segments. When Freud divided the psyche into three parts, he allowed for a similar way of scrutinizing the everyday but fraught world we move through. V.S. Pritchett wrote in a preface to one of his own story collections that our “nervous and reckless age”—our Freudian age—has forced us to observe our lives and the lives of others “in fragments rather than as a solid mass,” and the best short fiction captures those nervous, reckless fragments with an accuracy a novel cannot muster.


William Giraldi is the author of the novel Busy Monsters (Norton, 2011) and is a senior editor for AGNI at Boston University. More from this author →