Sunday, May 8, 2011

Thinking About Short Stories

The following is a severely abridged and altered excerpt of the forward that accompanied my undergraduate thesis, a collection of interconnected short stories:

Writing connected stories is an interesting crossover between writing short stories and writing a novel.  Like with a novel, there needs to be an element that remains consistent throughout.  Yet, as they are separate stories, each piece needs to be one coherent narrative that can stand apart from the others and only needs to contribute to a larger whole in context.  Much like members of a family, each story needs to be both a part and a whole – an individual that contributes to a larger unit.  However, forging these connections makes it impossible to ever set down one story and move onto the next; as each new story is written, all those that came before needed to be checked and changed to allow for the facts revealed in the new story.  In a connected collection, each story is constantly in progress as each has bearing on the others and threatens contradiction.

Even for short story writers who don’t intend to recreate the same character in each story, this seems to be an unacknowledged tendency.  In reading Raymond Carver’s collection Cathedral, I tended to read the succession of male protagonists as being the same man, even though their names and the facts of their situations don’t necessarily match up.  Much as the recognizable voice of J. D. Salinger’s famed character Holden Caulfield is echoed in the collection Nine Stories, I find that authors tend towards similar characters with similar stories.  Writing this type of connected stories is an acknowledgement of that, while having its own practical purposes.  People tend to prefer novels for the escape from real life that they offer: novels provide another world for the reader to return to time after time, thus escaping their own lives.  This is seen even more strongly in the great success of series like Harry Potter and Uglies.  Connected stories acknowledge that preference – they allow the writer to fulfill her own desire to write shorter plots while satisfying the reader with a longer, more contiguous story.

Connected story collections are also practical in that they get books on shelves.  Novels dominate the fiction shelves of bookstores, into which the few collections of short stories available vanish among their lengthier counterparts.  Collections of short stories like Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid, which are often read and sold as novels, offer an option for short story writers to sell their writing without being forced to change their form.  A more recent example of this is Elizabeth Strout’s story collection, Olive Kitteridge.  Each story in the collection follows an inhabitant of a small Maine town.  These stories are separated by years and relationships, and sometimes only mention Olive Kitteridge, the title character, in passing.  However, the collection was marketed as a novel and spent weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list among many more traditional extended narratives.  This connection is not exactly conclusive, but suggestive of the power of the word “novel,” and its power in transforming our perceptions of the value of short stories.

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