A few days after the 2016 presidential election, I did a weird, sobbing thing. I copied Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider” onto a card and posted it in my office. “And you, O my Soul, where you stand,/ Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,” I wrote. 2017 began, and that space had become everything; I just sat alone in the middle of it, swaddling myself in anxiety. I blocked myself from reading social media because I was afraid to feel angry about my friends and family. Every day was another national crisis; my husband and I started redirecting our money and attention to newspapers, charities, and organizations that protect —we’ve deemed these civic tithes. But I felt scattered and incapable of sustaining a thought, let alone a life of critical reading, or engagement with my government. I wanted to slip into a dark crack and hide there, unnoticed. I didn’t want to read. I didn’t want to move.
To borrow from Whitman, my 2017 in reading was about the bridge I needed out of that dark space; the tentative, then hopeful casting of webs until something caught. Two books I read early in the year were bridges for different reasons. Courtney Maum’s novel Touch celebrates a future where the latest trends are freedom from technology, and physical human connection. That thought was a balm. The second was David McCullough’s collection of speeches, The American Spirit. Frankly, it gave me hope because it reminded me that America has been in dire straits before—awful messes—but is built on imperfection and persistence.
I was reminded that books are products both of when they are written, and the world they are born into. I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s phenomenal short story collection, The Refugees, the same week the president first cruelly called for a ban on all refugees entering the country. Many books I read—both fiction and nonfiction—in 2017 started to coalesce around the same idea: we don’t believe each other. Whether we’re talking about political needs, or allowing immigration, or honoring the story of someone who has been abused, belief is the central tenet of the conversation. Nguyen’s stories, like Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger, Hillary Clinton’s post-election memoir, What Happened, Mohsin Hamid’s magical novel Exit West, and Jesús Carrasco’s novel, Out in the Open, all deal in some way with the questioning of personal truth. This makes sense to me, given how we’ve treated truth like a toy for the last 10 years. I find that exhausting.
I caught up on titles I’ve missed from years past, finally immersing myself in things like Phil Klay’s Redeployment, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. I read George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo like everyone else and, like everyone else, was amazed. Two books from 2017 that stood out were Attica Locke’s smart thriller Bluebird, Bluebird, which moves beyond easy tropes of good guy/bad guy to tackle real issues of race in East Texas, and Andrea Lawlor’s gutsy, hopeful, gender- and shapeshifting novel, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl.
I read wonderful books by people I adore: Liska Jacobs’s novel, Catalina, Tod Goldberg’s sequel to Gangsterland, Gangster Nation, JoAnn Chaney’s thriller, What You Don’t Know, Natashia Deón’s novel, Grace, Deanne Stillman’s historical nonfiction Blood Brothers, and Elizabeth Crane’s short story collection Turf. I read a funny memoir about a brain tumor: Mike Scalise’s The Brand New Catastrophe. I read Joan Acocella’s Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints and wondered if I’ll ever be the kind of critic I want to be. But all of these books were daring, moving, life affirming. And when I couldn’t handle the all-conflict-no-resolution scroll of social media, these words brought me back to myself and back to a sense of my place in the world. If there’s a slow words movement, like slow food, I want to join it.
Most importantly: This summer I attended a teacher institute at the Library of Congress, and worked on a research project about the WPA Federal Writers’ Project—a time when our government prioritized putting writers to work by having them collect personal histories and write regional guides—writers like Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston. I knew that the Library has a vast array of online and physical resources, but what I didn’t know is that it relies on an almost parallel network of human historians. As I navigated my way through the various reading rooms, I was guided by experts in American Folklife who showed me slides of Hurston in Florida and played recordings of her singing; I was handed boxes of photographs of Federal Writers’ Project Book Fairs by WPA experts in the Prints and Photographs room, and in Manuscripts, an excited WPA expert pulled four boxes of FWP minutes, hand-written notes, and records for me to read. I kept wondering why they were letting me look at all of that stuff. (What if I sneezed on something?) But all I needed was my library card. My most powerful moment in reading was sitting in those quiet, beige rooms in D.C. with American history in my hands. Libraries are still a beautiful democracy of ideas. Despite the sky falling every day in 2017, we have that. It was the thread of connection I needed. O my soul.
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There’s a wonderful short story collection out now called Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. It’s something of a linked collection, in that the longer stories that make up the bulk of the book all seem to be narrated by the same unnamed woman, formerly of England but now living in a cottage in the west of Ireland, doing not much more than letting her mind wander as she probes the confines of her modest home. These stories do not build upon one another in the sense of creating a continuous plot. Rather, they offer separate investigations into the life of this woman, self-contained and comprehensible in any order. What’s more, between these longer stories sit pieces that might be described as “micro” or “flash” fictions, which are not set in the cottage and are not clearly narrated by the same woman. These shorter pieces are aesthetically linked to the longer stories — the entire book is written in the same distinctive style of prose — but are otherwise unrelated. The reading experience is unusual and illuminating, and upon completion I thought to myself, “Wow, what a lovely little collection of stories.”
I was flummoxed, then, to discover that there is some confusion as to the book’s genre. Meghan O’Rourke’s review of Pond in The New York Times Book Review appears under the headline “A Debut Novel Traces a Woman’s Life in Solitude.” Novels appear to be O’Rourke’s only points of reference for Bennett’s work. She writes that Pond reminds her of “the kind of old-fashioned British children’s books I read growing up,” and “David Markson’s avant-garde novel ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’…” In another review for The Times, Dwight Garner acknowledges the short story-ness of Bennett’s book even as he insists that the work is a novel: “‘Pond’ is a slim novel, told in chapters of varying lengths that resemble short stories. There’s little in the way of conventional plot.” Hmm. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Garner was describing a short story collection.
This phenomenon of misidentifying a story collection as a novel is surprisingly common, both in book reviewing and in polite conversation. A number of people seem to use the term “novel” as a synonym for “book,” and because of this I sometimes see even works of nonfiction referred to as novels. (I won’t call anyone out on this point, since it’s really quite embarrassing.) More often, the word “novel” is applied to collections when all of the stories within feel strongly of a piece (and consequently are favorites of the creative writing workshop). The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is one example. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson is another. The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald is a third. To be fair, these works frequently fail to identify themselves with the word “stories” on their book jackets (as does Pond). But a reader with the most basic sense of literary genre should be able to see them for what they are.
A novel and a short story collection are very different forms. A novel tells one long narrative. It cannot be divided without surrendering its functionality. Sometimes it is segmented into chapters or sections, but these cannot (at least not all of them) stand alone as shorter independent works. They rely on each other for coherence of plot and theme. A collection, on the other hand, is composed of several shorter, discrete narratives that can stand independently of each other without forsaking their coherence. The order in which you read them is not essential to understanding them, nor would it matter if you read three at random and never looked at the rest. In the hands of a skilled author, it is sometimes true that a group of these stories may become more than the sum of its parts. The stories may act as vignettes in the life of a person or a community, and in so doing produce a sense of immersion somewhat reminiscent of a novel. We call these “linked collections” or “story cycles.” But they are not novels, nor are they attempting to be novels. (A “novel-in-stories,” as you’ve probably suspected, is purely a marketing trick.)
When reviewing a linked collection, a reviewer will sometimes (bafflingly) simulate confusion as to whether the book is a collection or a novel or something in between. (Ian Maleney, in his review of Pond for The Millions, says that the book, “rests with no little charm somewhere between collection and novel without ever settling on one or the other.” Nice try, Maleney.) These reviewers often like to pretend that the author has somehow invented a third genre. But you and I aren’t so easily fooled, reader. We know that there is nothing new under the sun. As James Nagel points out in his 2001 book The Contemporary American Short-Story Cycle, the form has been with us for a century at least. Works like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Jean Toomer’s Cane, and Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time presented a cohesion of intent that, at the time of their publication, tempted reviewers to insist that they must be more than simple collections of stories. (In Our Time even contains interstitial shorts between longer stories, just like Pond.) Nagel writes:
[T]he fact of the matter is that the short-story cycle is a rich genre with origins decidedly antecedent to the novel, with roots in the most ancient of narrative traditions. The historical meaning of “cycle” is a collection of verse or narratives centering around some outstanding event or character. The term seems to have been first applied to a series of poems, written by a group of Greek writers known as the Cyclic Poets, that supplement Homer’s account of the Trojan war. In the second century B.C., the Greek writer Aristides wrote a series of tales about his hometown, Miletus, in a collection entitled Milesiaka. Many other early classics also used linked tales, Homer’s Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Arabian A Thousand and One Nights among them…Throughout these early works two ideas became clear in the concept of a cycle: that each contributing unit of the work be an independent narrative episode, and that there be some principle of unification that gives structure, movement, and thematic development to the whole.
Perhaps because the average reader prefers novels, encountering few story collections (or none at all), a linked collection is enough to give him pause. But a linked collection is still a collection and not a novel, just as a tall man is still a man and not an ogre. Our most prestigious American literary prize, the Pulitzer, recognizes this fact. Known for its first three decades of existence as the Pulitzer Prize for a Novel, it was renamed the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948 so that it could be awarded to a debut author named James A. Michener for his Tales of the South Pacific. That book is a linked story collection, though the Pulitzer jury might have gotten away with pretending it was novel if Michener hadn’t conspicuously placed the word “Tales” right in its title. Since then, short story collections have been eligible for the award, though to date only six others have won it. (For the sake of comparison, there have been seven years since 1948 when no prize for fiction was awarded at all.)
It may seem defensive or pedantic to insist on these designations. Why does it matter? I hear you ask, reader. Books are just books. No one is saying one form is better than another. All things being equal, perhaps that would be that case, and a book’s genre would be so nonessential as to not require specification. But things, of course, are never equal. It is far easier to publish a novel these days than a collection of short stories, so much so that many pragmatic writers have essentially abandoned the form. Fantastic short story writers end up spending their careers producing middling novels, and our literature is poorer for it. So in those rare cases when a short story collection does manage to be published (and reviewed, and sold, and read by a large number of people), to deny that collection its genre — to call it a novel, as though the world really needs another novel — is to rob the medium of short fiction of a hard-earned victory.
Even more nefarious is when publishers themselves mislabel collections as novels. Printing the word “novel” on a book cover makes it very difficult for malcontents like me to argue that the book is anything otherwise. Tom Rachman’s excellent 2010 book The Imperfectionists is a collection of 11 self-contained stories following various employees of an international newspaper based in Rome. Only the thinnest of interstitials about the history of the newspaper (again, like In Our Time) provided cause for Dial Press to term the book “a novel.” Also published in 2010 was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which Knopf called “a novel” but which I like to call “the most recent short story collection to win a Pulitzer Prize.” The book’s shifts in point of view, style, tense, and time period caused reviewers to marvel at what a unique and unusual novel it was, though such shifts are common in the genre of the short story collection. Egan almost certainly benefitted from the book being called a novel, but now that the dust has settled and the prize money has been spent, it’s probably in Egan’s best interest that posterity regard the book for what it actually is. Goon Squad is a bad novel, but it’s a phenomenal short story collection, one that perfectly embodies Nagel’s notion of “independent narrative episode[s]” linked by “some principle of unification.” (Plus, thinking of the book as a collection is the only way to make that 70-page Power Point section look like a fun narrative experiment instead of a saccharine bit of self-indulgence. Take that, Egan!)
Both The Imperfectionists and A Visit from the Goon Squad were bestsellers, and I certainly don’t begrudge Rachman or Egan their success. What is painful is the notion that the audiences of these books did not realize that they were enjoying story collections. The publishing industry is constantly telling short story writers that their work can’t sell, but instances like these seem to suggest that the publishing industry is not particularly interested in fostering an appetite for short story collections among its readership. If you liked Goon Squad, then you like short fiction, but you may be unaware of that fact because you think that you read novel. It’s refreshing, then, when an author resists the urge to have his work mislabelled as a novel, as Junot Díaz did in the case of This Is How You Lose Her. In an interview with Gina Frangello at The Rumpus, he explains:
[T]here’s little question that short stories, like poetry, don’t get the respect they deserve in the culture — but what can you do? Like Canute, one cannot fight the sea, you have to go with your love, and hope one day, things change. And yes, I have no doubt this book could have been easily called a novel — novel status has certainly been granted to less tightly-related collections of stories. By not calling this book a novel or a short story collection, I guess I was trying to keep the door open to readers recognizing and enjoying a third form caught somewhere between the traditional novel and the standard story anthology. A form wherein we can enjoy simultaneously what is best in both the novel and the short story form. My plan was to create a book that affords readers some of the novel’s long-form pleasures but that also contains the short story’s ability to capture what is so difficult about being human — the brevity of our moments, their cruel irrevocability.
I disagree with Díaz’s premise that the book represents a new, third form (This Is How You Lose Her is a simply another linked story collection, in the proud tradition of the many linked story collections that have come before it), but you get the point. A linked collection does things that a novel does not, things that are worthy and vital and capable of standing on their own merit. A collection replicates the chaotic, fragmentary messiness of life in a way that a novel can’t: life, which doesn’t follow one large narrative but seems to be the aggregate of many smaller ones. A day is not a chapter. A day is a story, with its own peculiar conflicts, themes, motifs, and epiphanies.
There has been much in the past few years to inspire confidence in the idea that the short fiction collection might finally attain the readership it deserves as a indispensable American art form. This Is How You Lose Her was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. In 2013, George Saunders’s Tenth of December repeated both feats. The 2014 National Book Award was given to Phil Klay’s collection Redeployment. In 2015, it went to Adam Johnson’s collection Fortune Smiles. Collections by Nathan Englander and Kelly Link have been finalists for Pulitzers in recent years (though both failed to attain the lofty heights of Michener’s and Egan’s). Alice Munro’s 2013 Nobel Prize felt, for many writers of short fiction, like a long overdue nod to a worthy form and its incorrigible practitioners.
And yet short fiction collections remain incredibly difficult to sell. They remain under-published, under-reviewed, and under-read. Aspiring authors are encouraged to set aside their stories and get to work on something longer, lest they be condemned to the periphery of publishing, out in the brambles with the poets and their chapbooks. Even George Saunders, the story writer who famously does not write novels, is writing novels now. Perhaps Claire-Louise Bennett is glad to have Pond called a novel, and I should stop making trouble where trouble needn’t be made. But if the best hope for a short story writer is that reviewers and readers mistake her work for a novel, than fiction has reached a truly dispiriting place. Perhaps novelists will soon be hoping their work is mistaken for memoir, and fiction as a concept will disappear entirely.
I guess we’ll see. In the meantime, I encourage you, dear reader, to go to your local bookstore and pick up a copy of Pond, or any other short story collection, and free yourself from the tyranny of sustained narrative. You’ll enjoy the experience. Trust me.
And maybe, while you’re in there, you can hide a couple novels behind the cookbooks.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June.
Loitering: New and Collected Essays
The Buried Giant
The David Foster Wallace Reader
The Girl on the Train
Book of Numbers
The First Bad Man: A Novel
The Familiar, Vol. 1
The Paying Guests
Our Hall of Fame added three volumes this month — Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library, and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation — and that opened the door for three new entrants. Before moving on to them, however, let’s give a shout out to Murakami, who’s now officially made it into the Hall of Fame for two separate books (1Q84 graduated in April ’12). It’s a praiseworthy feat, and one that’s only been accomplished by nine other authors: David Foster Wallace, Junot Díaz, Stieg Larsson, David Mitchell, Hilary Mantel, Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders, Dave Eggers, and Alice Munro. That’s some lofty company to keep.
Also noteworthy is the fact that, David Foster Wallace has the unique distinction of having two of his own books in our Hall of Fame in addition to a biography written about him. And if current trends hold true for another 31 days, then he’ll be adding an anthology put together in his honor to that group as well.
Of the three new entrants to our list, two of them — Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen and The Familiar, Vol. 1 by Mark Z. Danielewski — appeared in our Most Anticipated List earlier this year. Danielewski teased his ambitious 27-volume Familiar project in our 2012 interview. Meanwhile, the third new book on the list is Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests. To quote Emily Gould in last year’s Year in Reading, “God, this book. This BOOK!”
Stay tuned next month as we open two more spots. Will they be books we featured in our new Book Preview? My guess is yes, but there’s only one way to find out.