by Elizabeth Baines
In a recent article on the short story Guardian writer Chris Power made this statement:
...novels that seek to contain multitudes, to embody a particular society at a particular time, seem doomed to fall short. The short story, by contrast, acknowledges the vastness and diversity of life by the very act of focusing on one small moment or aspect of it. The story is small precisely because life is so big.
This set me thinking about our current attitudes to both short stories and novels.
It seems to me a particularly acute observation with regard to short stories. To me a short story collection full of variety in subject matter and style – a collection such as Clare Wigfall’s The Loudest Sound and Nothing (Faber) – is immensely satisfying: each story, by being distinct, demands a singular focus from the reader. The reader is led to attend closely in turn to many different facets of experience, and the overall impression is indeed an exciting one of the width of the possibilities of experience.
Recently, however, there has been a strong move towards the themed story collection and collections of linked stories. It’s not hard to see why: it’s easier to come up with a marketing pitch for such collections. It’s also true, though, that there’s a particular pleasure in a collection of linked stories: it’s only human to look for connections and to want unity – and this is the deeper reason, perhaps, that such collections are easier to market.
A similar impulse, it seems to me, affects the current state of the novel. As Chris Power implies, those novels that ‘seek to contain multitudes’, such as those of Jonathon Franzen, are indeed looking to create unity out of multiplicity, and these are the novels our culture designates ‘great’ and significant (and, if they are American, awards the accolade ‘Great American Novel’). Chris Power sees them as doomed to failure as a true depiction of the nature of existence, and while I love Franzen’s Corrections for its attempt, I’m inclined to agree. Novels that don’t even try, that deal with particular aspects of experience or society are in some ways more honest, but, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, are generally considered less great: parochial and minor.
So what about those novels that dare to do a third thing: to embody the essential fragmentation of human life on earth, to illustrate the disconnections as well as the connections, through subject matter and structure? They’re not so popular, apparently, not ‘commercial enough’. They’re harder to market, one supposes, because they’re telling us a harder truth, and often less immediately easy to read because, in order to do so, they often use unfamiliar paradigms to which readers may need to adjust.
But aren’t they dealing with the real truth? Do we not want our literature to tackle the real truth about human experience? Do we not, in other words, want our literature to be a significant force in our culture?
As I say, it’s only human to look for connections, but we ignore at our peril the disconnections in our world.
Picture credit: Rakesh Ashok