Saturday, December 27, 2008

Louise Erdrich and Stories vs. Chapters

Louise Erdrich’s new book, due out on January 6, 2009, is titled The Red Convertible, after her early story by that name, published originally in 1981 and then reprinted as a chapter in her first book, Love Medicine, published in 1984.

Subtitled Selected and New Stories: 1978-2008, of the thirty-six stories included here, all but five of them were published first in journals and magazines (most of the later ones in The New Yorker); many of them were then republished as chapters in her novels.

The publication history of Erdrich’s work raises two questions about the short story genre: 1. What is the difference between “stand alone” stories and stories in so-called “short story sequences” or “short story cycles”? 2. What is the difference between short stories and chapters in novels?

My colleague Suzanne Hunter Brown published an interesting article several years ago in which she took a chapter from a novel by Thomas Hardy and analyzed it as a short story, ostensibly to show that there are no distinctive characteristics of the short story that distinguish it from a chapter in a novel.

My own opinion is that what Brown really showed was that a chapter from a novel might indeed stand alone, but that it usually makes a very poor short story. However, when a writer like Louise Erdrich first composes a work as a short story and then uses it as part of a novel, it might very well stand alone as a very good short story.

Louise Erdrich first composed many of the chapters of her novels as short stories, and, given Erdrich’s focus on the fine line between fantasy and reality and her very fine and polished writing, they are usually good stories. But I am not convinced, as some advocates of the short story cycle or short story sequence are, that they gain stature and importance when read within a context of other stories with the same characters and the same setting.

In fact, when a good short story is read as a chapter of a novel or a story in a sequence, it may lose some of its distinctive characteristics by being read hurriedly as the reader rushes on in true novel fashion to see “what happens next.” In my opinion, the power of the short story does not lie in what happens next, but rather in the mythic significance of what lyrically happens.

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