Monday, September 7, 2009

A Word from Tamar Yellin, and a Word about Spatial vs. Temporal Form in the Short Story

After posting my last blog on Tamar Yellin’s Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes, I had some reservations about my supposition that she had written the stories as separate entities and then was convinced by her publisher to find a connecting thread that would make the book marketable as a novel.

So, I did something I seldom do; I wrote to her directly and asked her about the organization of the book. She was very kind to respond to my query. I reprint below her response:

Thank you for getting in touch and for your review. I appreciate it. The book was conceived as written - as a hybrid form between the novel and the short story collection, a form my friend the writer Zoran Zivkovic (who has written many of them) terms a 'mosaic novel.' In this form the stories can stand alone and have the necessary weight to do so, but are bound together (often by the final story) into a whole intended to be greater than the sum of its parts.
The theme of the ten lost tribes informed all the stories and they were written in sequence, with their epigraphs, as a complete work. Quite careful attention needs to be paid to the epigraphs in order to pick up on the thematic narratives that run through them and illuminate both the stories and the book as a whole. However, with a few exceptions, there is no deliberate connection between each story and its epigraphs; I wished to be as subtle as possible.
I t never occurred to me that readers would not realise that the narrator is the same throughout.
I agree that the short story form places greater demands upon the reader and that this is one of the main reasons short story collections don't sell as well as novels.”

I must say, I like the metaphor of a “mosaic” more than I do the usual metaphor of linked stories as a “short story cycle” or as a “composite novel.” For the word, suggesting as it does parts interlinking spatially rather than temporally, is more hospitable to the short story as a form. The short story as an individual artistic unit is more apt to depend on spatial organization than temporal organization, it seems to me.

However, I have trouble thinking of a group of related short stories as a "novel." I am still convinced that short stories are very different than chapters, and that if read as chapters, they will not be appreciated or understood as they should be.

Alice Munro once said that when she reads a story she does not take it up at the beginning and follow it like a road “with views and neat diversions along the way.” Rather, for her, reading a story is like moving through a house, making connections between one enclosed space and another. Consequently, Munro declares, “When I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure.” At another time, she said, “What happens as event doesn’t really much matter,” Munro replied. “When the event becomes the thing that matters, the story isn’t working too well. There has to be a feeling in the story.”

Now that I am trying to write fiction on a more regular basis, I am finding that I am less concerned with telling a story in a linear fashion than I am with constructing a significant spatial entity out of various parts that seems to “go together.” The real problem is how to find/create feeling out of the spatial relationship between the various parts of the story.

I would be happy to hear from writers who read this blog about their own experience with the spatial versus the temporal construction of the short story.


Lee said...

One of the things I've done in my new novel Corvus is to try to make use of both - temporal and spatial construction, one in a strand set in the real world, the other in a virtual one. I'm not even sure I like to call it a novel, exactly. But then, I also resist the conventions of a literary short story, too.

I've just begun Tamar Yellin's Genizah, based on your recent post. Very promising, so thanks. I'd never heard of her before - but I've never heard of a lot of stuff, I'm obliged to admit.

Ailsa Cox said...

I read your second posting on Tamar Yellin before I read the first so my immediate comment - you should read her first collection, Kafka in Bronteland - I now see is redundant! But really, everyone should. Charles, your comment that she may be better known in the UK is a hopeful one, and it is slowly coming true.

Nemonymous said...

My review of Tamar Yellin's KAFKA IN BRONTELAND: