Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Story Cycle and the Novel

Earlier this month in The Globe and Mail, Jonathan Bennett gave Tim Winton’s new book, The Turning, a rave review. I haven’t yet read the book but I’m very much looking forward to it. The Turning is a collection of linked short stories and here’s what Bennett had to say about Winton’s choice to tell the protagonist’s tale through linked stories rather than a novel:

I suppose Winton could have turned Vic’s life into a novel, but I’m glad he didn’t. The short-story form allowed him to better explore Vic through radically different points of view and over decades. While a looser strategy, here it really worked. Besides, Vic is not the kind of innately -- and deeply sympathetic -- central character that a novel usually requires. Still, we’ve seen Vic’s sort before in Winton’s novels. He bears a resemblance to Dirt Music’s Luther Fox, who was not, somehow, quite as engaging as the novel he found himself in. Yet, in the stories of The Turning, Vic emerges as a great character. Without the responsibility of a novel resting on his back, Vic elegantly demonstrates how difficult it can be to be human, decent, and alive to those who love us.

It just goes to show how different novels and stories really are. And that, in certain cases, stories are the preferred mode.

All too often, reviewers treat collections of linked short stories as failed novels. Those who have been reading this blog from the beginning will know how little patience I have for this approach. What a pleasure then to read a review in which the merits of the story cycle form are discussed.

Against this backdrop, imagine my surprise when I recently came across an essay I wrote for a long ago Canadian Literature course in which I’d argued (quite persuasively, I might add) that Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House ought to be regarded as a novel rather than a short story collection. Here’s what I wrote in my introductory paragraph:

Many critics such as Henry James, Anthony Burgess, and Percy Lubbock have written extensively on the distinction between the form of the novel and the form of the short story. It is generally agreed that in the short story a character is revealed through a single incident while in a novel the character is exposed more gradually in a variety of situations. Thus the reader is able to pursue the protagonist and observe his or her development in a way that is severely limited by the confines of the short story. Another unifying force more often present in a novel than in a collection of short stories is a consistent narrative voice. A third factor that can cause a fragmentary work to coalesce into a novel is the use of a pervasive theme and recurring symbols. Margaret Laurence’s collection A Bird in the House displays all of these unifying elements. Therefore, although each of the stories can stand on its own, as a collection, A Bird in the House can be considered a novel.

From my current vantage point as a champion of the story cycle, this is rank heresy. I wonder if I truly thought of A Bird in the House as a novel or if I made the case simply because that was the assigned essay topic.

In any event, I feel I’m due for a re-exploration of the story cycle. I’m going to begin with my recently acquired copy of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio which I’m told is an excellent early example of a story cycle that is primarily unified by place rather than by character. I definitely want to revisit old favourites such as A Bird in the House and Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? And, on Bennett’s recommendation, I will hasten to pick up a copy of The Turning. Any other story cycles, particularly contemporary ones, that I ought to add to my list?


patricias said...

David Bezmozgis' Natasha and Elizabeth McKenzie's Stop That Girl.

Both coming of age stories loosley tied together through short stories. Very different writing styles and points of view; both highly recommended.

Julie said...

All right, I'm going to read along with you. As soon as I can get to the library I'll pick up a copy of Winesburg. Between this post and the comment you left on my blog, I'm just about convinced. Intrigued, anyway.

Kate S. said...


Thanks for the recommendations. I will put both of those books on my list.


What fun to embark on Winesburg, Ohio together. Let me know when you've begun. I look forward to comparing notes.

marlyat2 said...

Don't forget Eudora Welty's "The Golden Apples"...

Kate S. said...


I've never read Welty's The Golden Apples. I will look for it. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I was google-searching "short story cycle" and your blog came up.

D.C. Scott's "In the Village of Viger."
Thomas King's "Medicine River."
George Elliott's "The Kissing Man."
Stephen Leacock's "Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town."