I had the good fortune to read Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge before most people, having been assigned it for review by The Boston Globe. I remember sitting with the galley on vacation in Florida over my winter break, often placing my finger on a page to mark my place before closing the galley to look up and ponder some poignant line or observation, or just to marvel at Strout’s brilliance. I’d read and admired her work before, but OK is, to me, her best.
But I took issue with the way her publisher had marketed the book as “a novel in stories.” No, I wrote in my review—it is, like Sherwood Anderson’s classic Winesburg, Ohio, a unified cycle of finely observed tales focusing on characters inhabiting a single town. A collection of tales, no matter how closely the characters overlap or intrude on each other’s stories,
are not chapters contributing to a single narrative arc. A collection of tales does not a novel make.
“Linked stories,” to use the vernacular more in vogue now, is a better description. I’ve just finished writing a collection of these myself: independent, standalone stories with occasionally recurring events and characters, including a Russian fabulist writer most famous for her own story about a housewife who converses regularly with her sugar bowl. None of these stories depends on another for its meaning, although I do hope that my loose “links” do provide some Aha! moments of resonance for the reader encountering, as Love False or True goes on, a familiar name or setting.
Elizabeth McCracken, a fine writer of both, says that a short story is a blow to the solar plexus, whereas a novel is a lingering illness you might never recover from. These are two very different conditions, and they do not usually mimic one another. The first wants you to have to catch your breath a little, upon reading the final sentence. The second moves in a slow build toward an ending that makes you sigh. I’ve sighed at the ends of a few stories and gasped upon finishing a novel or two, but those are the exceptions. To invoke an alternate metaphor to McCracken’s, the two forms are disparate species within the same literary genus.
It’s an important distinction because as the marketing of Olive Kitteridge demonstrates, novels sell better than stories, but I’m not convinced that collections can’t make a comeback. To do so, stories need to be understood and celebrated for what they, uniquely, do: distill the experiences of their characters into an essence that will come sudden and sharp upon the reader, a fresh and welcome—if fleeting—scent in the otherwise ordinary air.