For the second time in a week, I have realized that a part of a novel I'm reading has been previously published as a short story in The New Yorker. I have already groused about a chunk of Marilynne Robinson's new novel Gilead coming out in The New Yorker last year and now I find out that Ian McEwan's new novel Saturday was also excerpted in The New Yorker last year. Normally this wouldn't bother me, but in both cases the excerpts read like a complete short story--not just a chunk of a larger work. In fact the McEwan "story" was one of my favorites that I've read in the last year.
Is this just a matter of classification? Is there really no discernible difference between a well-structured chapter and a good short-story? Friends (or strangers) with MFA's or strong opinions please weigh in and tell me how you define the difference or if there is no difference at all. For all you writers--do you approach a short story differently than a novel you are writing? Would you be ok with publishing a chunk of your novel as a short story without any reference to it being a part of a larger work?
In some cases, I know authors write a short story, publish it and then find that the story isn't finished and go back and turn it into a novel (I think this is what Jonathan Safran Foer did with Everything is Illuminated which initially was published, again, in The New Yorker, as a short story.) Should a magazine acknowledge that what they are publishing is a part of a larger whole?
I can't dispute the effectiveness on a marketing level--reading the McEwan "story" makes me want to read the whole novel. And what author in their right mind turns down the publicity of a publication like The New Yorker? Again, I forgive Foer for doing this because Everything is Illuminated was his first novel and the marketing of a first novel is a very different process than one by such established authors as Robinson and McEwan. (Can you tell that I have a literary crush on Foer? I'd probably forgive him if he accidently burned down my house.)
Here is where the curmudgeon part of me comes out--despite the fact that Robinson's and McEwan's new novels are very likely to make it onto my Recommended Books List, I am quite grumpy about the excerpts. My primary reason is that in both cases, while reading the whole novel, when I get to the part that was excerpted, I am pulled out of the story. My wee brain no longer is focusing on the plot, the characters, the beautiful language, in short, the world that the author has crafted. Instead, it feels like an interruption in which I start to dwell on the memory of having read this section before. Where was I when I read it? Was I settled on the couch with a cup of tea? Was I waiting in the car for my son's preschool to get out? Was I staying up late to indulge in a little literary-therapy after a long day?
All these questions that are running through my brain mean that I am thinking of ME and not about the story. Guess what folks? I think about ME and my needs on a regular basis, probably far too often for good mental health. Everyone needs a break from their own identity, and I count on my time with a good book to provide that escape. When the excerpted section yanks me back inside my own life, it pisses me off.