Thursday, April 21, 2005

Kate, the literary curmudgeon

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.


Mary Jean Babic said...

While it doesn't bother me to read a novel segment in the New Yorker before reading the actual novel (that's how I learned about "The Hours"), and while I don't blame a writer one bit for agreeing to publish an excerpt there, it IS weird that the New Yorker doesn't label an excerpt as such (which, by the way, I'd never noticed until now). Why don't they? Well, this only deepens my puzzlement about why the New Yorker publishes the fiction it does, something that's perplexed me for years.

My own inner curmudgeon is responding to something that I can't quite articulate yet, but it's something like this -- there's a prevailing sentiment in the publishing world that short stories are somehow less accomplished than a novel, and so a short story is only worthwhile so far as it leads to, or is a springboard into, a novel. In workshops, writers often hear the criticism, "I want to know more about X," and often respond to that criticism by ... writing more. But if a writer succeeds in getting a reader to want more of the characters, the story, the language, couldn't that be seen as a sign of success? I'm not sure how all this relates to the New Yorker; probably not at all. But your post has gotten me thinking.

Annie said...

The short story isn't my favorite genre; I don't read much of it, so I can't really say. But I wonder if you do a lot of rereading? I do, it's one of my greatest reading pleasures to dip into my favorites, at random or with a particular passage in mind, and read it again. I'll read whole novels over, too. It's an entirely different experience!

Kate said...

MJ--I totally agree with you about the prejudice against the short story. But a good short story (say, one by Alice Munro) can be infinitely better than another author's entire novel. And the "I want to hear more about X" comment sounds so familiar. I think that some comments like that from workshops have wrecked the structure of what I was writing--I tried to respond to the request and it threw everything off. I don't mean to imply that comments in workshops are useless and I ignore them, but maybe the next time I hear a "I want to hear more" comment, I'll ask the speaker precisely how they think I should approach it without becoming long winded or going off on a tangent.

Annie--I am an avid re-reader and I agree it can be a rewarding experience. I guess what I'm grouchy about with these excerpts is that I like to embark on a re-reading intentionally, rather than find out--surprise--in the midst of a work that my brain has approached as new. Does that make sense?

Cordelia said...

I am incredibly annoyed by the New Yorker's new habit of publishing excerpts of novels as their fiction. It seems underhanded somehow. I have always been given to understand (by people with more experience than I have with the various literary forms) that a short story is quite different from a novel. Thus, whenever I discover the New Yorker fiction is an excerpt rather than a stand-alone short story, I feel conned -- almost as if I've been handed cake and been told it's muffin.

sarah said...

I don't know if you go back and read comments Kate from this far back. Anyway, the trend may have come from the practical aspect of a lot of MFA people trying to get chapters of novels published as short stories in preparation for approaching a publisher for their novel. I knew many people who were doing that. That doesn't explain why they didn't label it as such though.

Kate said...

Yea, the unknown writer thing occurred to me and is probably why I forgive Jonathan Safran Foer for publishing the first chapter of Everything is Illuminated in the NYorker--he was an unknown writer at the time and it gave his novel a great boost. But authors like McEwan and Robinson? They don't need to get a publishers attention in this way in order to have their novels published.