Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Deeply Complex Thing

“A good [short story] collection has a deep coherence buried inside. I think the way one story plays off another, the way a collection adds up to a single vision is a deeply complex thing, one that hasn’t been addressed enough in criticism. I’m a big fan of original collections. I love the way the stories line up in a book like Hemingway’s In Our Time, or George Saunders’ Pastoralia, or Christine Schutt’s Nightwork. You feel a small thread weaving through them, almost invisible, maybe simply a thread made of the fact that they all have some deeply complex nuanced style and a concern passing from one story to the next. As a reader, you’re moved from one completely individual unit to the next, and you know that they’re not linked and that they can stand on their own, but you still have a kind of sense, in the end, that you’ve been through an experience that comes from the complete entity. (I’ve said this before, but it’s akin to listening to something like Radiohead’s OK Computer, or, better yet, Bach’s French Suites.)”

David Means, from an interview with Tom Barbash


Lydia Ship said...

I love the observation about the "thread" going through a collection; I agree there's more to it than ethos, or, more than the same writer writing all the stories: I find that stories in a collection often approach the same subject or theme from different angles, which can feel like a novel only bigger, like a novel of life. The same subject or theme approached from different viewpoints in a novel (in, say, omniscience) is in some ways limited by the plot, which must be kept moving... then, too, it seems to me that the danger for writers creating a strongly-threaded collection is the tendency to stamp up and down the same path over and over, which is also boring. But the best collections have continuity as well as fresh perspective or surprise, and I'm thinking of Winesburg, Ohio, or Twice Told Tales (old school, I know). Maybe it's just me, but I'm also hungry for collections that have a poetic or narrative logic in the arrangement or sectioning of stories, as if you're getting that much extra from reading the whole in order.

Andrew Roe said...

Hi Lydia. Thanks for stopping by. Great comments here.

I really liked Means' "thread" observation, too, and you bring up a lot of excellent points (approaching the same theme from different angles, a novel of life, the danger of retreading the same theme over and over, etc.).

And I also really like collections that have a poetic or narrative logic.

And then there are the things the writer doesn't see, or perhaps sees belatedly in the putting together of a collection.

When I was recently working on my collection, I belatedly noticed there were stories with young children, young adults, middle-aged adults and older people. I realized I could have some kind of chronological order to the collection as well, which (I think) really helped tighten it and cohere on a whole other level.