Novels-in-stories, and more opportunities for using hyphens

I've been thinking about the whole novel-in-stories thing lately, which on the one hand I often like and which on the other hand I can't help but feel is b.s. on the most obvious level.  I've been on a David Huddle kick lately, inspired by his most recent contribution to AGNI, and both La Tour Dreams of the Wolf Girl (which I've recently finished) as well as The Story of a Million Years (which I'm most of the way through), seem to follow that format a bit, if only loosely.  I'm not sure what the exact origins of this phenomenon are, or if that's even a legitimate speculation considering age-old counterparts like The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron, but in more recent years it seems to be happening surrounding a trend of academic character fiction.  What you're really getting, with a lot of these books of the Olive Kitteridge variety, is a group of extended character portraits which are thematically connected and strive toward an afterthought of a plot, the nature of which may not really become clear until close to the end of the book.  Jonathan Franzen speculated and/or concluded in some essay in How To Be Alone (too lazy to get up and verify) that one of the reasons why people read novels (not just fiction, novels) in the modern world is to feel a sense of community and connection with humanity in general.  I'm obviously paraphrasing to a great extent.  In any case, if this is true, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with turning the novel into a series of portraits, especially if the portraits make up an actual community within the story.  The main issue with this tends to be plot, and for me, a sense of frustration when I'm promised a novel and end up with a series of anecdotes threaded together by a common residence, acquaintance, or place of work.

In 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Jane Smiley explores the history of the novel, including its origins as a unique literary form evolving out of works such as The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron, its survival in British society as essentially a trash commodity, and its eventual emergence into an art form that was actually taken seriously by intellectuals.  To risk a large general statement which may or may not be backed up with extensive research, it seems to me that while the novel has become less and less a vehicle of pure entertainment and more and more a sophisticated outlet which appeals to a smaller, more educated facet of society, it has at the same time---at least in certain circles---returned to a more primitive form under the guise of having a supposedly superior set of priorities, i.e., character over plot.  This speculation of mine is directed toward certain teaching methods and general attitudes rather than the intentions of any writer in particular.

The reason why David Huddle is an interesting example, and in fact got me thinking about this, is because he occupies a weird place on this whole spectrum, at least considering the work of his I've read.  His novels seem to be heavy-character/light-plot, and like a lot of writers who work in poetry, short stories, and novels, I snottily conclude that he seems to be a short-story writer at the core.  In order to really get a sense of this I suppose I would need to read more of his short stories, and in fact I have a collection of them lying about 5 feet from my left foot, but that is too solitary and passive of an activity for me to engage in right now considering the end-of-days weather going on outside and the fact that I am alone in every sense and not going anywhere today.  Fair warning.  But to finish my thought about David Huddle, I was going to say that despite his strong character-fiction leanings, which I'm guessing might balance out more to my taste in his short stories than his novels overall, is not above engaging the reader in every possible sense.  The sense of intrigue in the first few lines of "The Future," his recent AGNI offering, was enough to raise my heart rate.  It's hard for me, thus far, to feel cheated by his storytelling methods because they are so engaging and because the thematic connections in his books are so strong and because the plots are woven much more intricately than many other similarly-constructed books I've read.

But in the case of story-strings in general, it's still difficult to get over the feeling that in a novel, for the claim that has been made on my attention and the number of pages presented, something more is supposed to happen.

There are a couple of elements that I would like to separate out here, and before I even do that I would like to establish some standards for plot, which I will graciously steal from the aforementioned Ms. Smiley.  In 13 Ways, she establishes the theory that in any given novel, the basic setup for the story is or should be presented about 10% of the way into the book.  I don't remember her exact phrasing, but I think the gist of it was that at the 10% mark you should more or less have an idea of what the story is dealing with, if not exactly where it is headed.  At around 90%, you should be hitting the climax.  Rebel with many causes that I am, I was initially tempted to scoff at this formula, but after doing some field research, I have to admit that in the world of novels that work, it seems to be more or less true.  I am still not wholeheartedly endorsing the necessity of it, but for the sake of argument I'll assume that this is more or less how a plot, or at least a novel plot, should unfold to be satisfactory.  In the meantime, my feeling is that she should get kudos for actually attempting to embark on something like Novel Theory.

The first element I want to separate out is that of time-travel, or less esoterically, writing a novel in any way other than chronologically.  It might seem at first that if one has legitimate artistic reasons for breaking the natural order that it follows one has legitimate reasons for breaking up the general structure of the plot.  I won't argue that this isn't ever true, but I would like to start with an example of a case where it is not true, that being Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses.  And for this I will deign to get up.


This book regularly jumps back and forth through time.  The narrator is sixty-seven years old, and over the span of the novel recalls himself at many different ages.  Within the main plot, in which he is fifteen years old, the narrative takes several twists and turns.  For example, on page 33 (approximately 13% of the way through, which we'll call close enough) the narrator's friend Jon, smashes a goldcrest's egg by dropping it, and we get the feeling that something is very wrong, but we don't know what.  It's the first indication in the story that something might not be quite right, but we don't find out until page 48, as part of an extended narrative understood to be related by the narrator's father, that there has been an accident involving Jon's little brother, Odd, and a gun.  And the cresting action on page 235 (92%) has nothing to do with Jon or his brother, who have receded into the background of the story, but the narrator's evolving relationship with his father.  But these events are no less crucial to the plot for the fact that they don't fall exactly on an exact linear graph of time (although to be fair, those particular events are part of the same main timeline, which exists in almost every story that travels in such a way).  In other words, despite its meanderings, the story remains faithful to a single plot the same way that a more classically-constructed one would.

The second element is the more obvious one: point-of-view.  The main way that this tends to get in the way of the Smiley plotline is that at the 10% mark, we've only heard the story of one character, one anecdote that may open a thematic can of worms but has not necessarily advanced or introduced any sort of long-range action at all.  There are degrees, of course.  Probably the main way to avoid this, if you're trying to write a novel but want to jump around in different characters heads, is to start with one character, but to have that character start taking part in the action, and interacting with other characters, right away.  The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen is a good example of this, because while the novel is split up into various sections involving the members of a family, the main drama of the story (the declining health of the father) is introduced almost immediately, quickly followed by the day-to-day life of the youngest son, Chip, who through his very active presence (especially in comparison with his parents) gets the story moving and begins right away to connect with the other characters as logical players in the story.  Another option, especially if you want to juggle a large number of characters, is to immediately start playing it fast and loose with POV, à la Virginia Woolf, or to pick a more modern example, Tom Drury, who usually starts with a main character but comes clean shortly about the fact that he is working with a large and diverse palette.

Tom Drury is an interesting example because his approach to characters switches very quickly between anecdotal and voyeuristic.  Like, so-and-so runs bingo night at the town hall and had for years been known for his expert yodeling techniques, now let's see exactly what he and his wife are doing and saying in their bedroom right now.  This allows him to develop characters exactly as fully as they need to be (according to their purpose in the story) very quickly and to keep the characters themselves from obscuring the action.

In a way, it is difficult, as an author, to feel that characters aren't an end in themselves.  They are, after, all, our own miniature creations.  Even as readers, it's easier to feel affection for a character than for the plot.  It's easy to forget what precisely happens in a book but still remember the characters.  This may be less the case in genre or genre-ish fiction (mystery, thriller, horror) in which the reader may be more obviously invited to join in the unveiling of the plot, or to allow himself to be toyed with in exchange for a certain return on his investment.

I suppose I feel that it is unpleasant to allow the barriers between literary and genre fiction to remain so stridently closed, not just because of the villain-ization of plot and the unnecessary snobbery, but because it denies the novel its own origins.  The classic form is difficult to master, and attempting it is a risk.  Creating believable characters is one thing, trying to make something happen that isn't really happening, over an extended period of time, is entirely another.  In short, you risk looking stupid.  As I said, I've enjoyed many novels-in-stories, and don't feel I necessarily have legitimate grounds for criticizing them on the basis of what they are.  It's just that I don't entirely understand what they are, other than stories.  Thoughts?


  1. Is this literary fashion or meme? The novels of this ilk that I've read, beginning with Olive Kitteridge, have varied so greatly from strongly interconnected segments (Kevin Brockmeier's The Illumination) to books that I chose as novels but turned out to be collections of short stories so obscurely related I couldn't divine the unifying theme.

    I think you've suggested a new label for this form: the hyphenated-novel.

  2. I like that a lot, but you're the one who suggested it!