Tuesday, March 21, 2017

In Praise of Stories and the Graying of Genre

This year, like many, many other viewers, I’ve been taken with NBC’s new series, This is Us. I binge-watched the first ten episodes, and now have to watch and wait, week by week, for the rest. The show’s taken some ribbing for stringing along tragedy and its tendency to induce ugly crying, but fans can’t get enough. And I’ve been thinking about the structure of the show and trying to decide what we would call it, in book form.

For those who don’t pull up every week with a box of tissue and glass of something white or red, This is Us follows the story, past and present, of the Pearson family: mom and dad, and a set of untraditional triplets. Untraditional because one is adopted, while the other two are surviving twins, I guess, from a traditional set of triplets. Anyway, a current-day, linear narrative follows everyone’s lives when the triplets are 36 years old and this narrative is interspersed with stories from the past. Most prominently at first, events from the year 1980, when the parents were expecting, and immediately after the birth; but also, a smattering of stories that can catch the siblings at any point of their childhood, from young kids to adolescents and beyond. These anecdotes are woven through and follow no particular linear path. We may have a story from the year the Pearson brood was seven and the following week, a vignette about one of them as a teen. There is, of course, the current-day narrative binding everything and chugging forward, but some episodes include little or no sight of this train.

So what would we call this form, I wondered, if it were a book? Novel? Short stories? Novel-in-stories? And I was thinking about how, if you ask even avid readers about short stories, most will say they don’t read them. Either because they don’t like them, or they just don’t think about it. This is a generalization based on personal inquiry. Many, many readers appreciate stories of the more brief variety. But I wouldn’t say it’s a popular practice, the regular reading of short stories. Some readers will tell you it’s because they want the more satisfying, deeper experience of reading a novel, the finality of a complete, longer story and the answers they get at its conclusion. And yet, countless television viewers are perfectly content to wait, week by week, for the same answers from a drama like This is Us or many others.

It would seem that short stories or novel-in-stories are forms that follow most closely the way humans interact. Imagine two women at a public park, watching their kids and striking up a conversation. Oh, hello, one might say. My name is ___, and how are you? Which child is yours? Where are you from? Oh, I’ve been there many times. Once, I visited ___ and my plane was delayed and I spent three hours at the very famous ___. Oh, you have? That’s amazing. Etc. etc.

This conversation, mostly likely would not be: Oh, hello, my name is ___ and I was born in ____. My family lived for many years in ____ and as a young child, I was shy and pale, but I enjoyed reading and riding horses. At the age of five, I ____. Etc. etc.

Think about people you’ve known for a long time and yet, are still learning new things about. You can know someone ten years before you hear the story of how they spent their eighth summer in a body cast, or had an affair with that exchange student at nineteen.

Of course, all novels aren’t start-to-finish narratives. Most include things like backstory and foreshadowing, and all sorts of clues hopefully meted out in a way that’s pleasing for the reader. But when you’re dealing with short stories, or a novel-in-stories, you expect each memory, each vignette or moment (each episode!), to have a shiny, finished quality. To be satisfying in its own right, all by itself. So that you can finish a chapter and feel—at least somewhat—full. So that you can turn off the television and feel—at least somewhat—ready to wait a whole week for more.

And so, to those of you who think you don’t like short stories, or maybe even have no patience for something called a novel-in-stories, may I suggest the following, mind-opening reading experiences that might blur your notions of genre (all taken from my own personal list because this is, of course, my blog)? I’m including the genre label for each one, as determined by publisher, for reference only and so later, you can realize how hazy some of these distinctions are.

First, there are some flagships:

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (novel, 1919)

Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell (novel, 1959)

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (novel/stories/memoir??, 1990)

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (stories, 2008)

And some recent reads I’d recommend:

We the Animals by Justin Torres (novel, 2011)

The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham (stories, 2012)

See How Small by Scott Blackwood (novel, 2015)

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (novel, 2015)

Another Place You’ve Never Been by Rebecca Kauffman (novel-in-stories, 2016)

I find myself reading in this genre-gray area quite a bit these days, seeking out books that have something to say in a different sort of way, in a way that seems most true-to-life, at least for me. There are many ways to tell a story and to make sense of the stories that, in effect, comprise our lives. I’d love to hear your suggestions for books that gray genre in a good way, and stories that took hold of you and never let go.


  1. Short of time, I haven't watched TV for many years, apart from the occasional documentary, free series or films online on my laptop.
    From the writers you mention, I've only read Tim O'Brian's 'The Things They Carried,' though I can't remember how and where I came upon it, maybe through Glimmer Train, which I prescribed to for a while. When it comes to recent American writers, I love Kent Haruf's writing. You too, I believe. Shame he died. His books, in my view, don't fit neatly into a genre.
    I often read what has escaped my attention during busy professional years, but still lingers in my mind as a book to read years after its publication or translated, like Hans Fallada's 'Alone in Berlin,' for which I recently posted a review on my blog. I'll look up some of the writers you mention.

  2. Fascinating to consider the parallels between short fiction and more-casual social encounters. While the brief reading time involved would at first blush seem to limit the reader's degree of engagement with a story in the same sense that short social interactions seem to limit depth of emotional engagement, I expect there are examples where that general rule doesn't hold. As with relationships, both the extent and the nature of the interactions affect my involvement with a book--but the longer stories provide more opportunities for emotional engagement to develop and have the luxury to explore more facets of character. In that sense, short stories have a tougher job--they need to make the emotional connection quickly and do it right the first time, but when they do, they can be equally compelling. Examples that come to mind are Brokeback Mountain and Sin.

  3. Thanks, Ashen. I always take note of your recommendations and will look for this one. Doug, I agree with the parallel and would point out the power, sometimes, of that brief moment or memory to stay in our consciousness. And sometimes, we can tell much of what we need to know about a person in the first five minutes. Agreed, though--stories have lots of work to do, quickly. Which is what makes them challenging and rewarding, and a completely different beast.


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka