Minding the gap: understanding the composite novel or 'short story cycle'

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In recent decades, numerous Australian and international composite novels (or 'short story cycles' among many other terms) have been published with many achieving major recognition, including Pulitzer Prize winners Interpreter of Maladies (Lahiri 1999), Olive Kitteridge (Strout 2009), and A Visit From the Goon Squad (Egan 2010). Additional works that have almost elevated the genre to a staple of contemporary literature include The Beggar Maid (Munro 1979), The Joy Luck Club (Tan 1989), The Things They Carried (O’Brien 1990), The Dark Room (Seiffert 2001), Hotel World (Smith 2001), Cloud Atlas (Mitchell 2004), The Turning (Winton 2004), and many more.

While lauded by the literary industry for their innovative and anomalous form, Click and drag to move​composite novels are generally received with perplexity by both critics and readers, as they subvert the traditional conventions of both the novel and short story collection, pushing familiar boundaries into new and uncertain literary territory. Philip Hensher in his review of The Turning asked, “What is this book? Is it a novel? Is it a collection of stories with recurrent characters? Well, it might just be an example of a new literary genre” (2005:001). It doesn't help that critical studies on the genre have proposed an expansive range of terminology and provoked multifarious debate as to the composite novel’s constitution, reflecting the extent to which it resists one single, precise definition. But the general consensus is that the composite novel is “a literary work composed of shorter texts that—though individually complete and autonomous—are interrelated in a coherent whole according to one or more organizing principles” (Dunn and Morris 1995:2).

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Despite the pervasive presence of the composite novel in historical and contemporary literature, the genre continues to present an often disorienting challenge for the reader. The effect of the composite novel’s apparent textual disunity through the destabilisation of conventional supports of narrative structure—the formal parameters that typically characterise the short story and novel—demands that the reader more actively engage in the discovery of a composite novel’s patterns and unifying strategies, as opposed to their relatively passive appropriation of a single short story or conventional novel. The tensions created by the gaps between the composite novel’s disjunctive short stories combined with the resistance of the work to traditional narrative resolution upset reader expectations of textual cohesion and closure.

While it is widely accepted that the genre requires that the reader make the connections necessary to conceive a greater meaning behind the disparate parts of the text, limited scholarly consideration has been allocated to the act of reading the composite novel as a process through which this gestalt is achieved. Wolfgang Iser asserts that as a literary text can only produce a response when it is read, it is “virtually impossible to describe this response without also analysing the reading process” (1978:ix).

Perhaps, then, the notion of a composite novel's partial effect of a 'conventional novelistic cohesion' can be best understood using a reader-response critical approach. Iser's concept of the phenomenological theory of art, a concept that lays full stress on the idea that, “in considering a literary work, one must take into account not only the actual text but also, and in equal measure, the actions involved in responding to this text” (1974:274). Against the composite novel’s scaffold of disparate stories and various unifying devices, the reader becomes a more active maker of meaning than when approaching a short story or conventional novel (which typically rely on explicit authorial cues such as a narrative arc and traditional limited plot resolution). Traversing the composite novel's virtual dimensions and by employing a continual process of anticipation and retrospection, the reader instead conceives connections between the individual story's correlatives, surmounts the numerous characteristic 'gaps' within and between the stories, and is able to “climb aboard” the whole text to ultimately recognise an implicit sense of a conventional novel's whole text cohesion. When the act of reading a composite novel is given primacy by critics, readers and authors alike, the genre may finally achieve the mainstream recognition it deserves as a dynamic and independent genre.

* This is an edited extract from my Doctor of Creative Arts exegesis, WOOL SPIN BURN: The role of the reader in determining a composite novel’s whole text coherence.

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