Blurry Distinctions

Over at the Telegraph, Philip Henscher reviews Tim Winton’s The Turning, and wonders:

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. Genres don’t come into existence every day, but in the past few years a good number of writers have started exploring the previously blank territory that lies between the collection of short stories and the novel proper. It starts to look like a new form altogether.

Why worry what to call it? I mean–Shouldn’t we be asking if it’s any good? But Henscher’s point isn’t really about quality. It’s more about a trend he’s noticed over the last 10 years:

first noticed that something was in the air when I started being asked to judge competitions for novels, about 10 years ago or so. In one competition after another, a book came up for consideration and someone on the panel would say: “This is a terribly good book: but isn’t it really a collection of short stories, rather than a novel?” Judging the 2001 Booker Prize, for instance, we finally shortlisted two books of this sort – Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room and Ali Smith’s Hotel World. Another writer on that shortlist, David Mitchell, clearly finds the form congenial; his first book, Ghostwritten, and his third, Cloud Atlas, are constructed out of a succession of near-unrelated narratives.

These, and others, such as Rachel Cusk’s beautiful The Lucky Ones, shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel prize, don’t follow exactly the same tactics. The Dark Room is three separate stories, bound together by a single theme; despite their lack of connection, you couldn’t really excerpt one of them for an anthology. Hotel World is a single narrative, told from such different perspectives that the reader does have the sense of starting freshly with each episode.

This resonates particularly strongly with me because my debut book Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, has been described by one reader as “neither fish nor fowl,” an expression I tried my hardest to take as a compliment. My publisher has billed it as a short story collection, but in its overall themes it feels more like a novel where the chapters build on one another. Even while I was focused on details of the individual narratives, I always had the overall picture in mind. So it’ll be interesting to see, when the book comes out, whether this is something that readers and reviewers respond to.

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