David Jauss teaches creative writing at the University of Arkansas and writes short stories. He admits in “Stacking Stories; Building a Unified Short Story Collection,” in On Writing Fiction (Writers Digest Press, 2011) that until he was added to the judges panel for the little magazine Shenandoah’s prize for emerging writers that he never read short story collections from front to back. That assignment changed his view. He had an epiphany (see previous blog post on Jauss’ book). Collections hang together. His essay on how to build a collection of short stories is a paean to the hitherto undiscovered god of story connectedness.
In “Stacking Stories,” Jauss is no longer the critic we admired from previous chapters whose insights came from careful reading rather regurgitated formulas and platitudes. Instead, he sings praises to the myriad ways that a group of short stories can be assembled in one volume.
His conversion leads him to see connectedness everywhere he looks. Stories in the collections he read for Shenandoah relate to each other by liaisons, motifs, parallels, contrasts, mirrors, etc. – in so many ways that this reader had to look ahead to find the end of the chapter. Only a few more pages. Thank goodness.
But my problem is not just with Jauss’ style of discussing connectedness; it is with the underlying concept. Let’s start with Jauss’ admission that in the dark days before he saw the light he didn’t read short story collections from front to back. We have no way of knowing how many other people do likewise, but let’s assume that if a creative writing instructor and a short story writer approached collections in that manner, the majority of ordinary readers do likewise.
That means that other than suggesting to readers that they try it the other way, this essay can only be of interest to a very small audience – creative writing instructors and writing prize judges.
The explication of collection connectedness is of little use in my opinion to writers who are assembling their own collections. Why? Because each writer has to deal with his/her own pile of stories. If you like the concept of mirrors or themes, so what? If your stories don’t fit in a specific manner, what are you going to do – rewrite them? I’m exaggerating of course, because I suppose a few writers might uncover a way of organizing their stories that they hadn’t thought of, but won’t they be the exception? Won’t most writers find the best way to order their own stories without requiring a topographic map of possibilities? Knowing that other writers’ collections reflect one principle or another does not help the individual writer except to suggest that he put his or her stories in some kind of logical order other than drawing the titles out of a hat.
Further, this focus on the order of the stories in a collection threatens to distract the reader from the stories themselves. Most people don’t read short stories one after the other in one sitting. At least I don’t. If I have a book of short stories on my reading table, I’ll pick it up at odd moments, days or even weeks apart. Thus, the impact of the collection as a whole is likely to be minor for most readers.
It’s possible that book reviewers reading this essay will be encouraged to look for organizing principles should they ever be presented with the task of reviewing a short story collection, but I can’t imagine that anyone qualified to review books for a legitimate publication needs to be told to do so.
That reduces the field of potential beneficiaries of “Stacking Stories” to creative writing instructors assigned to judge short story collections. If that’s you, then read the essay; otherwise, this is one essay in the book you can skip.