Short stories get short shrift. These gems of tales, usually less than 3,000 words, usually can’t find a publisher or a publication, but everybody professes to enjoy reading them. Count among the satisfied the jury of the Pulitzer Prize, which awarded the 2009 fiction prize to a collection of stories by Elizabeth Stout, Olive Kitteridge.
To be precise, this lovely book is a “novel in stories,” a collection of tales with recurring characters but not bound up with a narrative though-line. Reading a novel in stories is easy for people who only read once in awhile. You always feel like you’ve gotten everything there is to tell in a novel in stories, so long as you finish the chapter you’re on. Every chapter is a self-contained story.
Six years ago, I saw a novel-in-stories slammed by a prize-winning novelist. Ann Patchett came to Austin to give a keynote speech at the Austin Writers League “Why Fiction Matters” conference. Patchett spoke knowing she’d just won the PEN/Falkner award for her novel Bel Canto. In the course of her talk Patchett said in passing, “and then there’s the novel-in-stories, a form I loathe, by the way.” We didn’t all want to know what she liked to read, or thought was worthy. But some of us knew something Patchett didn’t. The conference organizer Karen Stolz had published a successful novel in stories, The World of Pies.
So maybe — since Stout’s novel in stories won the Pulitzer, like fiction of Phillip Roth and Michael Chabon — Patchett might want to revisit her judgment about the worth of novels in stories. She could reconsider while she’s dusting off the section of her bookcase that’s still waiting for a Pulitzer prize. Bel Canto is based on the Lima Crisis news event, but Olive Kitteridge doesn’t need that kind of based-on-a-true-story leg up. It’s Elizabeth Stout’s world of coastal Maine residents. Booklist said in a starred review
But appalling though Olive can be, Strout manages to make her deeply human and even sympathetic, as are all of the characters in this “novel in stories.” Covering a period of 30-odd years, most of the stories (several of which were previously published in the New Yorker and other magazines) feature Olive as their focus, but in some she is bit player or even a footnote while other characters take center stage to sort through their own fears and insecurities. Though loneliness and loss haunt these pages, Strout also supplies gentle humor and a nourishing dose of hope.
Never let it matter that anyone, no matter how awarded their career might be, reviles your writing style. You can find single-star reviews for Bel Canto on Amazon, after all. Be your own judge and let yourself — not just your writing or publishing — be the beauty in the world.