Academic Exchange Quarterly Summer 2003: Volume 7, Issue 2
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Teaching Between the Genres
Cocchiarale is an Assistant Professor of English at
(Chester, PA), where he teaches American literature and writing courses.
It has become commonplace in the development of literature courses to take into account the gender, racial, and ethnic diversity of works and writers chosen. While not sacrificing or de-emphasizing this important post-canonical reality, this essay focuses on how the college professor might design a course that takes into account issues of generic diversity as well. By de-stabilizing the boundaries between the short story and the novel, such a course might allow students to not only experience the complexities of literature on another level, but also to see how formal and thematic concerns intertwine.
Recently, while designing a senior level college course on contemporary American short fiction, I was forced to ponder the difficult but oh so familiar questions of a post-canonical pedagogy: Who are the most seminal writers—those whom, even with canon expansion, one would be remiss not to include? What authors/texts best represent the trends and developments of the period in question? What authors/texts—and, just as important, what particular combination of authors/texts—best represent the diversity of recent American story writing? Having chosen to eschew the survey approach in favor of more sustained analysis of the work of a limited number of writers only made the process of choosing texts that much more excruciating.
Keeping in mind the relatively homogeneous group of students enrolled in the course, I determined that my first goal was to generate a reading list that featured gender, racial, and ethnic diversity. After much consideration, I found the mix of voices I was looking for: Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, Toni Cade Bambara, Bharati Mukherjee, Sandra Cisneros and Tim O’Brien. Although all of these writers (with the exception of Dubus) have achieved canonical status in the academy, they did provide the variety of perspectives I was seeking. What also emerged through the selection process was a very different kind of diversity, one that served to add intriguing depth to the course and thus meet my second goal. Not only did these texts—and our progression through them—complicate students’ notions about gender, race, and ethnicity, they also served to complicate their understanding of the generic variations of the short story form.
We began the course in the most traditional way imaginable—with Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From, a collection of stories that spans the writer’s all too brief career. This volume not only provided students with an accessible starting point for the course, it introduced them to the austere, lower middle class, and implicitly white world of minimalism. Much time was spent teasing out recurring themes such as the costs of alcoholism and the ephemerality of romantic love. We paid some attention to formal matters as well, discussing, for example, the muted plots of Carver’s fiction, and the development from early, stark, open ended stories such as “Nobody Said Anything” and “Neighbors” to later, more hopeful pieces such as “Where I’m Calling From” and “Cathedral.” By beginning with a volume of “Selected Stories”—stories spanning the career of a writer—we were able to identify preoccupations of the writer throughout the body of his work, as well as ascertain tonal changes and other developments. At this early point of the semester, implicit in our discussion was the notion that, recurrent character types and situations notwithstanding, each of Carver’s stories was a discrete object for study—in short, a short story.
I juxtaposed the laconic prose of Carver with the dense, expository-like fiction of Andre Dubus, whose Selected Stories was another “career collection.” Although different in outlook (Dubus oftentimes grounds his work in an overtly Christian context), Dubus plays off Carver well, as both writers are especially adept at portraying the intricacies of intimate relationships. We examined stories in which young people found themselves caught in deep moral quandaries (“If They Knew Yvonne,” “Miranda Over the Valley”), stories depicting the breakdown of marriage (“Adultery,” “Rose”), and stories dealing with psychological responses to violent acts (“Killings,” “The Curse”). As with Carver, we took time at the end of our discussion of Dubus to identify his thematic preoccupations.
With what might be called the “career collections” of Dubus and Carver, students emerged with a deep understanding of the writers in a relatively brief number of class days. At the same time, they came away from these texts with, for the most part, traditional notions of the boundaries and the possibilities of the short story form intact.
After establishing a fairly traditional approach to the
short story, the course moved on to not only complicate notions of contemporary
At the same time Bharati Mukherjee’s The Middleman and
Other Stories further exposed students to the complexities of race,
ethnicity, and gender in
At this point in the semester—in order to provide students a
vocabulary that would allow them to discuss the volumes we would soon peruse—it
became necessary to introduce some theory on the short story cycle. A cycle (or, as it is sometimes called,
sequence) is an integrated collection that features discrete, autonomous
stories that nevertheless add up to or contribute to some composite whole. As suggested earlier, many of these cycles
exhibit a clear, almost novelistic progression.
For example, in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg,
The first sustained analysis of the genre in its modern form was Forrest Ingram’s Representative Short Story Cycles of the Twentieth Century (1971), a study that presents detailed readings of integrated collections by Joyce, Kafka, Anderson, and Faulkner. Ingram defines “cycle” as “a book of short stories so linked to each other by their author that the reader’s successive experience on various levels of the pattern of the whole significantly modifies his [or her] experience of its component parts [italics in the original]” (19). To illustrate, one might read “Indian Camp”—the first “component part” of Ernest Hemingway’s classic cycle In Our Time—and come away with some sense of young Nick Adams, who, traumatized by witnessing a seemingly inexplicable suicide, refuses to deal with the inevitability of his own death. Understanding of Nick’s character, however, only grows with the reader’s “successive experience” of the stories after “Indian Camp”—stand-alone pieces such as “The End of Something,” which depicts the death of Nick’s romantic relationship; “The Three Day Blow,” which explores the extent to which the “death” of that preceding story haunts him; and “The Battler,” whose title and plot events (most significantly, Nick’s injury after being thrown from a train) broach again the theme of death by foreshadowing the young man’s wounding in a World War I battle. The cycle’s culminating piece, “Big Two-Hearted River” (Parts I and II), makes little sense without the reader’s “successive experience” of these (and other) “component parts,” all of which serve to contribute to the “death and recovery” trajectory of the entire collection and “modify” our understanding of Nick Adams. The “balance between the individuality of each [story] and the necessities of the larger unit” (Ingram 15) in a cycle such as In Our Time is achieved in a variety of ways—by “patterns” of theme (death) and character (Nick Adams), for example—but most often by “the dynamic pattern of recurrent development,” or “the repetition of a previously used element” in later stories of the cycle (Ingram 200).
In the years since Ingram’s groundbreaking study, scholars such as Susan Garland Mann, J. Gerald Kennedy, Ann Morris and Maggie Dunn, and James Nagel have all contributed their insights regarding this “in between” form. While there are differences in terms approach, emphasis, terminology, and even definition, each agrees that “the stories [in a cycle or sequence] are both self-sufficient and interrelated” (Mann 15).
As a result of exposure to these theories of form, students were ready to assume a more aggressive role in the interpretive process. They not only began to began to understand that the “effectiveness of the work [any work] depends on the participation of the reader” (Iser16), they realized that short story cycles, because of their unique disjointed unity, grant even “more room for subjective interpretation and active participation” (Luscher 158).
Informed by theories of the short story cycle—and aware of
their crucial role in the interpretive process—students were able to move onto
the course’s next “collection,” Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street,
and begin to consider the ways in which that work destabilizes standard notions
of genre. We started with the back cover
blurb on the paperback version, which in one sentence calls the work both “a
series of vignettes” and “a greatly admired novel.” To complicate the matter further, I mentioned
how Cisneros initially viewed this work as a kind of autobiography and how,
during the writing process, it “‘evolved into a collective story . . . placed
in one fictional time and neighborhood—
Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried—an “integrated
novel with 22 sections ranging from two-page vignettes to lengthy stories . . .
all united by the narrative voice of 43-year-old soldier-author Tim O’Brien”
(Herzog 105)—served as the appropriate culmination for a course interested in
genre as much as it was interested in diversity of theme. Although ostensibly concerned with the
Vietnam War, the real subject of what O’Brien himself terms not a novel, not a
collection of short stories, but simply—and ambiguously—“a work of fiction”—is
the story making process itself.
Throughout this work—a series of tellings and retellings of Alpha
Company’s war experiences—O’Brien reflects on its generic status, justifying
the story-oriented approach by claiming that stories are a way to “make things
present” (180)—to, more specifically, keep the “dead alive” (239). O’Brien brings together both his military and
civilian life in the beautiful last story, “The Lives of the Dead,” during
which he meditates on the death of a young girlfriend due to cancer at the same
time he recalls the men with whom he served in the jungles of
The combination of all of these texts—and the way the texts play off each other both thematically and formally—made this course a multi-faceted inquiry into some intriguing matters of theme and form. By the end of the semester, students were not only exposed to a variety of perspectives on their country and the people who live in it, they discovered the permeability of literary genres. A course that began as an investigation of the themes of contemporary short story writers became—at the same time—an exploration of the amorphous territory between story and novel, one that not only encourages but demands the active participation of the reader.
If indeed “[t]he short-story cycle is the most neglected and the least well understood of the major genres in American literature” (Nagel 246), then this can be remedied by more courses that emphasize the complexity of literary forms. As can be seen above, such a course does mean the removal of historical and political context. It means more attention to how form serves to bring across such thematic concerns. Of course, students should be challenged to reconsider their own beliefs and assumptions about race, gender, and class. However, they should also be challenged to reconsider their understanding of literary forms. We should, in other words, not only teach the genres of short story and novel, but teach between the genres as well.
Herzog, Tobey C. Tim O’Brien.
Ingram, Forrest L. Representative Short Story Cycles of the Twentieth Century. The
Hague: Mouton, 1971.
Iser, Wolfgang. “Indeterminacy and the Reader’s Response in Prose Fiction.” Aspects of
Narrative. Ed. J. Hillis Miller.
Luscher, Robert M. “The Short Story Sequence: An Open Book.” Short Story Theory at
a Crossroads. Eds. Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey.
Mann, Susan Garland. The Short Story Cycle: A Genre Companion and Reference
Nagel, James. The Contemporary American Short-Story Cycle: The Ethnic Resonance of
O’Brien, Tim. The
Things They Carried.