October 2nd, 2015

On Order

This past weekend, I went to see my husband participate in a panel on the short story at Kingston Writers’ Fest, alongside Priscila Uppal and Mark Anthony Jarman. It was a fascinating discussion with great readings alongside. In fact, the whole festival (we stayed all weekend and saw a grand total of 7 events) was fab.

But the discussion on order in short-story collections was not long enough for my liking, so I thought I’d extend it here.

So! I care about order in collections. I also care about order in albums, where it is arguably more important. Rare, in our iTunes days, that one track will actually lead into another by blending music from one to another (there was a recent Sloan album that did it, making it mind-bogglingly weird to listen to on shuffle) but usually there’s at least a bit of a gestured segway, even if the track change is marked a moment of silence. You want to carefully plan any dissonance between songss, ditto big tempo changes, keys, moods, etc. It’s not that these sorts of juxtopositions are inherently bad–or good–just that they need to be thought through. Same with stories.

Mavis Gallant said that story collections aren’t for reading straight through–one should read a story, then close the book. Stories are for thinking about, and then after a while, the next day, when you’re done thinking you come back for the next one. But realistically, I think each story primes the reader to read the next one, and it’s nice to put them in an order that’s pleasing, that creates some variety, tension, interest. There is absolutely no reason someone couldn’t eat a peanut-butter sandwich followed by a single oyster followed by a tablespoon of relish, but most of us don’t consider that a meal, or pleasant.

Which is why most short story writers really work hard to structure their collections. This is true even if there are no linkages, even if the stories aren’t taking place in the same “universe” or with the same characters. In fact, my second collection The Big Dream was easier to structure than my first Once, because the stories were linked. They didn’t all move forward in time–there were a bunch that covered the same events from different angles, and a bunch more that it didn’t matter where exactly in time you were situated. But it the stories where time mattered or was obvious, it was easy to order them. In Once, where the stories were unlinked, and had almost no crossover characters, I didn’t have any temporal line to fall back on, so the structure is all about contrasts in tone, subject matter, characters. I didn’t want two really similar stories up against each other, but I also didn’t want say, a really dark ending to precede a silly, goofy story. That’s why “Massacre Day” is the last piece in the collection–I think it’s one of the strongest pieces, but also one of the grimmest–it would be hard for anything to follow it. And it may well require the most thought from the reader, so it’s good that there’s space there to think if you want to.

I’m not saying that I got these choices right, just like I’d never even claim that the stories themselves are awesome–merely that the ordering of the stories was part of my creative process, part of what I chose to present to the reader. A novelist (a thing I am currently attempting to be) decides on structure for novel in approximately the same way, though it’s more complicated. A linearly told novel is very different than one that flashes back and forth in time, and that is clearly a creative decision; the decision to order stories one way or another is too.

So…I like to read stories in the order the author (and editor!) chose for them. A few people at the reading protested the idea that of being “told” to read stories in order, since they preferred to flip through a collection and choose to read whatever jumped out at them. Which is of course fine–and I believe it’s what Alice Munro does, someone who obviously knows what she’s doing regarding short stories. Often stories will be anthologized solo or published in magazines solo, but again an editor is making a choice to insert them in a certain spot, before and after certain other material. I am interested in those choices, in seeing how well they work form as a reader and learning how I might make better ones myself as a writer.

A collections order is not *an* order to the reader–it’s a suggestion, the author and editor’s best suggestion of how the stories might be read. Just like you are not required to look at every piece in a gallery exhibit no matter how carefully curated–there’s still lots of pleasure to be had in alternate viewings. Or in songs on shuffle, or best-of collections. But I am interested in the author’s own intentionality, and willing to be guided by his or her choices most of the time.

3 Responses to “On Order”

  • Emily says:

    Very interesting post, R. I’ve never thought about this before. Do you think you would always put your strongest story last? Or would you ever be tempted to open with it?

    (PS – Does that mean Kingston dared go up against the formidable Word on the Street? Was it the same weekend? Did they know there were giant pipes and Jehovah’s Witnesses at WOTS? Because how can you compete with that?)


  • Emily says:

    Also, I emailed you via your “contact” form on this blog a few weeks ago… but maybe you didn’t get it? I had a question for you about “confidence.” Was hoping for your POV… If you didn’t get it, please let me know! (If you did and are too busy to answer, that’s cool too. Just wanted to double check.)


  • Rebecca says:

    Hi Emily,

    So many things to say… Somewhere in the beginning of time, someone told me to lead a strong story that is also a bit hooky–possibly funny but definitely something that sucks you in from the get-go. It might not actually be your strongest piece, but one of. For the very best piece (in one’s own opinion) it goes at the end, particularly if it’s a bit subtle or weird, or asks a lot of the reader–by then, having read the whole rest of the book, they are ready for it! Anyway, that’s more or less how I’ve gone about it…

    Yes, I missed WOTS and the High Park festival for Kingston–it was an intense weekend, lit-wise. I loved your post on the giant pipe (and Patrick DeWitt’s face!!) he read in Kingston Saturday night, so he was obviously moving fast!

    And so sorry about the contact form–no, never received it. I’ll look into that, and try you via YOUR contact form to see if that works better. Or my email address is rebeccabooks [at] excite [dot] com


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