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Books of the Year 2016: Three books blur the distinction between novels and short stories

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trioWhen Mona Awad’s debut book of fiction, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, won the 2016 Amazon.ca First Novel Award, some readers might have had reason to be puzzled. The book, which comprises 13 discrete pieces addressing issues of body image as they relate to a single central character, has all the properties of a collection of linked short stories. Though there is an ad hoc narrative arc, and the segments are arranged in roughly chronological order, each of the putative “chapters” stands alone, and can be read as a distinct and fully realized individual story with a recognizable beginning, middle, and end. How is it, then, that a book with all the attributes of a story collection came to be awarded a prize explicitly devoted to first novels?

The book itself is little help in this regard: the all-text cover bears the title, the name of the author, and the vague descriptor “fiction.” This lack of specificity, it turns out, was intentional. According to Nicole Winstanley, publisher of Penguin Canada, which brought out the Giller Prize-shortlisted 13 Ways domestically, there was “a lot of discussion” behind the scenes about how to position the book. In the end it was decided the most advantageous route was to leave the generic designation vague. “In this particular case,” says Winstanley, “we wanted to leave it up to the reader.”

If one can argue that the publisher made a calculated decision in this regard when it submitted the book for consideration in the first-novel prize, Awad says that when she began writing, the short-story format was essential in capturing the tension of individual episodes that she would zoom in on closely. The more expansive view of a single narrative throughline was the result of a kind of evolutionary process during the editing stages. “The decision to go with ‘fiction’ was born of the fact that my editors were appreciating that I had written in the short-story format but that what we had as a result was a novel,” says Awad.

It’s a process Marni Jackson is familiar with. Her first work of fiction, Don’t I Know You?, follows a central character – Rose – as she grows from young adulthood through a sequence of episodes linked by their connection to a variety of celebrities. “They can stand alone,” Jackson says of the individual chapters in the book. “I wrote them separately.” Nevertheless, when the book was being prepared for publication, the general agreement among the author and her editors was to refer to the finished product as a “novel in stories.” “Most of the time it’s being called a novel,” Jackson says. “I’m more comfortable with ‘novel in stories,’ myself, because it wasn’t conceived as a novel in my mind.”

The idea of a work that blurs generic boundaries in this way is, of course, not new, but this year is notable for featuring Awad’s and Jackson’s books alongside Montreal-born David Szalay’s Man Booker Prize nominee All That Man Is. Unlike Awad and Jackson, who claim to have begun writing stories that cumulatively transformed into something novelistic, Szalay takes the opposite stance when talking about his latest work of fiction. “It was very much conceived as a single thing,” says Szalay. “It wasn’t as though I had a load of stories lying around that I bundled together or even that I tweaked so that they would fit together. They were all written specifically to fit into the scheme. They’re much more than the sum of their parts, I hope.”

The connections between the nine episodes in All That Man Is – each focusing on a different man in various European settings – are essential to the book’s overall schema, Szalay says. Though when pressed, he will admit that if the book is not, in his view, a collection of stories, neither is it precisely a novel. “Whether you could call it a novel is a slightly different question,” Szalay says. “Obviously, there are aspects of it that don’t conform to the usual definition.”

Szalay’s notion of the men in his book synthesizing into one archetypal ür-man may stretch the conventional definition of what constitutes a novel in a way that Awad’s and Jackson’s books don’t, but the impulse to blur the generic classification is doubtless canny in a reading culture that – a Nobel Prize for Alice Munro notwithstanding – still doesn’t gobble up short stories en masse. Ultimately, it may not be an either/or dichotomy, anyway. “In my mind – this is really, really strange,” says Awad, “it’s like holding two opposite things in your head at the same time. It’s negative capability.”