Friday, December 17, 2004

A Literary Form Without A Name

The other prose form I particularly like, besides the novella, does not seem to have a name. In the early seventies, when good examples (like Gene Wolfe's "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" and Thomas M. Disch's 334) were appearing in science fiction, it was sometimes called a "suite novel," a term that has so utterly disappeared that I cannot find a reference to it with Google. Writing about Alice Munro's new book in 1976, John Gardner said that "Whether 'The Beggar Maid' is a collection of stories or a new kind of novel I'm not quite sure, but whatever it is, it's wonderful!" Gardner was being, as always, generous and wrong -- this kind of novel may lack a name, but it had been around at least since Faulkner's "Go Down, Moses" in 1942 -- but he was at least gesturing towards a gap in taxonomy.

The novel that comprises a number of seemingly independent stories -- usually of novelette or novella length -- appeared only with the advent of literary Modernism (the earliest example I can think of is Hemingway's "In Our Time," and that only if you don't declare it a collection), and has never been terribly popular, in large part because it seems to confuse publishers. (Random House insisted in calling Faulkner's novel "God Down, Moses and Other Stories" in its first edition.) But it is a form that affords great pleasures.

It is also a form that is particularly common in science fiction. John Clute once coined the term "fix-up," which he has since decided causes more problems than it solves, to describe novels that first appeared in independent sections in magazines. Early examples include A.E. van Vogt's early work, as well as Asimov's "Foundation" novels. The problem with "fix-up" is that the term can be used to describe a straightforward story series eventually published in volume form and called, perhaps for obvious commercial reasons, a "novel" rather than a "collection." Van Vogt's "The Voyage of the Space Beagle" is a fix-up by this definition, but it isn't at all a single, unified work. So "fix-up" doesn't help us, either.

Perhaps the first really good example in SF is James Blish's "The Seedling Stars" in 1957. The novel's five sections share no characters or locale, and each is set in a widely differing era. The volume is a unified novel, however, held together by forces other than the usual narrative continuities. You don't find too many artistically fruitful examples over the next dozen or so years, although some prolific writers -- Robert Silverberg, for one -- would bat out stories set in a single milieu until he had about a volume's worth and then published them as a novel. The only one I can think of that really made use of the form's peculiar resources is Keith Roberts's "Pavane" (1968).

The early seventies, however, saw a bunch of them. The Wolfe and Disch novels I cited, plus Disch's unfinished "The Pressure of Time," Roberts's "The Chalk Giants," and, I suppose, Asimov's "The Gods Themselves." This minor trend continued through the decade -- I remember examples by Joe Haldeman, Kate Wilhelm, Richard Lupoff, Pamela Sargent, plus one that Harlan Ellison never finished -- then seemed to trail off.

More later.

13 Comments:

Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

Blish's CITIES IN FLIGHT would fall under this rubric, wouldn't it? At least, when I read it for a philosophy course in college we read it as a novel, but my recollection was that it was, like Asimov's FOUNDATION books, a series of stories that created a larger work.

11:12 AM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

CITIES IN FLIGHT is an odd case. It's four novels, and the first to be written (not the first in internal chronology) comprises a series of novelettes. Since the stories all have the same characters and follow each other in straightforward chronological order, it seems to be more an uncomplicated book-length series of stories -- with a decent degree of pacing and closure -- than anything else. The second novel to be written, THEY SHALL HAVE STARS, is a better example: it has three intertwined plots, two of which were first published as novellas. The last two novels to be written were straightforward narratives.

So THEY SHALL HAVE STARS is probably a fairly good example of this kind of work (a mosaic novel? a congeries?) but THE SEEDLING STARS is a textbook case.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

China Mountain Zhang is one of these things. Especially since later sections don't function as short stories.

It has often been described to me as a 'fix-up' but I don't feel that's entirely accurate.

2:00 PM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

John Clute defined "fix-up" rather specifically in his Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and then took flak for years from people who objected to the term being applied to their book, evidently because they felt that the its definition should be something different than what he stipulated. (Briefly, Clute intended no disapprobation, but many couldn't accept that.) Finally, Le Guin made some rather snippy remarks, and Clute folded up his tent.

I don't use the term in this discussion, mostly because it refers to the circumstances of the work's first publication, which doesn't concern me. (Virtually all such works saw some or all of their components first published separately, but this isn't necessarily so.)

3:09 PM  
Blogger Responsible Artist said...

I heard Le Guin call the fix-up novel a "Cranston" but I can't recall why she gave it this name.

10:04 AM  
Blogger Ken Houghton said...

LeGuin was snippy about something? I'm shocked.

The problem with "fix up" may be that some works are conceived as novels, but often published as separate tales. (Neptune's Reach should ultimately achieve that.)

If you believe auctorial intent dominates all (as LeGuin does), then fix up describes a reality that does not match the conceit.

7:08 AM  
Anonymous Jeffrey Smith said...

You don't find too many artistically fruitful examples over the next dozen or so years, although some prolific writers -- Robert Silverberg, for one -- would bat out stories set in a single milieu until he had about a volume's worth and then published them as a novel.The one of Silverberg's that does fit your description is The World Inside, as each story (generally with a different lead character) advances the overall plot.

10:49 PM  
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