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‘A Novel is Not a Story’: Fantastika’s Fabulous Refashionings

“There is, I feel, a serious misconception at work here: to believe that a short story and a chapter in a novel are essentially the same, that a succession of stories about a character make him more ‘meaningful,’ more ‘memorable,’ more ‘understandable.’ But a novel is not a story: the method of the novelist is very different from that of the short-story writer. A story, to the degree that it succeeds as a work of art, contains within itself all that we need to know aesthetically. . . .” – William Abrahams

I decided to start this column with a horribly decontextualized quotation, because it is a good starting point for what I want to discuss this week, and it helps illuminate my argument. It is from a critical piece on Hemngway’s work that bemoans the tendency of readers to read more into Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories than are presented. They should not be read together as a shadow memoir of the author, he argues, but enjoyed for their inherent literary qualities (despite the fact that they are collected in one volume and organized chronologically for Adams’ life). While I disagree with most of what Abrahams says, I find a kernel of insight here that I want to plant, to see if it will germinate.

Abrahams’ idea is that “a novel is not a story” and that a story contains “all that we need to know aesthetically.” His idea of a story in this context is specifically a short story, all nice and tidy, and his concern is that readers are exceeding the boundaries of the story and doing something else, in a sense trying to make a novel in their own minds about this set of tales. He argues that this does not honor the story itself, the artistry of the piece of fiction. Yet what this piece reveals to us is a tactic of the reader that serves as a strong engine of creativity for fantastika.

Earlier this week there was an SF Signal podcast discussing the status of the “stand-alone novel” against a series. At one point a commenter (I think it was Fred) asked about the definition of a stand-alone novel as opposed to a series, and essentially posited a continuum, from single work to set of works within a common setting to a series of novels linked together as a longer story. There was some discussion over this point, but no concern about the integrity of a novel; what Abrahams was so concerned about in the early 1960s was an integral part of the reading experience for fantastika fans.

This made me wonder how we, as readers, create and interact with fiction and how we, often encouraged by authors, create stories that so often exceed the form itself. Beyond our metaphoric participation are acts of imagination that we perform to link and elaborate and conjure new stories. Like those fans of Hemingway’s short stories we take what the author has given us and then do something unanticipated, yet reflexively human: we fantasize. We create connections that are implied, forge new ones, and consider ways to link stories that we enjoy or that make us think to other ones.

Fantastic literature does this primarily through that continuum of book categories I mentioned above. Many authors write multiple stories using a common setting, or write a series of books that are part of one overarching saga. This gives the reader two elements for imagination beyond the story: environment and characters. It is the connection between these two elements, I think, that allow the reader to re-create the story, and make linkages within, between, and outside of discrete texts.

Sam Sykes discussed the particular allure of an extended sense of this combination of character and environment at Babel Clash: “For this is what fantasy is: a bargain in which we take the reader deeper than they would find in a normal novel.” Setting and actor work in a dynamic collaboration with each other: Fantastic “[w]orlds as they affect people are important” as they are the source of readers’ imaginative connection to story. What Sykes’ idea points to is how the reader creates another layer of story, of continuity that may be encouraged by the author in some cases, but in others arises from the desire of the reader. Fantastic literature of all varieties seem to be more adept at creating the conditions for this kind of continuity and ardor.

The point is that, while the worldbuilding, the quality of writing, and the accessibility of stories are significant factors, readers’ sense of engagement usually locates itself in characters. The story is not just the one on the page, the one in the structure of the narrative, but in the readers’ heads, rendered in our imaginations more evocatively because the images and actions come alive in our minds. Ari Marmell‘s response to Sykes reflects this: “what makes a character interesting-what makes a character grow-is his or her actions and reactions.” What we have empathy for, what is modular and malleable, are characters, moreso than stories. What makes some stories exceed the form is the collusion between what the writer portrays and how we then import that into our own ability to reinvent and reinvest symbols and ideas with purpose and vitality. We build or innovate upon what the author gives, breaking out of the parameters of the form to make our own stories.

I thought about this in relation to some of the books I have read recently. As I read J. M. McDermott’s Last Dragon (which is a very good book) I was struck by the opacity of the characters. The book fragments a quest storyline and populates it with characters that often do not generate empathy. Sometimes they are cyphers, sometimes they are unlikable to the point of antipathy, and in at least once instance they seem more like a plot device than a character. This is the sort of novel whose story would be difficult to expand outside of that one work, because the characters become touchstones for the reader to make sense of the story and don’t come fully alive, save perhaps for the narrator. Despite the splintered plot and progress of the story, the characters stay lodged in the unfolding story.

In contrast, Elizabeth Hand’s Generation Loss focuses so tightly on the main character, Cass Neary, and forces us to share her headspace so thoroughly, that while she is not the typical protagonist you might think of as bridging and engaging, your intimacy with her allows you to go outside the story and consider her life, and wonder about her future (which will be detailed soon in Available Dark). The environment is familiar on the surface, twisted and dark beneath, and Cass’ interaction with the world around her makes you wonder about all the other stories she collides with throughout the novel.

These sort of refashionings are endemic to fantastika; the history of the broader genre is the story of all of these moments where those who love these works make them their own by reimagining the stories and creating a reading community that encouraged authors to write stories that fulfill that desire. This is one of the things that makes fantasika so distinctive in literature, how it simultaneously provides escape, engenders reproduction and elaboration, and establishes an imaginative world of connected and resonant stories that people use to imagine what isn’t, and use that to create new thoughts, new relationships, and new social worlds.

3 Comments on ‘A Novel is Not a Story’: Fantastika’s Fabulous Refashionings

  1. This made me wonder how we, as readers, create and interact with fiction and how we, often encouraged by authors, create stories that so often exceed the form itself.


    I’ve been thinking about this lately in terms of John’s review of The Quantum Thief, and how a reader really completes the experience of the raw text to create a book.


    This does go even further. If a writer builds a world bigger than one story or one world, the experience of that world is even larger and interpreted in different ways by different readers.


    The classic example is Zelazny’s Amber series, which spawned a role playing game for this very reason.


  2. Paul:

    Agreed on both counts. The reader completes the text with their own preferences and competencies, and that is one factor in creating the excess of story (and in how one reviews, certainly). That is not to say that texts are openly interpretable, but that we take the basic communication and its cultural and semantic associations and run with it. I suddenly have an urge to go back and read Jonathan Culler. . . .

    I think the vastness of fantastic worlds as we understand it is again not just an authorial product. A number of authors before the rise of SF fandom and cultural practices of imaginative performance created deep worlds, but did not get the same response from readers.  There’s been a cultural shift in our modes of fantasization which has taken the novel and other sorts of story-productions and encouraged new or revitalized modes of engagement with them. Amber is an interesting example because it did not just spawn an RPG, it broke from the rules of RPGs in some ways to catch the flavor of Zelazny’s work. Most transferences of fantastic media milieus are moved into existing systems that are more interested in integrating them than exemplifying their particular qualities.  The Call of Cthulhu setting is one exception, where game mechanics were re-tailored to deal with the specific mythos.

    At some point readers went from just discussing novels to trying to inhabit their worlds in some manner. I think there’s a lot to that shift, and I would love to explore it more at some point.

  3. At some point readers went from just discussing novels to trying to inhabit their worlds in some manner. I think there’s a lot to that shift, and I would love to explore it more at some point.


    Yes. Have you read Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End, yet?  That book takes that idea and runs with it.

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