On Context: Literary Journals and Story Collections

Last week I had the opportunity to read the most recent winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut short story collection, Safe as Houses, which I’ll be reviewing for the upcoming winter issue of IR (spoiler alert:  I like it).  One of the stories in the collection, “Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours,” was originally published a few years ago in IR 31.2, and reading the story again raised some interesting questions for me about the effect context has on your reading of a story.  The stories in a single-author collection often fit together with the neatness and stability of a Lego tower, whereas a literary journal is more akin to a motley stack of blocks of all shapes and sizes, balanced perhaps precariously, but assembled with care.

“Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours” is an unusual story in terms of its subject matter, narrative voice, and structure.   The narrator claims to be an alien who works a lowly office job on earth while faxing observations on the human species back to her home planet (yes, the aliens use fax machines), and the story consists mainly of these observations and a few short scenes, from which a clear narrative arc emerges only near the end of the story.  Within the context of Bertino’s collection, “Sometimes” reads like a variation on a motif, as its themes and tone are complimentary to many of the other stories in the collection.  This isn’t surprising, of course, since a good short story collection is often the record of a writer working through the particular themes, subjects, ideas, etc. that he or she finds compelling.

In a literary journal, however, a story stands in isolation, at least in so far as none of the author’s other variations on the particular motif are present to inform the reader’s experience of the individual story in the journal.  For me, “Sometimes” reads as a stranger story within the context of IR than it does within the context of Bertino’s collection.  Although Bertino’s style could be described as unconventional (for lack of a better word), her stories establish their own conventions when read back-to-back in the collection, and this makes each individual story seem slightly less strange.  Within the context of IR, on the other hand, “Sometimes” doesn’t have the context of Bertino’s other stories to (again, wish I had a better word) normalize it.  I’m not saying that either reading experience is inherently better than the other, just that they’re different.

Of course, stories published in literary journals aren’t presented in complete isolation (unless you’re reading One Story).  In the pages of a journal like IR, stories are juxtaposed with other works of prose and poetry from other authors, and these juxtapositions can often influence the reader’s experience of the stories in ways their authors hadn’t intended.  This is where editors come in.  I asked our very own Jen Luebbers, editor extraordinaire, about some of the factors she weighs when making decisions about ordering the pieces in an issue of IR, placing certain pieces side-by-side, etc.  “We realize that most people don’t open up a literary journal and read it front-to-back,” she said,  “but we try to give some thought to ‘flow.’  I don’t know how to define ‘flow’ other than tone, theme, form, the way the piece looks on the page visually, etc.”

You can see the effect of this ‘flow’ with Bertino’s story in IR (Nina Mamikunian was our editor at the time).  “Sometimes” appears about two-thirds of the way through the journal and is immediately preceded by “How I Feel When it Stops,” a poem by Gail Martin in which the speaker chronicles her life during several days of steady rainfall.  Although Martin’s and Bertino’s respective pieces aren’t very similar in terms of their tones and subject matters, I was struck by one interesting commonality between the two.  Each speaker attempts to disrupt or complicate the narrative act in which she is engaged.  The third stanza of Martin’s poem begins with the line, “There is no narrative arc here,” while the second paragraph of Bertino’s story begins with the sentence, “I am bad at telling stories.”

I don’t necessarily want to offer a detailed interpretation of how these pieces work together in juxtaposition (read the issue and decide for yourselves!), but I will say that reading Martin’s poem before Bertino’s story put me in a different frame of mind than I was in when I reread the story as part of Bertino’s collection, and that frame of mind certainly influenced my reading.  As editors, we put great consideration into the influence context can have on the reader’s experience of the work we publish, and we do our best to place stories, poems and essays into contexts in which they inform, complicate, and, we hope, enrich one another.


One Response to “On Context: Literary Journals and Story Collections”

  1. Maggie