A main character’s name often gives you the first clue to what a novel is “about,” especially when it’s also the title of the book. A good example turns up in Olive Kitteridge, the collection of linked short stories that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. A just-picked olive is as bitter — and the color olive is as drab — as the title character of the book appears at first to be. The salt added during curing removes the bitterness just as love, the salt in this book, removes some of Olive’s. In Ireland a kitter is a left-handed person. And Olive is at least metaphorically left-handed: She’s out of sync with others in her coastal town in Maine. A surname database says of Kitter: “This is an Olde English or Anglo-Saxon pre 10th Century name which derives from the word ‘Cyta’ and is a nickname of the medieval period generally given to one of fairly violent attitudes.” Olive’s views of life are “fairly violent,” especially in the first story, when they are so angry they verge on caricature.
May 29, 2009
May 4, 2009
Did the judges for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction assume that we all have attention deficit disorder? I’ve noted in recent reviews that the winner, Olive Kitteridge, and a finalist, All Souls, both consist of collections of disjointed stories. Other critics have made clear that the second finalist, Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves, has the same quality.
Jennifer Reese gave Erdrich’s book a B- in Entertainment Weekly and said “it reads more like a collection of random episodes than a coherent novel,” similar to a point I made earlier today about All Souls.
Ron Charles of the Washington Post found more to admire in The Plague of Doves. But he wrote of Erdrich:
“She’s challenged us before with complex, interconnected stories about the Ojibwe people of North Dakota, but here she goes for broke, whirling out a vast, fractured narrative, teeming with characters — ancestors, cousins, friends and enemies, all separated and rejoined again and again in uncanny ways over the years. Worried about losing track, I started drawing a genealogical chart after a few chapters, but it was futile: a tangle of names and squiggling lines.”
We’ve all seen plenty of awards lists that consist only of novels with traditional linear narratives, and it’s not surprising given that linear narratives are the dominant form in fiction. But collections of disjointed, if linked, stories are far less common, and this year’s Pulitzer skew is one of the oddest I’ve seen. It’s as though all the nominees for the Oscar for best picture were noir films.
April 27, 2009
April 26, 2009
Why have so many critics bought into the hype that the Pulitzer Prize–winning Olive Kitteridge is “a novel in stories”? The publisher’s claim serves a clear marketing interest: Novels sell better than short stories. (“A novel in stories” doesn’t appear on the title page of Olive Kitteridge, which might have been a sign that the phrase came from the author instead of the publisher.) And the hype is – to put it charitably – misleading. Olive Kitteridge is a collection of linked short stories, known as a cycle of stories or short story cycle — a group of tales that, though entwined, can stand alone.
“Although the book is being marketed as ‘a novel in stories,’ it is not a novel” but “a unified cycle” of “tales focusing on characters inhabiting a single town.”
The Pulitzer Prize judges also correctly described Olive Kitteridge in giving it the 2009 fiction award, calling it “a collection of 13 short stories set in small-town Maine.”
Does harm really occur when critics regurgitate hype such as that Olive Kitteridge is a “novel in stories”? Part of the answer lies in the recent spate of fraudulent books billed as “memoirs,” which has shown how many people can be duped when critics and others don’t question publishers’ claims. And in the case of Olive Kitteridge, a more subtle harm may result.
American fiction has a stellar tradition of short story cycles that includes books different as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York. Comparing Olive Kitteridge to one or two of these might enrich anyone’s understanding of it. By calling Strout’s book a novel, the publisher has made it less likely that people will do this. It has also raised the odds that readers will expect something closer to a traditional novel and come away disappointed.
A review of Olive Kitteridge will appear next week on this site. The weekly children’s-book review appeared in the post that preceded this one.
April 24, 2009
A line in a review of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, in the “Briefly Noted” section of the May 5, 2008, New Yorker:
“Strout makes us experience not only the terrors of change but also the terrifying hope that change can bring: she plunges us into these churning waters and we come up gasping for air.”
The last part of this sentence is meant as praise, but why is it good that a book leaves you “gasping for air”? Doesn’t it make reading this novel sound a little like having an asthma attack?
One-Minute Book Reviews will have a review of Olive Kitteridge next week. In the meantime I’ve posted a few comments on the book at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.
April 20, 2009
These books have won the five 2009 Pulitzer Prizes for books:
Fiction: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
History: The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed
Biography or Autobiography: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham
Poetry: The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin
General Nonfiction: Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon
For more information and a list of the finalists, visit the 2009 awards page for the Pulitzer Foundation.