Excerpt from the introduction:
In 1988, Sarah A Zagarell published her article, “Narrative of Community: The Identification of a Genre”, to articulate the conventions of stories about communities. In response to the over-reliance of individualism in Western literature, Zagarell draws on historical and contemporary works that focus on the community to develop a genre dedicated to process rather than progress (503).
While novels depict a character responding to conflicts and experiencing a narrative arc over the course of a book, narratives of community show how a group of people live their lives informed by cultural histories, norms, and necessities. While these stories are not plotless, their goal is oriented to emphasize the dignity and legitimacy of a group’s identity rather than overcoming obstacles or making significant changes to their identity. Readers have come to expect stories to be about the improvement or devolvement of an individual with an endpoint in mind; when stories failed to meet that expectation, readers assumed the story was incomplete or inferior (504-5). This cultivated market expectation has steered writers away from storytelling Zagarell describes as “collective, continuous, and undramatic,” despite those being the exact hallmarks of everyday life (505). By placing communities at the heart of stories, she believes storytelling can rehumanize itself by connecting characters and readers to communities.
Zagarell advocates for including many perspectives that embrace the diversity of even the smallest area; if including only one voice, authors may fail to capture the nuance and complexity of a place. Narratives of community are different because they allow many voices to be heard on equal footing, affording those stories an honesty that may not exist outside of literature. Not only do narratives of community put speakers on an equal playing field, they also have the propensity to connect reader, writer, and character. She writes, “narratives of community represent the contrast between community life and modern work directly through participant/observer narrators, and those narrators typically seek to diminish the distance in the process of giving voice to it.” (503) Zagarell believes that advocacy is built into community storytelling; the characters cannot help but reach out and impact the reader as they validate the small choices that make up everyday life …
Individual short stories have plots, but collections may not possess an overarching narrative to the confusion of some readers expecting a cohesive, singular story. In order to understand story structures which do not adhere to tradition, I will turn to Jane Alison’s 2019 book, Meander, Spiral, Explode. A dynamic exploration of underused narrative forms, Alison’s book draws examples from dozens of books to demonstrate how stories can, as the name suggests, meander, spiral, explode, and more. Alison argues that linear narratives have become unnecessarily universal and have come to dominate the way people think of stories. The set beginning, middle, and end with events falling in neat chronology might be appropriate for some stories but definitely not for others. Rather than moving in a straight line, time tends to bend over itself, weaving and tangling and repeating. As people take actions, consequences follow and complicate the past, present, and future. To assume that part of a life ever truly concludes is foolish; even if that time is over, its impact endures.
from: Schmidt, L. V. (2022). Depictions of communities in short story cycles (Unpublished thesis). Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas.
Note: This thesis did not include an abstract so as usual I have opted to present an excerpt from the first chapter. I find the ideas here about the connections between short story cycles and community very interesting and relevant.