“A Canon”

I’ve been considering the prose form we call the novel.

Whenever I go into the bookstore or the library and cruise the section for general mainstream fiction, I see so many books with covers that bear the title in big letters, the author’s name in letters of either equal size or slightly smaller (depending on how much of a bestseller they are)…and tucked somewhere between the two are the words “A Novel”. This never ceases to puzzle me. The novel has been around for centuries in both the West and the East. It is the most popular form of fiction in the world today. So why would anyone so prominently label a book with a designation that not only doesn’t live up to itself (the word comes from the Latin/Italian for “new”) but also doesn’t let it stand out from its fellows? I consider it a symptom of what is wrong with so many mainstream writers today: the snobbish need to be on the cutting edge and therefore “literary”. (Genre writers, such as in science fiction and fantasy, have the curiously opposite problem: the unsnobbish love for action and plot above character and thus fall into paint-by-numbers storytelling that stays as far away from the cutting edge as possible in order to not fall off it. But I digress.)

We have split prose fiction into some very simple categories. There are short stories and there are novels. There are supposed to be things called novellas, which are too short to be one and too long to be the other and which publishers tend to balk at because of this liminal position. I’ve read a few, and they seem to be such a perfect length for the stories they tell that I wonder why they’ve been consigned to the wastelands.

The definition of a novel is both simple and yet quite debatable. A novel is a lengthy, fictional, prose narrative. It is by no means a form to be mocked or questioned; most of my favourite books are novels. The definition of a short story is equally simple, differing from the novel only in terms of its length (or lack thereof). It too is not a form to be mocked or questioned; many of my favourite writers are masters of the short story. The complications arise in the question of length, with no standardized word count for either, and this has lead to some confusion with regards to the aforementioned novella. So what is a novel? Long. What’s a short story? Short.

But the difference between long and short also leads to other differences. Short stories, because of their shortness, are often highly focused on a single character and a single conflict which means a single plot.  Novels, because of their length, have room for a wide range of characters and situations beyond the main narrative which means they often have subplots. Both have advantages and are quite appealing.

I’ve been wondering for awhile, though, if it isn’t possible to somehow combine the advantages of both. To introduce a new prose form that offers a wide range of focused narratives. If that isn’t a paradox, I don’t know what is. It isn’t actually a new idea, and I claim no credit for it. Ray Bradbury published The Martian Chronicles and called it a “second cousin to the novel” in the way that it collected thematically related short stories that together formed a narrative history of the planet Mars. James Michener wrote The Source which really is more or less a collection of longer short stories (novellas?) supported by a frame narrative. And of course Chaucer and Boccaccio both experimented with frame narratives for short stories before the novel truly arose. There are other examples. But this form has yet to truly be named, so I thought I would give it one.

Initially I had thought of “story cycle”, but now that just makes me think of some sort of  literary Tour de France. “Tale-book” is better, but still a little unappealing and doesn’t really differentiate it from a short story collection. Instead I propose the word “canon”. It isn’t a perfect term, but the form itself is far from perfectly defined. When I first thought of the word, I went and looked it up. It has several uses, but the ones I find most relevant and applicable are these:

1) A collection of texts considered authoritative. Most often used in reference to the Bible and other religious texts, or in the realm of genre franchises that are comprised of multiple stories in multiple forms.

2) In music, it’s a form where a single melody is accompanied by variations or imitations of itself in counterpoint. Pachelbel’s Canon in D is probably the most famous example.

So I envision this form of literature as a collection of separate stories strongly unified by either setting, protagonists, or framework narrative, and possibly all three. I also feel that such a work should still be read from beginning to end for at least the first time. Then, if the reader so desires, they can dip back into the book at any point; if they have a favourite story from the canon they can read only that story at a time. But nevertheless the intentionality behind the collection in a particular order remains. I tend to think of it as a television series in prose. Take a show like Battlestar Galactica and write each episode as a short story. Collect the short stories into a book (or one book for each season), and you more or less have the basics of the concept.

I think, when all is said and done, I will certainly have written my share of novels. But none of them will call themselves that on the cover. I steadfastly refuse.

But it might be nice to have one or two volumes that were labelled: “A Canon”.

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