Books / World's shortest novel

What is a chapter?

There’s clearly a difference between a short story and a chapter of a novel. But what, exactly, is it?

Novels are built from smaller pieces: words that come together to form sentences, sentences that are joined into paragraphs, and paragraphs that pile up until they become chapters.

We all know what words, sentences and paragraphs are. But what are chapters?

Are chapters really nothing more than short stories?

Novel structure_shortest novel ever written

Writing experts will tell you—and so will this series of mine—that novels and short stories are not the same thing. But is a chapter from a novel identical, from a structural standpoint, to a short story? If so, does that mean short story collections are really novels?

In order to answer that question, let me share a paradox that has been troubling me for quite some time. Over the course of my career, I’ve written and published three novels (number four is coming out very soon). I’ve also written countless short stories; several have been published, a few have won short story contests. Two of these contest-winners weren’t really short stories. They were chapters from novels.

You can read the most recent of these right here. If I hadn’t told you that it’s actually a chapter from an unpublished novel, would you have known? The contest judges, all experienced novelists and short story writers themselves, certainly couldn’t tell.

One win might be a fluke, but to have it happen twice? This wasn’t the same chapter both times, mind you. They were two very different texts, from diametrically opposed genres, written in completely dissimilar styles. If chapters and short stories aren’t structurally identical, I shouldn’t have been able to pull it off once, and I certainly shouldn’t have been able to do it twice.

Maybe chapters really are short stories, and short story collections are novels.

This was the hypothesis I had in mind when I considered the latest candidate for shortest novel ever written, Too Loud a Solitude by 20th-century Czech author Bohumil Hrabal.

too-loud-a-solitude_bohumil-hrabal

Though I was captivated by Hrabal’s realistic, lucid writing style, I initially felt that each chapter in this 98-page book was actually a short story, loosely connected by their shared protagonist, Haňtá, a hydraulic press operator who has spent 35 years compacting trash into bundles in a dismal subterranean workshop, the only bright spot in his life being his hobby of pilfering discarded books from the detritus to add to the literary hoard that fills his house.

Unlike many contenders for the title of world’s shortest novel, this little book of eight chapters never struck me as a short story in disguise. It struck me as a collection of short stories. I thought Too Loud a Solitude represented the inverse of my contest-winning texts—not chapters that fooled people into thinking they were short stories, but short stories that fooled people into thinking they were chapters. Exactly what I suspected years ago when I first read Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.

The Joy Luck Club is a novel. Says so right on the cover:

The Joy Luck Club

It was marketed as a novel, and it was read as a novel by bookworms back in 1989 when it was first published.

But is it really a novel?

No. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, then-novice-writer Tan “thought she was writing a short-story collection.” In point of fact, it’s got more in common with the classic Middle Eastern folk story anthology The Thousand and One Nights than, say, The Hobbit or IT. It’s what’s known as a short story cycle: a collection of short stories that includes a narrative framing device or distinct connections between the stories. Think about the plot(s) of the movie Pulp Fiction and you’ve got the idea.

These short stories, though connected to one another like the chapters in a novel, are decidedly not chapters. The difference, as Susan Garland Mann notes in The Short Story Cycle: A Genre Companion and Reference Guide, is that “although novels do frequently contain abrupt transitions between chapters—moving suddenly to a different point of view, time, or location—seldom if ever are the transitions between chapters in novels as demanding as those between stories in cycles.” Unlike chapters, the short stories in such collections are “self-contained and completed” and function as independent narratives that stand apart from each other.

So, if chapter’s aren’t short stories, what are they?

Chapters are older than you might think. They’ve been around for two thousand years, invented long before novels existed, and even before the bound, paper-based objects we now think of as “books.” Chapters were introduced as a way of dividing lengthy nonfiction works and religious texts. When novels were developed, chapters were included. “What the chapter did for the novel was to aerate it: by encouraging us to pause, stop, and put the book down,” writes Nicholas Dames of Columbia University. “The chapter openly permitted a reading oriented around pauses.”

But chapters do more than give the reader permission to take a break. They also have a crucial function in the narrative structure of novels.

The word “chapter” comes to English (as well as many other languages) from the Latin word “capitulum,” meaning “little head” or “capital of a column,” according to The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories.

These are capitals of columns:

Column capitals

Their correspondence to chapters in a book is pretty elegant. Just as capitals of columns work together to support a roof, like this…

Columns with roof

…chapters work together to support the narrative of a novel, like this:

Narrative structure

Chapters, like columns, are not independent actors. They are individual parts of the larger support system for an overarching structure. Standing alone, they might seem interesting, but they can’t support the narrative structure of a novel.

Collapsed narrative

And, if you remove one of the columns/chapters, the narrative will be incomplete, or even collapse altogether.

Missing narrative structure

In other words, you can’t extract a chapter from a novel. Without the chapter, the novel won’t make sense. Likewise, the chapter presented on its own, without the novel, won’t make sense either.

But if that’s true, how the heck did two of my chapters win short story contests?

I think the answer lies in the way I wrote those two particular chapters. It was exactly the way Hrabal wrote the chapters of Too Loud a Solitude.

At times—not all the time, but definitely more often than most novelists—I write chapters that function as (almost) fully self-contained narratives. As we saw above with our columns, no chapter can be truly self-contained in the way a short story is. But some of mine come pretty close. This isn’t necessarily something to brag about: a particular hallmark of a great novel is that it’s a “page turner.” One of the fundamental ways to write a page-turner is to keep the reader in suspense at the end of each chapter. You do this by leaving plenty of loose ends and unanswered questions, making the narrative feel naggingly incomplete.

As David Lynch observed, “As soon as a show has a sense of closure, it gives you an excuse to forget you’ve seen the damn thing.” Substitute “chapter” for “show,” and “read” for “seen,” and you can see why a neat conclusion to each chapter can be a flaw. YouTuber Twin Perfect elaborated on this theme: “We think we want an explanation. But explanations don’t hold our attention. Mystery does.” Each chapter of a page-turner eschews complete explanation and functions, psychologically, as an unresolved mystery for the reader.

Though a couple of the early chapters in Too Loud a Solitude can stand on their own as individual narratives, the rest cannot, meaning they aren’t short stories. And the overarching structure of the book would collapse completely if any of them were removed, meaning the book is not a short story collection.

Final verdict: Too Loud a Solitude is not a short story, and it’s certainly not a short story collection. It’s a novel.

Bonus verdict: The Joy Luck Club isn’t a novel. It’s a short story collection.

Maybe the historic and cultural context within which an author works has something to do with whether the narrative they produce is a novel, a short story, or something else entirely. We’ll consider that with our next book, Piiririik (Border State) by Estonian author Tõnu Õnnepalu.

Be sure to check out my extremely short novel (or extremely long short story?) The Drowned Town. Right now, it’s free to download and read. What do you think? Is it really a novella, a short story, or something else?

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