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The Collection as Form

This seminar by Kathryn Rhett, instructor at Queens University of Charlotte, explored the works of three different authors and genres. In poetry, we read The Well Speaks of its Own Poison by Maggie Smith; in fiction, Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, and in nonfiction, The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders. Of the three, I felt that Maggie Smith’s poetry collection benefitted most from the collection as a form, and the Saunders collection was most hindered.

Starting with Smith: I found that few of her poems stood out to me on their own—though I admit I am not primarily a poet—but once arranged next to other poems of similar subjects and tone, the entire collection was strengthened. Some poems were even given new meaning. Freedom Colony, for instance, was lent an eerie, fairy-tale-like quality that would not have otherwise existed had it not followed The List of Dangers or been followed by Apologue (2). The arrangement of the eight Apologues created a symmetry within the collection, the spine that held it together. This symmetry gave the collection a level of predictableness, necessary since one of its main themes was uncertainty. In fiction, I have been told that in order to make an unbelievable world or situation believable, the writer must ground their readers in the everyday—whatever is ordinary for that story. I can imagine that in poetry it would be more difficult to ground a reader when your poems explore the fantastical. Form and structure of the collection help to ground Maggie Smith’s poetry.

The Collection As FormSaunders’s collection, on the other hand, diminished the caliber of each of his essays. While several were strong stand-alone pieces, I felt there were too many self-indulgent tongue-in-cheek pieces included that affected my opinion of the rest of the collection. These pieces are primarily the handful in the center of the book, starting with A Brief Study of the British through Woof: A Plea of Sorts (pp 85-123). As we discussed during the seminar, it is best to locate your weakest pieces toward the middle of the book, although I would argue this collection would have been better without them entirely. The aforementioned essays in particular would have probably been more entertaining when read individually, but I found them too similar in tone to be effective one after the other.

Saunders placed his titular essay first in the collection, which served to create an over-arching theme, like a promise to be fulfilled. Unfortunately, I felt that the essay The Braindead Megaphone created expectations that went unfulfilled, and while some of those expectations undoubtedly came from my own bias and past experience, had I not read The Braindead Megaphone before Buddha Boy, for example, I would have been more likely to have approached Buddha Boy without preconceived ideas and expectations, thus enjoying it more.

While Saunders placed his titular essay first, Adam Johnson chose to place his last. I can see how this choice would work better with fiction than with nonfiction. In Saunders’s non-fiction, his first essay established a thesis that would be echoed throughout the collection. In Johnson’s fiction, his titular story reiterated a sentiment echoed in many of his other pieces. Fortune Smiles was not only his strongest story, but also one of his longest ones. Throughout the book, Johnson’s stories rotated between a shorter story then a longer one, creating a manageable pace for his readers. In a collection of dark stories with interesting names, Fortune Smiles seemed to be the most accessible—or the least sad, perhaps.

There is also the business of naming a collection—how does an author decide which story/essay/poem to name the collection after? It is an obvious choice with Saunders, but with Smith and Johnson both, the pieces they chose had to reflect the entire collection; they had to be unique titles and not too complicated; they had to be memorable. Imagine if Johnson’s book had been called Nirvana or Interesting Facts instead. The reader’s expectations would likely have changed drastically, not to mention the cover, the marketing, probably the order of the stories as well. It is interesting to consider how the structure and title of a collection can potentially make or break its success.

Next: The Treatment of Time in Narrative