16 May Bakhtin’s Concept of Dialogism in Short Story Collections

This essay explores the ways in which we can apply Mikhail Bakhtin’s concepts of “novelness” and dialogism to the form of the short story collection, a genre not very prevalent in Bakhtin studies. Bakhtin’s somewhat open-ended understanding of the novel allows us to expand his conception of “dialogism” – which, according to him, is inherent in the concept of novelness – to other formal genres. Within the short story collection, we see both centrifugal and centripetal forces at work simultaneously. These forces are not only present within the stories themselves, but also and especially on the level of structure, as will become clear when we apply Genette’s concept of “paratexts” to collections. It will become clear that the short story collection as a formal genre, then, is particularly open to dialogism. This ultimately suggests a different way of reading collections, one which allows Bakhtin’s concept of dialogism to reach its full potential.

In his essays “Discourse in Dostoevsky” and “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse”, the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin develops his thoughts on the “essential differences between a monologic and a polyphonic use of discourse” (“Dostoevsky” 181-2). In other words, Bakhtin’s work is concerned with the fundamental ways in which the differences between a single-voiced and multi-voiced discourse shape writing. Bakhtin considers polyphonic discourse to be an essential characteristic of the genre of the novel. In the novel, the author not only uses poetic images, but also – and these are far more prevalent – novelistic images: “the image of another’s language” (“Prehistory” 44).

As Bakhtin shows in his analysis of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (1825-33), the novelistic text consist of such novelistic images, where different characters speak in their own voice-zones. The author, while present in the text, is but rarely directly represented by a language of his own. Instead, we find that “almost the entire novel breaks down into images of languages that are connected to one another and with the author via their own characteristic dialogical relationships” (47). Within one text we can therefore find multiple voices, each presenting a different language, which are representative of different ideas and beliefs. 

The novel, then, is characterised by what Bakhtin calls a centrifugal logic: a moving outwards. The author “is to be found at the centre of organisation where all levels intersect” (49); the voices of the characters are situated at various distances from that centre. Bakhtin’s perception of the organisation of the novel as centrifugal and not as centripetal is an important theoretical move: it suggests that there is destabilising and fragmenting force present in the novel. Instead of moving inwards towards a homogenising truth as represented by the “the ‘message’ of the Author-God” as Roland Barthes put it (1324), the novel allows for a multitude of voices to compete and interact. The result of this is a text that is engaged in dialogue on multiple levels, or the concept that Bakhtin calls “dialogism”.

Dialogism can manifest itself in a variety of ways within the novel, but Bakhtin explains that it is not achieved by simply putting a variety of characters from different (socio-)linguistic backgrounds together in one scene. Representation in itself is not enough: instead “what matters is the dialogic angle at which these styles and dialects are juxtaposed or counterposed in the work” (“Dostoevsky”, 182, emphasis in original). Thus identifying dialogism within a novel is research done on the level of “metalinguistics”. The study of the syntax and semantics of utterances is not enough as this renders invisible where exactly dialogue takes place: in the space between the two voices that collide. This collision can take place both outside of or within an utterance, but there has to be a “twofold direction – [discourse] is directed both toward the referential object of speech, as in ordinary discourse, and toward another’s discourse, toward someone else’s speech” (“Dostoevsky” 185, emphasis in original).

The reason that dialogism can exist even on the level of a single word is “heteroglossia”: the presence of varieties within a single language. Heteroglossia is always present, even if it is just as a background for monoglossia, and therefore inevitably creates a sense of dialogue within a text. However, not every text rejoices in the dialogue that is present within it, and attempts to minimise these spaces that allow for it. This forces Bakhtin to make a distinction between the heteroglot and the monoglot novel, as Clark and Holquist explain: “Like the monoglot novel, [the heteroglot novel] knows that the world and the language it speaks are profoundly heteroglot. But instead of seeking to conceal the fact in an apparently monoglot style, it revels in variety and conflict” (292). The heteroglot novel moves towards a plurality that finds it expression in dialogism, but the monoglot novel moves instead towards unity and authorial discourse.

While Bakhtin sees dialogism as a general characteristic of the novel, then, his distinction the monoglot and the heteroglot novel reveals that not every novel – in the general conception of the term – actually possesses this quality. “Novelness”, instead of being a characteristic of the formal or compositional genre of the novel, becomes what Clark and Holquist call “a special kind of force” (276). Indeed, Bakhtin’s choice to explain the concept of dialogism through the use of Eugene Onegin, a text written in verse rather than in prose, and his assertion that aspects of the novel can be found in texts as old as those from antiquity, emphasises the flexibility with which the term “novel” can be applied.

The space, then, that Bakhtin’s definition leaves both for interpretation and application makes them particularly interesting from the perspective of literary theory. It allows us to revisit concepts and formal genres with a new point of view. In this essay, I propose that the extension of Bakhtin’s concept of novelness to the formal genre of the short story collection allows us to identify possibilities for dialogism on the level of the structure of these short story collections. While Bakhtin’s theories have been used to interpret entire short story collections (Howells 2001) or to develop theories about the short story as a genre (Falconer 1998), it has, to the best of my knowledge, not been used to come to a closer understanding of the workings of the short story collection as a whole. In the remainder of this paper, I will first explore the structure of the short story collection, in order to demonstrate how this genre particularly facilitates possibilities for dialogism.

Although a short story collection (*)  consists of, as the term implies, a number of stories, the short story itself often starts out in isolation. The method for developing a collection might differ for every author, as Kasia Boddy describes in an interview with Ali Smith: “Some writers seem to think of their short story collections as quite contingent affairs, accumulations, while others plan a collection from the start, with stories connected by a definite theme” (67). However, even authors of the latter sort – Boddy singles out Joyce Carol Oates – often publish at least a selection of their stories in literary magazines before they are collected; Oates, for one, regularly publishes stories in The New Yorker. Other collections consist entirely of stories that have been published already. The separate publication of a short story before it is collected in a titled compilation reinforces the idea that it is nevertheless capable of standing on its own, even if the collection demonstrates overarching thematics or even recurring characters.

(*By the term “short story collection” I am specifically referring to collections by one author – i.e. no anthologies – that have been put together by the author and the publisher together – i.e. no posthumously published “selected stories” or “collected stories”. These would also be interesting starting points for a Bakhtinian analysis but to include these would exceed the scope of this essay since they function in different ways)

The short story, after all, is characterised by brevity. Originally, as Rachel Falconer points out, theorists linked this brevity to a sense of unity:

It was Poe’s prescription for the story of ‘a unity or totality of effect” that proved most influential among the genre theorists of the 1960s. . . . all interpreted the short story’s brevity as a sign of a generic interest in unity, whether a formal completeness or a thematic singularity encompassing a moment of vision – knowledge as revelation (complete, static) as opposed to knowledge acquired through time and experience. (703, emphasis in original)

The development of theory about the short story, accompanied by the development of the genre itself, rather seems to invite a reversal of that argument of unity, however. Michael Traxler identifies a completely reversed conception of epistemology in the short story: “Specifically rejecting the novels inclination to deliberate and expound on reality, short stories ‘challenge’ knowledge by manifesting a scepticism toward totalisation and synthesis” (558). Whereas earlier theorists saw the short story as something entirely contained in itself, including a unifying and centripetal climax that functioned to enclose the story, Traxler sees it as something open-ended. The form of the short story, for him, resists being closed-off and keeps in motion: it is more centrifugal in nature. These competing conceptions, one presumes, would be highly influential during the reading process of a collection of stories. Whichever one takes precedence determines the level of connection and interaction one experiences between stories.

The structure of the short story collection allows us to bring these two apparently antithetical arguments together, as it facilitates both these arguments. In his seminal work Paratexts (1987), Gérard Genette defines the paratext as

a zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: a privileged place of a pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public, and influence that – whether well or poorly understood and achieved  – is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it. (2)

In other words, these are structural elements. Simple textual features such as titles, genre classifications, or the name of the author are paramount in shaping our understanding of a text before and while we are reading it, and thus also in the level of connection we experience. It is on the level of paratexts that we can identify the interaction between the centripetal, the unifying, and the centrifugal and dialogical understanding of the short story.

Two key elements in creating structure are the title and the intertitles. The intertitle of a short story, after all, has a double function in the short story collection, in which it differs from the title of a chapter within a novel, which is where it is more typically applied. Whereas a chapter heading primarily functions to identify it as a part of the whole, the title of a short story sets it apart as an individual text. This is further emphasised by the fact that while one chapter may be followed by another on the same page, the two segments thus only separated by a limited amount of blank space, the short story is generally spatially segregated from the others in a collection by allowing it to start on a new page. The spatial organisation of the collection, then, aided by the use of paratexts, suggests that unity, and thus a certain level of centripedality, is still very much present on the level of structure because intertitles suggest a move inwards. If the stories are perceived to be contained in themselves, after all, the possibility of dialogism between them is severely limited.

There is, however, also the suggestion of an open-endedness and of interconnection through the use of other paratexts: the table of contents and, if present, the genre classification. Genette describes the table of contents as “no more than a device for reminding us of the titular apparatus” (317). In the short story collection, however, the table of contents also acquires a symbolic function. By listing all the short stories together under one heading, a sense of interconnection is achieved that allows to reader to link the stories together, enabling a dialogue between them. Juxtaposition here creates multitude out of unity.

Something similar is at work if a genre classification is used, either on the cover or on the title page. Paratexts “can make known an intention, or an interpretation by the author and/or publisher” (Genette 11). In the case of genre classification such intentions or interpretation are particularly guiding for the reading process: “no reader can justifiably be unaware of or disregard this attribution, even if he does not feel bound to agree with it” (94). The inclusion of “stories”, “short stories”, or “short story collection”, for example, all shape the reader’s initial perception of and expectations for the text. These genre classifications in themselves suggest a plurality, but because they are put on the cover or title page – which we usually see before we become aware of the actual content of a book – there is also a sense of unity governing over the level of plurality. In the short story collection, then, there are two forces – centripetal and centrifugal – competing for dominance, which creates a certain tension within the work. The short story collection can become either monoglot or heteroglot, depending which structural feature is given guiding precedence.

It is at this point, then, that we can return to Bakhtin’s concept of dialogism. The presence of an overarching structure that is suggested by the table of contents and the genre classification opens up the space in between the short stories and this allows them – perhaps even forces them – to engage in some kind of interaction. Robert M. Luscher argues that although there is interaction between the stories, this ultimately results in unity: “Although a sequential arrangement of short stories may indeed do violence to the compact world we expect to explore in each, such bumping and the ensuing binding cannot be avoided” (148, emphasis added). Luscher’s choice of words here is interesting: he suggests that the interaction between two stories is originally hostile in nature (bumping) but that this nevertheless results in an inevitable connection between the various stories – particularly between direct neighbours. Despite initial disagreement, Luscher sees a universal voice surfacing as the space between the stories blends into one continuous whole. For him, and readers like him, monoglotism is the ultimate result of juxtaposition; the centripetal force triumphs.

Now compare this with Bakhtin’s description of dialogism – here specifically referring to hidden polemic discourse, but the process is similar in other kinds of dialogism – where one voice can be seen to be “striking a bow at the other’s discourse, clashing with it” (“Dostoevsky” 196). The language is similar to Lusher’s. For Bakhtin, however, the clash is not to be sublated. When Bakhtin analyses the plurality in Dostoevsky’s work, he concludes: “A plurality of voices, after all, is not meant to be eliminated in his works but in fact is meant to triumph” (“Dostoevsky” 204). The clash, or “bumping”, between the different voices in the various short stories within a collection becomes then a goal within itself in a short story collection. Bakhtin’s concept of dialogism allows for a different approach to reading the short story collection. A dialogistic reading of a collection allows the centrifugal force to take charge, which in turn enables us to see how dialogism arises between stories. The search is not for the unifying touch of the author, but the differentiating voices of the characters themselves.

Dialogism, moreover, is not an arbitrary concept to apply to collections. After all, they offer the possibility to explore a wide range of voices over a number of works. A collection of stories allows for a much larger cast of characters, to cover a much broader range of backgrounds and narratives. The idea of a plurality of voices is inherent in the very idea of the short story collection – even if the author may not actually achieve dialogism. The dialogic short story collection presents us with a large number of voices interacting and competing, all arguing for subjective truths none of which actually dominates the collection as a whole. In other words, the short story collection enables, and perhaps more than any other formal genre, dialogism. Whether or not we allow it to surface, depends at least partially on how the formal structure of a collection influences our reading process: are we guided by a search for unity or diversity?

As such, the short story collection as a whole also has the potential to be a very subversive text, as it presents the reader with multiple voices on very different planes that are ultimately equal and can exist next to each other, physically, in space. As Clark and Holquist point out, the heteroglot novel is characterised by an openness towards the other: “Because the heteroglot novel is more open to difference, it could more easily absorb the increasing tide of self-consciousness. In other words, the heteroglot novel was able to accommodate more of the self because it is more sensitive to otherness” (293). Through the juxtaposition of the stories, the confrontation with the other is heightened as their different narratives clash, but do not negate each other. In this, the short story collection realises the potential Bakhtin saw for dialogism: a decentralising quality that goes against the status quo, that allows for counter-voices against the authorial discourse.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to analyse specific collections, but one would think of works such as Dubliners (1914) by James Joyce, Plain Pleasures (1966) by Jane Bowles, or No One Belongs Here More Than You (2005) by Miranda July as key texts for the study of the dialogist short story collection/novel. All the collections are characterised by an abundance of characters living on the fringes of society (for a variety of reasons) that represent conflicting ideologies. The analysis of how these stories interact with each other – rather than the way in which they fuel an overarching discussion about their author – could yield potentially interesting results.

I would suggest, then, that we need to rethink our conception of the genre of short story collection as one that can be characterised by dialogism. Our reading process should not necessarily be guided by a search for unity, but rather by the desire to explore how the various voices we are presented with clash and confront each other. If, as Bakhtin argues, “the novel demands a broadening and deepening of the language horizon, a sharpening in our perception of socio-linguistic differentations” (“Discourse” 366), we should allow the collections that broadened horizon as well. Only then will we finally give it the space to reach its full potential.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Discourse in Dostoevsky”. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. 181-205. Print.

—. “Discourse in the Novel”. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. 259-423. Print.

—. “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse”. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. 41-84. Print.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 1322-6. Print.

Bertino, Marie-Helene. Safe as Houses. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012. Print.

Clark, Katharina, and Michael Holquist. Mikhail Bakhtin. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1986. Print.

Falconer, Rachel. “Bakhtin’s Chronotope and the Contemporary Short Story”. The South Atlantic Quarterly 97.3-4 (1998): 699-732. Web. 26 Sep. 2015.

Genette, Gérard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.

Howells, Carol Ann. “In The Subjunctive Mood: Carol Shield’s Dressing Up For the Carnival”. The Yearbook of English Studies 31.1 (2001): 144-54. Web. 26 Sep. 2015.

Luscher, Robert M. “The Short Story Sequence: An Open Book”. Short Story Theory as a Crossroads. Ed. Susan Lohafer, and Jo Ellyn Clarey. Baton Rouge, London: Louisiana State UP, 1989. Print.

Smith, Ali. Interview with Kasia Boddy. “All there is: an interview about the short story”. Critical Quarterly 52.2 (2010): 66-82. Web. 26 Sep. 2015.

Traxler, Michael. “Suspended Narratives: the Short Story and Temporality”. Studies in Short Fiction 33.4 (1996): 557-77. Web. 26 Sep. 2015.

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