Examining the Art of the Short Story in “Arranging Stories”

As with an album or mixtape, the sequence of a short story collection defines the relationship between each piece and its neighbors. The sequence allows for the building and releasing of tension. The sequence itself is a narrative.  Writers of short stories, essays and poems typically give a great deal of thought to how they shape (or order or arrange or sequence) their work in a collection so that it says something. They might begin or end with the strongest stories; alternate longer stories with shorter ones; repeat characters, words, or images in adjacent stories; or order stories according to some predetermined structure or logic. 

In Arranging Stories: Framing Social Commentary in Short Story Collections by Southern Women Writers, Heather A. Fox puts it this way: there is “story-level narrative,” which is narrative at the level of each individual piece, and there is “collectively arranged narrative,” which is narrative at the level of the whole work.

Fox is assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond and has published work in south, Southern Studies, Janus Head, The Explicator and the Faulkner Journal. Arranging Stories is her newest work. It’s a concise academic volume that examines four Southern white women writers and four short story collections across seven decades: 

  1. Kate Chopin’s Bayou Folk (1894)
  2. Ellen Glasgow’s The Shadowy Third and Other Stories (1923)
  3. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ When the Whippoorwill (1940) 
  4. Katherine Anne Porter’s The Old Order stories (1944, 1955 and 1965)

The book comprises an introduction, four chapters and an epilogue, as well as notes, a bibliography and an index.

In many ways this is a “craft” book, but not in the way one might think. It doesn’t teach the reader how to craft a collection but instead describes the craft of Chopin, Glasgow, Rawlings and Porter as each tried to maintain authorial control over her work in the face of a white male patriarchal publishing culture. All four women were very much curators of their own work products and their legacies as writers. 

Fox reviewed each author’s correspondence, the manuscripts, the original periodicals in which the stories were published and the first edition of the author’s collection. In each chapter, Fox details a single author’s oeuvre and thematic concerns, summarizes the stories, describes how the author went about publishing her work in the periodical press and analyzes the author’s efforts to assemble and publish her collection. 

The focus is on how Chopin, Glasgow, Rawlings and Porter ordered their stories to say something about historical events, society or politics. For example, in The Shadowy Third, Glasgow revised and ordered her stories to upend readers’ romanticized notions of the American South, to expose injustices perpetrated against women and to show that these injustices were not confined to the South but were instead universal. Glasgow made some tense changes and altered images in the periodical versions of her stories before they were published in the collection, and she intentionally alternated between stories set in the North and those set in the South.

In no way is this an exhaustive study. Fox had to be selective based on archived material. The book doesn’t include Southern Black women writers, for instance. Black women writers experienced even greater difficulties and discrimination during this time span. Fox acknowledges that the authors she showcased in this book were largely complicit in racist ideologies.

It’s also important to note that this is a scholarly work and will not necessarily be to the taste of a lay reader. I believe this book is best read in tandem with the short story collections Fox discusses, and likely in a classroom setting of students interested in regional literature and/or feminist narratology. But an awareness of the craftsmanship behind short story collections, and of levels of narrative, will no doubt make me a better reader and writer in the future.

Arranging Stories: Framing Social Commentary
in Short Story Collections by Southern Women Writers

By Heather A. Fox
University Press of Mississippi
Published July 12, 2022