Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge

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In the wake of Elizabeth Strout's recent, long-shot win of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Olive Kitteridge, I'd like to say a few words in praise of the episodic novel.

Because the field this year was dominated with offerings by such heavyweights as the late John Updike, Philip Roth and former Pulitzer winner Marilynne Robinson, Strout's little book wasn't considered a front-runner.

The book's form also was thought to be a potential handicap. Olive consists of 13 exquisitely observed short stories set in a small Maine town. Each story is complete in itself and can be read out of order, but they are linked by a main character -- in this case, by the acerbic, retired schoolteacher who gives the book its title.


Though it's not unheard of for the Pulitzer to go to the author of a short story collection (past winners include Jhumpa Lahiri in 2000, John Cheever in 1979 and Jean Stafford in 2000) the nation's top literary prize is handed out far more frequently to novels. 

Yet, in its official citation, the Pulitzer board wrote that Strout's stories "pack a cumulative emotional wallop" and described Olive herself as "blunt, flawed, and fascinating."


They're right, and in my opinion, the episodic novel is an underrated literary form. Partly, my preference is pragmatic. I can read a 20- or 30-page short story before going to bed at night, and feel as though I've embarked upon, and completed, an entire journey. I don't have to worry about losing continuity if I don't pick the book back up for a day or two.

But, it's more than that. In the reader's guide at the back of the paperback edition, Strout says

she chose an episodic form for this book instead of a through-composed story because Olive "is a force to contend with" and she thought "readers might need a little break from her at times."

Strout also says that this structure allowed her to recount small-town life from multiple points of view.

That got me thinking of other episodic novels with strong-willed or eccentric characters (Don Quixote and Tom Jones) and those that use this type of storytelling with multiple viewpoints to tell a larger story about a community (Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and Harriet Doerr's masterful Stones for Ibarra.)

These books, even the comic masterpieces, tend to sneak up on you. It's like you're standing above an underground river that all of a sudden emerges, foaming and splashing, from its hidden cave. In a novel, readers know that a development in the first chapter will surely have ramifications later in the story. In an episodic story, cause and effect tends to be more carefully concealed.

What are some of your favorite episodic books?