Friday, April 17, 2015

About chapters

Without chapter breaks, when do you turn off the lamp and go to sleep? When do you reward yourself with a cookie or a hot chocolate? When do feel that you've got somewhere?
Thomas C. Foster, How to Read Novels Like a Professor

Most readers prefer books with chapters, and most books have them, especially nonfiction books. Not all novels do, however, and I always find these books a trifle irritating. Without chapters, as Thomas Foster suggests, there are no logical places to take a break. And everyone needs to take a break now and then, especially if a novel has 400 pages or so.

Not only do I like chapters, but I like relatively short chapters. Ten pages may be just about the ideal chapter length, but I have no complaint wth even shorter chapters. I am in the middle of Stewart O'nan's Emily, Alone, which has some chapters just one or two pages  long. I love it. I take lots of breaks.

Furthermore, I like chapters to be numbered, something O'nan doesn't do. I like knowing where I am in relation to the number of chapters in the book. Some authors have a knack for writing chapters that are all about the same length, which also helps you track your progress.

Chapter titles are expected in nonfiction books, but they seem to be optional in novels, and most novelists today avoid them. I value those novels that have them. I don't know of any author who has better titles for his books than Alexander McCall Smith. You can't get much better than Morality for Beautiful Girls and The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday. Smith's chapter tites are just as good. In The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, he has chapters titled "On a Hot Day We Dream of Tea" and "Food Cooked with Love Tastes Better."

Another novel I read recently, Rachel Joyce's The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, also has some fine chapter titles, like "The naming of shoes," "What shall we sing of when we die?" And "The nun and the peach."

Each chapter in a novel is, or should be, a story in itself. It should have a beginning that helps the reader quickly get into the business of that chapter and an ending that makes the reader want to keep going into the next chapter. If finishing a book gives a reader a big feeling of satisfaction, finishing a chapter should give a reader at least a small feeling of satisfaction.

These are just my own preferences, of course. Foster also says in his book, "A chapter, as a section that makes sense for its particular novel, follows no rules but its own."  That is, "the chapter must work for the novel that houses it." And further, "chapters help teach us how to read the novel."

Two novels, one I recently read and another I am currently reading, seem to have chapters perfectly suited to the novels. Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry uses the titles of famous short stories as chapter titles, and the chapters somehow mirror the stories. Paul Malmont's The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown, a title that itself includes the titles of three science fiction pulp magazines, has chapters that reflect the spirit of pulps and movie serials of the 1940s, the time in which the story is set. We find, for example, "Issue 1 The Free Will of Atoms" and then "Episode 1."

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