Recently, I came across a blogger discussing what she described as “community novels”. The blogger is Liz Dexter at Adventures in reading, running and working from home, and the book she was discussing was an English novel, Small miracles by Anne Booth. It got me thinking, because I love community.
Community, however, is a word with multiple meanings and applications, but Liz’s concept of “community novel” is one which has “a range of other characters, each with their own story that intertwines with the whole”. These characters, if I understand Liz’s blog correctly, can belong to communities that can range from those as “compressed” as a nunnery to those more open like a seaside town. The point is that the characters are all connected by their community, and the novel incorporates the stories of several members of that community.
Of course, I searched the internet for community novels, and found our own Annette Marfording (who has appeared on my blog). Back in 2016 she discussed the topic on her blog in a post titled 10 Great Novels on Community. Annette writes:
Using a community in fiction has several advantages: a community almost invariably provides a hotbed of conflict between its members, and it is conflict that drives a story. Communities also provide the opportunity for the author to begin the story with a new person joining the community, which can serve as the springboard or inciting incident for the story. Furthermore, community allows authors to display their skill at conveying a strong sense of the place where the writing is set.
So, a significant feature for her are the dramatic opportunities offered by having a new person join a community. To this I would add the opportunities offered by someone returning to a community, which seems a common trope these days. Anyhow, Marfording goes on to list ten “great” Australian community-based novels – at the time of writing – noting that they tend to be set in “small rural or coastal towns, but it would, of course, also be possible, albeit more difficult, to build such communities in a city suburb”. (Check her post for her thoughtful list.)
Both Liz and Annette point to the factors that make “community novels” interesting. The small community, for one, which means readers can quickly come to know and feel engaged with it. The opportunity for conflict and difference – and hopefully resolution at the end – is another. In my internet search I found reference to a book published in 2014 by J. Hillis Miller. Titled Communities in fiction, its subject is described on Amazon as
the question of how communities or noncommunities are represented in fictional works. Such fictional communities help the reader understand real communities, including those in which the reader lives. As against the presumption that the trajectory in literature from Victorian to modern to postmodern is the story of a gradual loss of belief in the possibility of community, this book demonstrates that communities have always been presented in fiction as precarious and fractured.
I’ll leave the trajectory issue to the academics, but I’d be interested in your perspective on whether communities in fiction are always presented as “precarious and fractured”. For me, it depends on the definition of “precarious and fractured”. If “precarious” means “likely to fall or collapse” (Oxford Languages), I’d argue that many fictional communities might be fractured, that is, “damaged” or “broken”, but are not necessarily going to succumb. Take a recent American case, for example, Where the crawdads sing (my review). That community was never going to fall or disappear, but it sure was fractured.
I also found another interesting article* on JSTOR, from 1988, which I scanned. It’s about a genre the writer, Sandra Zagarell, calls “narrative of community”, which she describes as “committed to rendering the local life of a community to readers who lived in a world the authors thought fragmented, rationalised, individualised”. Zagarell and others argue that these novels see community as important to survival in an increasingly individualistic – or, some say – capitalistic world. Zagarell comments at the end of her article on the progress of this genre into modern times, writing that
Embracing increasingly heterogeneous visions of the collective life, narrative of community is expanding the story of human connection and continuity.
Notably, she sees this happening particularly in the writing of African-American authors like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Interesting. We can surely see some of this in First Nations Australian literature. In Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (my review) Kerrie returns to her community because her grandfather is dying but she decides to stay to fight for Granny Ava’s island. This is, in fact, a precarious community. It’s respected leader, Uncle Richard, says near the end that
We had to grow hard just to survive … But the hardness that saved us, it’s gonna kill us if it goes on much longer.
This is a community learning how to live in modern rural Australia. It’s a similar story in Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile (my review) which is also about a community being torn apart, and about the resilience of a culture that is, philosophically, community-based.
Besides these and other First Nations novels, I’ve read other several community-set novels in recent years, such as Malcom Knox’s coastal Bluebird (my review) and Karen Viggers’ rural The orchardist’s daughter (my review). Both are set in vividly delineated communities and explore the tensions, prejudices, greed and/or corruption that can tear communities apart, while paradoxically also conveying the potential in community for the opposite.
I opened this post by saying I love community, which means I also love novels set in communities, so my question of course is …
Do you like “community novels” and if so, what do you like about them and would you like to share some favourites?
* Sandra A. Zagarell, “Narrative of Community: The Identification of a Genre” in Signs, 13 (3) Spring, 1988: 498-527