Why do we tell stories, and how are they crafted? In this series, we unpick the work of the writer on both page and screen.
We live hyperlinked lives, expected to be switched on and logged in 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Time is a dwindling resource, multitasking is our default setting. We’re constantly reading: online articles, emails, social media posts. But for many of us, this dip-in, dip-out reading feels dissatisfying. We crave deeper engagement.
Enter the short story cycle — a hybrid of a novel and a short story collection. In her collection, Barking Dogs, Rebekah Clarkson offers a superbly constructed creative feat into the form, giving us a strong insight into how short story cycles operate and what they can offer to readers and writers.
However, until recently, short story cycles have received less attention and have been harder to get published than novels. This appears to be changing. Twenty-first century American authors Elizabeth Strout and Jennifer Eagan have had significant success with the form.
Barking Dogs was penned by Clarkson as part of her PhD in creative writing through the University of Adelaide. It represents the product of her extensive research into short story cycles and related literary practices.
Clarkson describes the short story cycle as a form in which each individual story can stand alone as an independent work of art, but when arranged with other stories, generates interconnection and perhaps interdependence. The 13 stories in her Barking Dogs can all be read and enjoyed in themselves, but are enhanced when read and appreciated in context. The book as a whole offers something else yet again — a greater tapestry, to which each story adds different threads.
Connections, recurring roles
Of the many links between separate yet connecting episodes in Barking Dogs, the most obvious is place. The book’s setting is Mount Barker, an Adelaide Hills town, portrayed at a moment of major change as housing developers carve the formerly idyllic, quiet community into a bustling outpost of aspirational suburbia.
Issues of this transformation — social, environmental, and economic — are considered from multiple points of view, through the voices of characters whose attitudes differ. This reflects Clarkson’s desire (expressed via email) to “represent a real place through fiction without privileging any particular perspective”.
Character provides another crucial set of interconnections in Barking Dogs. In several cases, major characters from particular stories reappear as minor characters or visitors in others. Elsewhere, this means revisiting the same main character at a different time and in a different situation. In the story Raising Boys, for example, Malcolm Wheeler is a suburban father dealing with relatively mundane albeit relatable everyday issues including marriage tensions, a child struggling at school, and complaints from neighbours about his son’s dog, which barks noisily.
A later story, The Five Truths of Manhood, reintroduces Malcolm as he learns that he has cancer. The diagnosis pushes Malcolm’s underlying frailties and reveals different aspects to the characters of his wife and son. This casts new light on how all three characters behave in the story. The references both stories’ titles make to Steve Biddulph’s books on manhood guide the reader to reflect on how social constructions of masculinity matter for families and individuals.
Another recurring character is Sophie Barlow, a missing schoolgirl who, though not directly present in any story, figures in the memories, thoughts and dreams of other characters.
We first encounter Sophie in Something Special, Something Rare, in which she has left her family home early in the morning but has not yet officially disappeared. Sophie’s father, Graham, reflects on how Sophie didn’t want to go bird watching with the family, and thus slowly recognises his own emotional disconnection from his daughter. Her tragic disappearance is foreshadowed towards the end of the story, when Graham realises:
He missed her. He really missed her. He’d been missing her for a couple years.
In contrast to this deeply personal view of Sophie, the story World Peace concerns Janice, a 12-year-old schoolgirl who cannot remember Sophie’s surname but remembers liking the sound of it:
Sophie Someone. It was the name of a girl you’d want to be friends with. It had a feel to it […] like a good song.
Sophie is remembered differently yet again in two other stories, and thereby hovers, ghost-like, throughout the collection. Her tragic demise falls between the cracks of the community, which is mirrored by how she falls between the cracks of stories.
The hidden tale of Sophie, among other recurrent themes and motifs of Barking Dogs, means each story in the book can be read again and again, with new levels of meaning gained each time. The book therefore meets Clarkson’s own key criterion for a successful short story cycle.
In email interview, Clarkson declares “the best response a reader can have is the desire to flip back to the beginning and read again”. Barking Dogs certainly provokes this desire, demonstrating the multifarious potentials of the short story cycle as a form that readers, writers and publishers will continue to develop and embrace in the coming years.
When you imagine the setting for Macbeth, misty heaths, battlefields, and the brooding highlands spring to mind. Teaching the play in the midst of a tropical summer in Townsville, far north Queensland, highlights disjunctions and surprising correlations between play and place.
In their 2011 book Ecocritical Shakespeare, Lynne Bruckner and Dan Brayton consider this relationship between our environment and our practices of reading, writing about, and teaching Shakespeare:
What does the study of literature have to do with the environment? … What is the connection between the literary and the real when it comes to ecological conduct, both in Shakespeare’s era and now?
One way of answering these questions is through the use of place-based education. Educational theorists Amanda Hagood and Carmel E. Price reason that “student learning is enhanced when course content is grounded in a particular place of meaning”.
This approach is neither new nor (on the surface) complex. Educational philosopher John Dewey prioritised experiential learning such as nature studies. More recently, Swansea University educators have published research on the benefits of curriculum-based outdoor learning for primary school students.
But preliminary research on outdoor Shakespeare education conducted with Townsville secondary school students shows contradictory responses: some students found the location “calming” and “less stressful” than classrooms. Others believed that learning did not “rely on location”.
Students’ sense of place
In 2019, 60 first-year English students at James Cook University were asked to rate the importance of setting in Shakespeare plays, and the importance of their own place to the study of Shakespeare.
Of those surveyed, 85% felt that the setting was important to the play, while 96% believed that Shakespeare had little or no relevance to their local area. Few felt that their real life location was important in their study of the playwright’s work.
These results show a contrast between the perceived value of literary and of lived place. This is problematic: how do students engage with fictional, imagined literary places if their own lived experience of place is devalued?
When asked to explain their ratings, students said:
I believe the setting plays a big part in the play as it allows the audience to understand why the characters are doing what they are doing. Shakespeare isn’t important in Townsville.
I live in a rural area. There is not a lot of room for Shakespeare – though given small town conflicts you would see his plots acted out in real life.
There is slippage here between the student’s reference to physical place and their conceptual space, which does not have a lot of cultural room for Shakespeare.
A third student wrote:
My family doesn’t really care about Shakespeare, but I do enjoy some of his works personally.
Here, place was understood to refer to relationships, not environment – an understanding backed by British social scientist and geographer Doreen Massey’s theories.
The disparity between students’ conceptualisations of place and their devaluation of their own location as relevant to their studies may be symptomatic of what Alice Ball and Eric Lai identify as “an ethos of placelessness in education”. In Canada, David Gruenewald has argued that the curriculum is largely “placeless”, with educational reforms and high stakes testing increasingly disconnected from our places.
One approach to teaching Shakespeare through place-based education could centre on shared spaces in lived place and text. As a Shakespeare scholar living near the Great Barrier Reef, I’m interested in what Steve Mentz identifies as the “blue ecology” of Macbeth; the play’s many references to the ocean, liquids, and bodily fluids.
One blue image common to both Shakespeare and Townsville is that of the shipwreck – a favourite trope of Shakespeare’s, essential to plays including The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, and Pericles.
Macbeth invokes shipwreck imagery with a tale of changed fortune after Macbeth’s victory over the traitor Macdonald:
As whence the sun ‘gins his reflection,
Shipwrecking storms and direful thunders break,
So from that spring, whence comfort seemed to come,
The Witches offer a literal description of a ship or “bark”:
Our students could both explore Shakespeare through the shipwreck and engage more with the history and culture of their own local places. This approach requires us to think about place as real and imagined; fitting for Macbeth, a play defined as a “tragedy of imagination”.