One of the major battles Jack Kerouac had to fight when publishing On The Road was his lack of divisions.
His editors won; the book as originally published had divisions – I wouldn’t exactly call them chapters. And with good reason. Divisions, usually chapters, are an expected part of a book – a useful device for highlighting the structure. If set up right, they act as defined break points for readers. Good all round, unless you’re Jack Kerouac.
His point, of course, was to do with flows of consciousness – with sharing his mind process with the world and presenting his beat-gen anthem as he conceived it.
It was a valid point, and these days editions of the book are available in the original ‘scroll’ form.
Other authors – well, we all use chapters…don’t we. And that raises questions about such niceties as whether to name or to number. It’s a moot point. Nineteenth century practise was clear. Fiction and non-fiction alike were the same. A chapter could be given a title that summarised the contents. Or, if it was just numbered, it often included a pot-summary, headline-style:
“Chapter MCXXXVI: In which Our Hero, having Undergone Many Trials and Tribulations, Discovers the Wonders of the Aerial Steam Railway, but Not Before Losing His Tube Of Brass Polish and Thus Rendering His Goggles Completely Tarnished By Coal Smuts, To His Dismay and That Of His Companions.”
Readers then go on to read how the hero, who had undergone 1185 previous chapters of trials and tribulations, discovers a steam railway and is embarrassed by the way the smoke dulls his brass goggles.
All well and good for the Penny Dreadfuls – and, these days, for novels harking back to the style. But is telegraphing the entire contents of a chapter really the way to go?
Chapter titles have the same effect on smaller scale, which is why some authors simply number their chapters. And, of course, a word out of place in a non-fiction chapter title is a red rag to academics, for whom any discrepancy between promised and actual content is a lever for denying worth in the rival intellectual.
My answer? ‘It depends’. Both approaches are useful – the actual answer has to flow from the fundamental questions of purpose and intent. What fits the intended style of the book and the statements it makes?
Sometimes, as Kerouac showed us, it might even be better to dispense with the whole apparatus – titles, numbers and even chapters.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014