Short Story Cycles

 
 
“A group of linked narratives can create an effect you can’t get from a novel or from one story alone. It’s like a series of snapshots taken over time. Part of the pleasure is turning to them again and again. The interest lies in what has happened in the interstices.”
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Pulitzer Prize-Winner Michael Chabon on the Pleasure of Linked Narratives


What Are They?

Linked stories, short story cycles, novels-in-stories—this form of fiction explores the gray area between collections of stories and novels. In her excellent scholarly study, The Short Story Cycle: A Genre Companion & Reference Guide, Susan Garland Mann suggests that “there is only one essential characteristic of the short story cycle: the stories are both self-sufficient and interrelated. On the one hand, the stories work independently of one another: the reader is capable of understanding each of them without going beyond the limits of the individual story. On the other hand. . . the ability of the story cycle to extend discussions—to work on a larger scale—resembles what is accomplished in the novel.”

What’s in a Name?

Unlike the story, novella, or novel, this form appears under a variety of names. While the jacket copy, like that of Last Call, will often refer to the book as being made up of “linked stories,” other recent books, such as Justin Cronin’s Mary and O’Neil and Adam Braver’s Mr. Lincoln’s Wars, carry the subtitle “novel-in-stories.” Some novels—such as Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Harriet Doerr’s Stones for Ibarra, and Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine—are really collections of linked stories. Scholars, like Susan Garland Mann, usually refer to the form as the short story cycle.

 


Watch K. L. Cook discuss Linked Stories and the Short Story Cycle at Arizona State University

 

Masters of the Form

Practitioners include Geoffrey Chaucer, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Katherine Anne Porter, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck. In the last half of the twentieth century, the form accounts for some of the best work of John Updike (his Beck trilogy, The Olinger Stories), Joyce Carol Oates (Marya: A Life), Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried), Louise Erdrich (Love Medicine), Alice Munro (The Beggar Maid), Russell Banks (Trailer Park), Pam Houston (Cowboys Are My Weakness), and Robert Olen Butler (A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain).

Unifying Features

Most collections of linked stories do not have a consistent voice nor a central plot. They tend to be unified in at least one (and most often a combination) of these ways:

  • Sense of Place
    James Joyce’s Dubliners, John Steinbeck’s The Long Valley, and Robert Olen Butler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, are all examples of books in which the authors focus on place as a unifying characteristic. In these examples, there is no central protagonist, and the characters in the different stories do not significantly interact with each other.

  • Central Protagonist
    In this kind of linked collection, a central protagonist dominates most, if not all, the stories, and the collection is often named after the protagonist. Katherine Anne Porter’s Miranda Stories, John Updike’s Beck trilogy, Isabel Huggans’ The Elizabeth Stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and even Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous The Nick Adams Stories are examples of this type.

  • Family or Group Protagonists
    Story cycles in this category focus on a group or extended family of characters, whose lives intersect. Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, and William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses are all examples.

  • Era or Epoch
    F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Jazz Age and, to a certain extent, Adam Braver’s Mr. Lincoln’s Wars embody an era or pivotal time in history.

  • Unifying Theme
    John Updike’s Trust Me (stories that meditate on trust and betrayal), Russell Banks’ Success Stories (stories defining and undermining the different meanings of success), Hannah Tinti’s Animal Crackers (which explores the relationship between animal and human nature), and Andrea Barrett’s National Book Award-winner, Ship Fever (in which issues of science figure prominently in each story), are examples of collections unified primarily by theme.

  • Characteristic Form
    In this kind of collection, a form or genre of writing—or a source of inspiration—unifies the collection. Robert Olen Butler’s Tabloid Dreams, in which all the stories are based on actual tabloid headlines, or John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, consisting of meta-fiction exploring the nature of storytelling, are examples.

Read more about the evolution of Last Call as a collection of linked stories.