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
Susan Garland Mann suggests that “there is only one essential characteristic
of the short story cycle: the stories are both self-sufficient and interrelated.
the one hand, the stories work independently of one another: the reader
is capable of understanding each of them without going beyond the limits
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
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
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
usually refer to the form
short story cycle.
Masters of the Form
Practitioners include Geoffrey Chaucer, Sherwood Anderson,
Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Katherine Anne Porter,
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
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).
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
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
interact with each other.
- Central Protagonist
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
posthumous The Nick Adams Stories are examples of this
- 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.
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
Updike’s Trust Me (stories that meditate
trust and betrayal), Russell Banks’ Success Stories (stories defining
undermining the different meanings of success), Hannah
Tinti’s Animal Crackers (which explores the relationship
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,
Read more about the evolution of Last Call as a collection of