Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Linked Short Stories in Genre Fiction

I'm currently reading Let The Great World Spin, a collection of linked stories by Colum McCann. This book won the National Book Award, was a big bestseller, and also has a really cool cover design. I should also say that I'm enjoying it immensely and it is--so far--an amazing book.

But it is not a novel. When I picked it up at the shop I knew nothing about Let the Great World Spin except that it had won the NBA and that lots of people had read it and that it was highly recommended by some sites I respect. I thought it was a novel about Manhattan, and when I realized it was a dozen stories and not a novel, I was disappointed. "Oh," I thought. "Another one of those."

Don't get me wrong. I've read some fine books of stories lately. Jhumpa Lahiri's The Interpreter of Maladies won the Pulitzer; so did Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. Antonia Byatt has written several collections of linked stories (Little Black Book of Stories, Angels and Insects, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye and The Matisse Stories). And there is a fairly well-established tradition in literary fiction of authors writing books of linked short stories. Yes, agents all say they don't want to see any of them, but they keep getting published, don't they?

What I was wondering, though, is if this tradition extends past literary fiction. I can think of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man, and that's as far as I can get. I am aware that there are piles of collections of SF/F and mystery and horror and other types of fiction, but those were collected from a variety of sources and are from a wide group of authors. What I mean is, do genre fiction authors write sets of stories that are all published together as a single book, and are all connected thematically? If so, have these been popular? Do you read them?

As I say above, I was put off when I saw that Let the Great World Spin was a collection. At the end of the first story, I felt cheated. "Hey, what's this? You mean that's all? You mean I have to start over again with a new story? That's not what I signed on for, mister." As a rule, I choose novels over short stories (though I have a collection of stories at my bedside that I read from most every night; so much for my rules). Happily, all the stories in Let the Great World Spin are truly pretty great and I have forgiven Mr. McCann his transgression.

So tell me about story collections in the genres. Also, tell Lady Glamis how much you like the new look of the blog. I didn't know where I was when I first logged on today, but I like it a lot. Thanks, Michelle!


  1. I'm no help here. I choose novels over stories too but I also don't read as much genre fiction anymore (trying to erase the effects of all those Mills and Boon novels).

    I like the new look a lot.

  2. A DARK MATTER, the new horror novel by Peter Straub is essentially a bunch of short stories told through various conceits. But then again, Straub is only a 'genre' author in that he writes books that are scary, although you could easily put his writing up against more 'serious' and 'literary' authors, so I don't know if he counts... but I would imagine so.

    I think that the linked-short-stories idea is nice, and I LOVED Let the Great World Spin, but I agree in that they aren't really novels in that traditional sense. With that being said, I think that it is a fascinating way to tell story, and something that I am toying with in my MS -- much in the way that Neil Gaiman does most prominently in AMERICAN GODS for his "arrival stories."

    And yay for the new look! I really like the layout a LOT. I think you could do for something that resembles more of the header from the last iteration, but perhaps fits the new theme better? Just a suggestion!

  3. Have you finished it yet? Because unlike Olive Kitteridge and some other collections, the stories in Let The Great World Spin are very closely linked which made it so much better and so much more powerful. But all the dots don't connect until the very end... At which point you might just change your tune and decide it is a novel. :) Either way... it really is a great piece of fiction!

    And the new look is great!

  4. So, I tried to read Let the Great World Spin, and I still couldn't get into it after 70 pages or so. Does it really get better. It was a slow read for me. Maybe I got to excited about it after hearing McCann speak on NPR.

    I used to be in a phase where I almost always preferred novels, but Jhumpa Lahiri and Alice Munro have really turned me around. Their short stories are so amazing that I feel completely satisfied after reading just one.

    Scott, I was going to talk about short fiction, so this is a nice lead in.

  5. Davin, I like Lahiri's short stories a lot, but I didn't like The Namesake. It was too episodic in structure for me: every 50 or 75 pages the cast of characters (except the protagonist and his family) changed and the story essentially had to start over again, which I found exhausting.

    I also found the opening of Let the Great World Spin slow, but I pushed on and got caught up in it. I'm only about a third of the way through. I didn't like the prologue, I must say.

  6. I thought you liked Namesake. That's another one I wasn't able to get through. Lahiri's short stories are fantastic, but the novel didn't hook me.

  7. I used to love short stories, but I haven't read many lately. I haven't seen any collections of shorts like what you're talking about in YA.

    Love the new look Michelle. It looks very website-ish. Not bloggy.

  8. I loved the first 100 pages or so of Namesake. I saw the end coming a long way off, and the middle (or the three middles) dragged for me. Her stories are amazing, but I don't know if she knows what to do with a novel-length piece. Sort of how I don't really know what to do with a short piece.

  9. Bradbury had a funny story about how The Martian Chronicles got written. He was talking to an agent who basically told him that if he didn't link the stories and market them as a novel, he would starve. He did so, got paid and kept on writing. I think you can watch a video of him talking about it here.

  10. I've heard a lot of stories about a lot of agents telling writers the same thing.

  11. This is a great post and a great question, Scott. I've only read short story collections of literary works, so this is interesting to see that at least there's a horror one out there.

    You know, if the stories are linked enough, isn't it essentially a novel? I think doing a collection of shorts would be a really difficult task if they weren't linked at all. Of course, there's always anthologies to put by your bed at night...I love those.

  12. "if the stories are linked enough, isn't it essentially a novel?"

    That's a good question, Michelle. I would say that properly they are not a novel, especially if the characters are different in each story. I would also say that likely it doesn't matter if it's a novel or not, as long as it's well written. There's a recent book (whose title and author escape me just now) that's a set of stories told in chronological order with a single protagonist about a post-apocalyptic world and I'm not sure if it's a novel or a story collection. It's supposed to be really good, so as I say, it probably doesn't matter what it is, structurally. And hey, I've almost added another to the list of SF books of this sort.

  13. How about The Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell? It is SF at least in some of its parts. The stories are particularly cleverly linked in that each is interrupted by the next, and then resumed in reverse order at the other end of the middle story, so that the whole resembles a matryoshka doll.

    The stories begin in the past and move into the far future, linked by artefacts and documents.

    This broken form seems actually to cement the work in a way that a series of complete linked stories might not. The second half of the book is immensely satisfying, in that it consists of resolution after resolution.

  14. matt: I thought about Cloud Atlas, and even though the central story takes place in the future, I think that book is considered to be literary fiction. Though who knows these days? Folks like Michael Chabon would argue that genre labels become more meaningless with each day, and he may well be right.

    My favorite story in Cloud Atlas was the Proustian one about the failed composer.

    Can anyone think of any books of linked stories like this that are not either literary fiction or SF? I suppose that, strictly speaking, the "Paddington Bear" books would count, as they're episodic in nature and have the same cast of characters in each story.

  15. Mayowa, the Mills and Boon reference is likely lost on most Americans. I had to Google it. When I was a teenager, I read almost every one of the 84 Doc Savage novels. I sometimes wonder what sort of effects they've had on my reading and writing career. Is it possible that, deep down, I'm really just trying to write Doc Savage adventures (and failing miserably)?

  16. " if the stories are linked enough, isn't it essentially a novel?"

    That's something I ask myself about my linked short story collection. I have never queried agents about it because I have thought of it as primarily a short story collection. On the other hand, I have two characters who appear repeatedly throughout and whose lives progress in a novel-like arc. Perhaps I should try querying it. It would be interesting to see what happens.

  17. I've read three single-author fantasy collections and one which alternated stories by a husband and wife. The Door in the Hedge, by Robin McKinley, and Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits, by McKinley and Peter Dickinson, are linked mostly by subject matter. Garth Nix's Across the Wall is a grab bag. Most thematically consistent was Charles de Lint's Waifs and Strays, a compilation of short stories with teenage protagonists; all seem to concern the need for emotional connection.

    De Lint has quite a few other short story collections (Moonlight and Vines won a World Fantasy Award), but I have yet to track down any of them.

    And there's always The Bloody Chamber, though magical realism is often considered literary. Really, I don't know why there's a distinction between genre and literary fiction at all. It seems as if "genre" is taken to mean "escapist" or "shallow," when in fact the best genre fiction is basically literary with a certain set of trappings - sorry, I'll end the rant now.


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