On the Short-Story Novel, or Linked Short-Stories

On the Short-Story Novel, or Linked Short-Stories

James McAdams | June 12, 2020

Some of the great linked short story collections.

The short-story novel, or a collection of short-stories sold as a novel: a form ready-made for the ADHD culture of 2020 Probably the most famous short-story novel from the past decade is Jennifer Egan’s Visit from Goon Squad. It won a whole bunch of awards, etc.  The unity or relation between parts here is of characters, not of place or time (maybe unity of theme, as “music” and the depredations of aging/time figure in probably all of the “chapters”). An accomplished novelist of traditional form, when asked why she fractured Visit from the Goon Squad into tiny little barely-related parts, Jennifer explained “One of my organizing principles was always that each piece should stand alone in a strong way, and yet they should all fit together. The metaphor in my mind wasn’t ‘linked,’ but ‘entangled.’”

I am currently composing my novel in a similar way. The reason why is not because I think it is superior or interesting art, but because I’m lazy and have a short attention span. I thought I could get away with it because I read a lot of experimental stuff that works this way, but I’m about halfway through and there’s no way I can figure to create a semblance of momentum of accreted tension out of these small flimsy chapters. Which is not to say that all novels/collections that work this way are written by people as lazy and feeble-minded as me. In case you aren’t familiar, the tradition has been well represented in 20th century literature. (We could argue about the ur-Text, which would probably be One Thousand and One Nights.) 

Here’s a random top-10, because we all like lists, in order of my random affection, which is an excellent criterion: 

Honorable Mentions:

Two of the worst books I’ve ever read in this form were Winesburg, Ohio and Olive Kitteredge, but they are considered masterworks of this tradition too; I wish I knew why. I’ll omit the author names out of kindness, but they’re pretty easy to find. 

Anyway, a year ago I thought I was going to continue this tradition of novels as linked short stories, and now I’m spending a lot more time figuring out how I can destroy it. Wish me luck. 



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