Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Linked Stories

This is nuts: we're hardly posting at all these days. Time for changes! We're going back to daily posts. Why not? It's winter and there are no weeds to pull or chaise longues to lounge upon.

I started reading Tom Rachman's novel The Imperfectionists a couple of days ago, with great excitement: I really liked the first chapter, and the writing is top-notch. But then I discovered -- NOOOO! -- that it isn't technically a novel, but a collection of linked stories. Oh, despair! Betrayal! My book club had the same reaction when I made them read Olive Kitteridge.

But why? What's wrong with linked stories? In a way, the idea is awesome: all these stories that accumulate into something larger. But if you're expecting a novel, and you like what you're reading, discovering that you're reading a bunch of stories instead is crushing. Because the wonderful thing about a nice, thick novel is how complex and full it is. A short story is one thing -- it's an episode with reverberations -- but a novel keeps going and going and changing and evolving. I was really bummed that the character in the first chapter, a washed-up journalist named Lloyd Burko, was OVER after one chapter. I was so invested! He and his story were so interesting! It feels like Rachman didn't know how good his characters were, and felt like he needed to start fresh after a single episode. To me, linked short stories feel like an artifact of insecurity. (Though Rachman is probably as secure as anyone, and just had a concept he wanted to work through. Fair enough! The book is still excellent. I just wish it were a novel.)

I am probably deeply suspicious of collections of linked stories because I've so often wanted to write one. A writer of such a collection gets the satisfaction of finishing something -- stand-alone story you can send out somewhere! -- while still struggling along on the trail of the big kahuna, a NOVEL. Everyone loves a novel. Publishers, especially, love a novel. Which is why you almost never see the words "linked short stories" on a book jacket.

Anyway, I don't mean to imply that structural experimentation is no good, or that every work of fiction should adhere to a set of rules. No! But I do think that the novel is king for a reason. It is delicious and long and satisfying and is the perfect vehicle for exploring character.

(So why are my two favorite writers -- Alice Munro and Lydia Davis -- masters of the short story? I don't know. Don't ask!)


jon said...

When I bought Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler..." I was so excited, he hadn't written a new book in years, and reading it was a terrible disappointment. It didn't seem like a post-modern masterpiece to me. It just seemed like he had a bunch of stories he couldn't finish, couldn't turn into a novel. A novel has its own special pleasure; stories, linked or otherwise, are different.

5 Red Pandas said...

I'm happy to hear you will be posting daily!

I was just thinking about how un-economical short stories actually are the other day. Sure, if you're guaranteed a market for them it's like double dipping if you can also get a collection out of them, but waiting months and months for a response? Who has time for that?

That said, I go through periods where I love short stories and I really cut my teeth on them in college. I read them so obsessively because I was trying to teach myself how to write. Now I feel like I need to study novels more closely because the one I'm working on feels like an untameable beast.

On a side note- thought you guys might like to see Gary Shteyngart's HS yearbook photo. I got this in the mail from my HS alumni newsletter.

Maurine Lucas said...

hooray for DAILY posting! It's kind of funny you blogged about short stories. Daily posts kind of feel the same way - they are short stories...but they motivate readers to delve more deeply into the subject. So thank you for YOUR short stories.

AC said...

Dammit! I've got The Imperfectionists on its way to me through interlibrary loan. Who wants to pay a .50 hold charge for a bunch of lousy interconnected stories?

Yay for daily posts, though!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful. I just checked THE IMPERFECTIONISTS out of the library too and was hoping to read it thise weekend. Now, I'm already let down.

What's strange though is that two of the year's best reviewed books, Rachman's and Jennifer Egan's A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, are linked collections. Both books show up in many of the "year's best" lists.

While I loved Egan's book, I also felt that "let down" feeling when I realized as in the second chapter/story that what I was reading was a collection, not a novel. Again, even after one "chapter" I was already heavily invested in the characters and just wanted to stick with them.

James said...

Winesburg, Ohio anyone?

Anonymous said...

Ha!, I already blew the daily posting thing, because I was out of town yesterday. Will post a bit later.

This is one of those things, like the bionov, that I dislike until I read one that is perfect. Lives Of Girls And Women? And sure, Winesburg, Ohio.

My first novel was really five linked long stories, and more than one review complained about this. "Like an MFA exercise," one said, all too accurately. But...I guess you do what you can do when you can do it.

Ultimately, though, I would generally rather read a collection or a novel. The hybrid rarely works well--only when it really suits the material.

rmellis said...

Definitely read the book, you guys! It's very good. It's just different from what I expected.

christianbauman said...

So how about this twist: my first novel was also really just a collection of linked short stories, but I didn't want a collection of linked short stories, so worked very very hard to force a smoothing and end up with a "novel." And it's one of my greatest regrets. I truly wish I had left the thing alone and published it as a collection of linked stories. Ten years later, and I can see how obvious that forcing was. The book reads like island hopping; moments of the raised land of strong, passionate prose strung together with sand bars of uninteresting connectivity.