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!)