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Question of the Week > When do linked short stories become a novel? (5/5

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message 1: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2271 comments At Daniel's request, I am posting this week's question of the week. This topic made an appearance in connection with our discussions last month about Let the Great World Spin. I never of the book as being linked stories but perhaps some may. Other books where the question of whether the linked stories are a novel or just a number of short stories that have a connection to each other are Olive Kitteridge and Ms. Hempel Chronicles. I am sure you can think of others.

I did a bit of searching on the topic, starting with a look at some discussions of what is a short story and what is a novel. A simple illustration of the topic can be found here -- http://www.enotes.com/homework-help/w.... At least one of the teachers takes a stab at explaining why LTGWS is a novel and not a book of short stories. But I was looking for a bit more depth. This brought me to the following article -- http://www.thereviewreview.net/publis... -- which seems to conclude that it is publishers that insist a book of linked stories be called a novel because short story collections don't sell as well.

I found a few other items of interest but nothing that resolved the question for me so I brought the question up with Daniel and he thought it was meaty enough for this group to tackle.

So, what do you think -- are there any characteristics that linked short stories should have before they can be classed as a novel? Or, whose decision is it whether linked short stories constitute a novel? -- the author, the reader, or the publisher?


message 2: by James E. (new)

James E. Martin | 74 comments Well, there are lots of examples of vignette structure that are marginally novels, like Vollmann's "butterfly tales" for instance. Even "Cloud Atlas" used it. I kthink there had to be some concrete links among the stories, like theme or characters or some self-referential quality to be a novel.


message 3: by Casceil (new)

Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
Interesting question. I suspect that the publisher may well be the decision maker. Picture yourself as an eager writer hoping to get something published. The publisher says, "we're not really interested in publishing short story collections. But if you could turn this into a novel . . . ." Your reaction might well be, "hmmmm, these stories just need a few more connections or some kind of frame, maybe some more continuing characters. . . ." But then, I'm a cynic.


message 4: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2456 comments Are there some author/members here who might be willing to comment?


message 5: by Whitney (new)

Whitney | 2046 comments Mod
I'd agree it seems to be something that would be defined by the publisher. And I'm wondering if it has any particular meaning beyond marketing. It seems to be one of those definitional things that are convenient shorthand, but that not everything will fit neatly into. Two that came to mind are Faulkner's Go Down, Moses. All the stories work as individual pieces, but many refer to the book as a novel because they are linked in place, character, and theme.

As an even vaster example, there's Balzac's La Comédie Humaine. Multiple volumes of linked novels and short stories that are frequently referred to as Balzac's Magnum Opus. Can it be considered one work?

Based on the article above, there's value to writers and publishers in placing these kinds of works in one box or another, but does it matter to the reader? I haven't read LTGWS, but to those who have, does your opinion or perception of the book change based on which view you take of it?


message 6: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2271 comments I became interested in the question after I read Ms. Hempel Chronicles. I thought I was ready a novel but then I read some reviews that talked about it being linked stories. It did not feel like stories to me but then I realized that each could have stood alone and that some had been so published. For me, however, the whole was greater than the parts as it provided a richer, more fully developed Ms. Hempel.

It may be the publisher who has the greatest influence on the characterization of type of book for sale and the author who knows what he or she intended, but I think readers may disagree with the publisher or even the author.

With respect to the article, I was struck by the discussion about how MFA programs may be influencing the production of the linked stories novel. Is there really a focus on short story writing that is resulting in more linked stories novels? I have always thought that a good short story is a different animal in structure than a novel and wonder if the linked short stories is separate species from either a short story or a novel.


message 7: by Lily (last edited May 06, 2014 12:44PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2456 comments Linda wrote: "...I have always thought that a good short story is a different animal in structure than a novel..."

Are you willing to elaborate, Linda?

One of the places my head has been going on this topic has been to think about those "novels" that we clearly call "novels," from Tolstoy's magnum opus War and Peace to Dicken's oeuvre of novels, most of which originally appeared in serial form in (monthly?) magazines, to Cervantes sprawling Don Quixote to.... I know that I, and several of my friends, like the greater development of character and plot that we perceive is possible in the longer format associated with novels. Yet, in the hectic pace of today's world, we often prefer that to be 250-350 pages. A very small market sample. It has been years since I regularly read a magazine with short stories, let alone a serialized novel.

One of the articles I read recently suggested that MFA programs are apparently short story oriented (lend themselves to development, review and discussion for the classroom setting). That same article suggested that the proliferation and popularity of such programs have given many "writers" alternative and more stable streams of income as teachers than publishing does. (We may even have read it here -- I'm not going to try to track it down right now. It made many of the same points as the ones you linked.) I know friends who participate in writing groups where short pieces of their work are shared and critiqued.

My own initial reaction to LTGWS was that it was a novel. As I have said elsewhere, it was when we started to ask if a particular story was needed (subway graffiti was one, guys at PARC was another) along with Colum's interview saying that there had been many stories that he had had to leave out that I began to ask whether this was a novel constructed from a collection of short stories.

Learned just this week that Middlemarch resulted from the fusion of two projects of Eliot.

These are just ramblings and observations, Linda. No literary theory here.


message 8: by Pip (new)

Pip | 102 comments I didn't read LTGWS with you, but it's now on my To Read list :-)

Has anyone here read Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson? It is a collection of short stories, and they really do stand alone, but bit by bit you realise that characters start overlapping between stories. Some stories even "complete" or deepen your understanding of others, which makes me wonder how Atkinson wrote this collection: either patching together stories she already had (in which case, she made a perfectly seamless job of it) or were the stories intended to form a novel whole from the beginning?

If can't really be described as a novel, in my opinion though. Essentially, what links them all is that they are more or less concurrent, taking place during some kind of apocalypse and certain characters and plot elements overlap. However, I think a true novel must, traditionally at least, have a beginning, middle and end (thank you, primary school teachers!), some kind of obvious development from start to finish, whereas in NTEOTW, what we have are a collection of strongly related snapshots.

If you enjoyed Life After Life, you should definitely give these stories a go. If you didn't, or haven't enjoyed Atkinson's other novels, I think you'll find NTEOTW has a slightly different flavour from the rest of her work.


message 9: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2271 comments Thanks, Pip and Lily. Your posts have me thinking that the initial question requires an understanding of what are the basic tenets of a short story and of a novel. I found this rather interesting article on that topic -- http://www.greghollingshead.com/essay....


message 10: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2456 comments Linda wrote: "Thanks, Pip and Lily. Your posts have me thinking that the initial question requires an understanding of what are the basic tenets of a short story and of a novel. I found this rather interesting..."

Good article, Linda, but I'm glad I've learned a bit about living in the present before encountering the quotation from Dr. Johnson!

("Dr. Johnson said, 'No man is ever happy in the present unless he is drunk.'")

It did seem more an ode to the short story than any exposition about (modern) reader expectations from a novel.


message 11: by Ben (new)

Ben Rowe (benwickens) | 89 comments I do not think that there is a clear dividing line, its more of a spectrum.

A few indicators that would skew a book to one side of an imaginary line or another would include:-

- Level of connectivity particularly with plot and characters but also setting and theme

If there is a frame story, then the extent to which it plays a key part in the individual stories... e.g. despite the frame story The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night feels to me like a collection of folk tales/ stories rather than a novel.

- Extent to which stories can be read separate from the collection and still work as well

- Extent to which order can be changed without being too detrimental to the stories

- Authorial intent - do they see it as short stories or a novel?

To me though the key question is "Is this worth reading?" and to a lesser extent "Do I need to read these stories in order?" rather than anything else.

It is a shame that short story collections as a form are not more popular, I find that they are often more enjoyable and enriching experiences than novels.


message 12: by Pip (last edited May 08, 2014 04:18PM) (new)

Pip | 102 comments @Ben - I absolutely agree. And I cannot understand why publishers shy away from / don't do more to push short stories. You'd think that today's generation, famously with a shorter concentration span (albeit a concentration of no lesser quality, necessarily) would gulp up short stories.


message 13: by [deleted user] (last edited Oct 17, 2015 05:09PM) (new)

Eric Yoshiaki Dando's Snail is a series of episodes that make for a conclusion. It is comic and tragic without being melodramatic. It is a very good book but it is hard to find as it is a cult read.


message 14: by [deleted user] (last edited Oct 17, 2015 05:31PM) (new)

Well, there's Olive Kitteridge, and my ultimate favorite collection of linked short stories, Wendell Berry's A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port William Membership.

There are others, such ass Updike's Maple stories (which were written over years, but which have been collected in a book, which wasn't the author's original intention so, poor example), which, while they follow the same people through time, don't create the same atmosphere for me as the two I mentioned above.

I do think it's what's created in the reader's mind that answers the question, maybe? So it's very subjective.

And then there are books like Lethem's Chronic City, which gave me a sense of traveling from world to world, although it was a novel. It contained several interweaving and surficially unrelated threads. But I loved it.

I understand the discussion of a conclusion. But, personally, and this is just me, I've come to a point, maybe because I'm so derned old, that I reject conclusions of any sort, I resent things being tied up for me, maybe simply because I haven't sensed life to be that way. It goes on forever, while we're awake and while we're asleep, while we're here and after the general sense is that we're not here anymore. Garden of forking paths...


message 15: by [deleted user] (new)

Ellen wrote: "Well, there's Olive Kitteridge, and my ultimate favorite collection of linked short stories, Wendell Berry's [book:A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port William Membership|1359..."

"In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on." Robert Frost


message 16: by [deleted user] (new)

Greg wrote: "Ellen wrote: "Well, there's Olive Kitteridge, and my ultimate favorite collection of linked short stories, Wendell Berry's [book:A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port William M..."

Thank you, even though Nothing Gold Can Last.


message 17: by [deleted user] (new)

Ellen wrote: "Greg wrote: "Ellen wrote: "Well, there's Olive Kitteridge, and my ultimate favorite collection of linked short stories, Wendell Berry's [book:A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the P..."

Nevermore, nevermore.


message 18: by [deleted user] (new)

Greg wrote: "Ellen wrote: "Greg wrote: "Ellen wrote: "Well, there's Olive Kitteridge, and my ultimate favorite collection of linked short stories, Wendell Berry's [book:A Place in Time: Twenty St..."

I know, that was terrible of me. Sorry, Raven.


message 19: by [deleted user] (new)

Ellen wrote: "Greg wrote: "Ellen wrote: "Greg wrote: "Ellen wrote: "Well, there's Olive Kitteridge, and my ultimate favorite collection of linked short stories, Wendell Berry's [book:A Place in Ti..."

"Love is a wonderful, terrible thing." William Shakespeare


message 20: by [deleted user] (new)

Greg wrote: "Ellen wrote: "Greg wrote: "Ellen wrote: "Greg wrote: "Ellen wrote: "Well, there's Olive Kitteridge, and my ultimate favorite collection of linked short stories, Wendell Berry's [book..."

I'm only left with the terrible part...


message 21: by [deleted user] (new)

As the poets say, love goes on for forever; and they're right, it goes on even after a stop to it.


message 22: by [deleted user] (new)

Ellen wrote: "Greg wrote: "Ellen wrote: "Greg wrote: "Ellen wrote: "Greg wrote: "Ellen wrote: "Well, there's Olive Kitteridge, and my ultimate favorite collection of linked short stories, Wendell ..."

"If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it." Ernest Hemingway


message 23: by [deleted user] (last edited Oct 17, 2015 11:45PM) (new)

We digress slightly. The story never ends, only the page that we're on.


message 24: by [deleted user] (last edited Oct 17, 2015 11:55PM) (new)

Short stories are always linked in the mind of the author.

Without the ego, it all goes.


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