Wednesday’s Work-in-Progress: Thoughts About Linked Short-Story Collections

If you follow me on Goodreads, you know that a few days ago I finished reading Shani Boianjiu’s soon-to-be published debut novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid. And if you’re a member of the Jewish Book Carnival group on the Goodreads site, you may also know that one of the lingering questions I’m considering is whether anyone considered publishing this book as a collection of linked stories rather than a novel (and also, perhaps, omitting the final section, composed of two chapters which in my view are the weakest pieces in the book–but taking that discussion any further will send us on a tangent from which we are unlikely to return).

I wanted to love Boianjiu’s book without reservation. I’d been anticipating it since Boianjiu–recommended by Nicole Krauss–was named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” for 2011. I was delighted to find an excerpt included in the Publishers Lunch “BEA Buzz Books” compilation, and I quickly obtained an electronic galley (thank you, NetGalley!). Then, The New Yorker published another excerpt. And I was hooked.

And there’s so much in this book that I do admire, especially considering a) the author’s youth–it seems that she is the youngest person ever to be honored among the “5 Under 35”, and b) the fact that English is not her native language. Not to mention the complicated political issues embedded in the work and its in-the-middle-of-things perspectives on life in Israel, matters of ongoing interest to this practicing writer-who-reads.

But I hadn’t progressed all that far in the book when I realized that I was going to have trouble accepting The People of Forever Are Not Afraid as a novel. Perhaps because, as a fiction writer, I’m somewhat obsessed with these distinctions? Perhaps because recent work on one of my own stories-in-progress, which I’ve realized could easily be linked with another four or five I’ve published over the years (but not yet in book form), has given me a case of linked-stories-on-the-brain?

In the meantime, Junot Diaz has gone ahead and fueled my cerebral struggles with a Q&A for The New Yorker. A new Diaz story appears in the magazine this week (sorry–it’s paywall-protected). And in discussing this story, which appears in his forthcoming collection, This Is How You Lose Her, Diaz says:

This is my second collection of linked stories—which is a strange hybrid when you think about it. These little Calibans are by no means novels, but they’re not your standard anthologies either. It’s a neither-nor form I happen to like—probably the Caribbean in me. After all, when linked story collections work well they give the reader both the glorious ephemerality of the short story—its ability to capture what André Bazin called in a different context “contingency,” the singular one-time event—and also some of the cooler aspects of the novel: its relational longue durée and its what-comes-next propulsion. I haven’t done a straight-up story collection where each story takes place in its own unconnected world with its own unconnected set of characters. What a pleasure that would be! The truth is that in both “Drown” and “This Is How You Lose Her” I wrote each individual story with my top eye aimed always at the large flow of the narrative. Of course I wanted the stories to work well on their own, but that wasn’t enough. The stories also had to work with and against the other stories, had to produce collectively that arresting surplus of feeling and knowledge beyond the simple sum of the parts. Really it was the overarching demands of “This Is How You Lose Her”—its patterns and themes, its heart and movement—that determined what stories I was going to write and how I would write them. Over the years, I had swell ideas for stories that I had to dump in the end because they would never fit into the larger pattern of the narrative. There were also other stories that I would never have written but for the fact that the larger narrative demanded them in order to produce a necessary fire between some of my themes. These stories, curiously enough, tend to be the most successful pieces, the ones I get the most thoughtful mail about. But yeah, it’s a slow, frustrating process, a lot of fumbling in the dark, a lot of intuitive lunges.

But to me, it’s well worth it. I’ve always conceptualized linked collections as these wonderful Lagrange points between the story collection and the novel. In them there’s this weird bit of space—again not as much as in a novel, but more than a standard collection—from which wonderful stuff can be spun, stuff that neither the traditional novel nor the traditional story collection can generate. A fascinating patch of liminality that writers haven’t done quite enough with, in my opinion….Maybe I’m dead wrong on all of this. Maybe I could have written conventional novels from both sets of material but I’m not convinced I could have gotten the same jagged punch, the same longing and silences that rise up from the gaps in and between the linked stories.

I guess I’m just hopelessly fascinated by the realities that you can assemble out of connected fragments.

And maybe that’s why I can’t get away from the categories and questions. Maybe what impresses me most profoundly about Boianjiu’s book are the realities that might be assembled out of the connected fragments (again, barring those final two!). If only I didn’t feel compelled, first, to work so hard and sweep away the marketing imprint, and associated expectations, that the “novel” label has conveyed.

5 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Work-in-Progress: Thoughts About Linked Short-Story Collections

  1. I do love linked stories and really enjoyed Junot Diaz’s consideration here, especially the idea of the “space” existing in-between from which many possibilities can emerge.

  2. Erwin K. Roberts says:

    The concept of linked stories turned into a novel is an old one. Of course novels used to be serialized in newspapers, slicks, and of course pulp fiction magazines. But those were written as novels.

    But the pulps also published, in addition to short stories, many novelets/novellas. The writers took advantage of this by writing what would now be called a “story-arc” in the form of 3 to 5 novelets. They usually sold the magazines 1st North American Serial Rights. When the arc finsihed they would package it for book publication.

    Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan & John Carter of Mars did a lot of this, for example.

  3. Mihku Paul says:

    Most excellent food for thought. I have to agree that so-called “linked stories” have a connection that exists in multiple ways that are both similar and dissimilar to a novel. If I think of story as a construction of concrete elements as well as less tangible themes and even ephemeral emotions
    then it makes sense to tell a story utilizing that form.
    After all, our lives do not unfold in a linear fashion, and being from a culture that values multiple perspectives and wholeness over duality and linear approaches, it is quite natural for me to tell a story that way.
    My MFA thesis is a collection of five short (18-25 pages) stories linked by place, and occasionally by circumstance, with some main characters appearing only briefly in other stories or not at all. This allowed me to achieve a certain depth of characterization among an ensemble of characters that I think is can be very satisfying to a reader. We also see how characters might behave in a variety of circumstances, how responses change according to situational dynamics, motivations and so forth.
    I didn’t do it because it was easy, or saved time. I just wanted the chance to show the way human beings hide or reveal particular parts of themselves and how all these dynamics shape a community. Story exists in myriad forms, just like people do.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Thanks for all of the thoughtful comments, everyone (and I recommend taking a look at Annie Cardi’s blog post, tracked-back below; I tried to leave a comment there but WordPress doesn’t always seem to let me leave comments where I would like to). I agree, Jennifer, that Diaz’s reflections here are really smart (not a surprise, right?). And I can’t explain exactly how, but when I read his words, having just finished THE PEOPLE OF FOREVER ARE NOT AFRAID, I thought, YES! EXACTLY! Mihku, hope that thesis turns into a book soon! And Erwin, thanks for the reminder about historical antecedents.

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