In following up my post yesterday on short-story collections, I thought I would offer mini-reviews of some of my favorite collections stretching over nearly a 2,000-year period. By no means a definitive list, this will at least give a sense of what it’s possible to do with the short story collection and its various permutations.
Feel free to add your favorites in the comments section below!
1. The Golden Ass by Apuleius. The only Latin novel to survive in its entirety, The Golden Ass is also one of the oldest examples of the story-within-a-story format. The plot of this early narrative involves the narrator being magically transformed into a donkey. This allows the narrator-as-donkey to then overhear other, shorter stories, which are presented within the overall narrative.
2. Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson. Perhaps the grandfather of all American short story collections, Winesburg, Ohio, follows the interrelated stories of a small town in Ohio. These stories are spare and marked by radical shifts in point of view, with many of them at least mentioning a young news reporter named George Willard. Interestingly, given the development of the art form in the century since Winesburg, Ohio, was published, the minimalism of this book may strike some contemporary readers as innovative and experimental. Though academics might argue about whether this might be properly called a “novel-in-stories” or “linked story” collection, the execution of this masterpiece is pitch-perfect and continues the literary lineage begun with Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology.
3. In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway. Inspired by Winesburg, Ohio, and his friendship with Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway’s first book is, in my opinion, his best work. With a loosely implied overarching narrative structure tracing the growth of a man named Nick Adams from small-town boy to returned war veteran, In Our Time also incorporates brief inter-chapter flavor text that references some of Hemingway’s war experiences. Both experimental and readable, In Our Time has had an enduring legacy with readers and the academic community alike.
4. Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger. One of the two books that continues to carry Salinger’s literary legacy forward into the 21st century (Catcher in the Rye being the other), Nine Stories is a treasure-house of artfully rendered prose. Though many of these stories could be said to treat upper-crust east-coast society, the stories are all quite different; I would have to hold up Nine Stories as a strong example that not all short stories in a collection have to be linked together, they just have to be well-written.
5. Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino. A semi-experimental collection of stories, Cosmicomics is organized around a central theme. Instead of attempting to tell the story of a town or a person as with the above two collections, Cosmicomics tells the story of galactic evolution using anthropomorphized celestial phenomenon: planets, forms of matter, and galaxies all speak to the reader, with much milage gotten out of short scientific quotes and epigraphs introducing each story. Cosmicomics is postmodernism at its finest: bizarre but also eminently readable.
6. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. I blogged about this book in a prior post, but I’ll plug it again. Nominally a collection of short stories, Love Medicine works better as a “novel-in-stories” because of the way it clings to certain themes and characters. The stories in the collection do not really stand alone, but often require context from other stories to understand. That isn’t quite the case with many of the other collections here, where readers can open up the collection to any story and enjoy them on their own. Love Medicine, on the other hand, is a patchwork quilt that hangs together or not at all.
7. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Moving into the more contemporary era, this linked short-story collection blends nonfiction with fiction and has stood the test of time as the definitive short-story collection about the Vietnam War. Its narrative loosely follows solider Jimmy Cross and his platoon of men, circling back to several key incidents in their combat tour, while also including other peripheral characters as well as the voice of someone who seems very similar to Mr. O’Brien himself.
8. The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories edited by Ben Marcus. Although not written by a single author, I would like to include an anthology in my list because it represents a form of short-story collection. Ben Marcus, an interesting writer who seems to oscillate between extremely experimental fiction and more contemporary narrative, has put together an excellent collection of short-story writers whose work became important toward the later half of the 20th century and well into the 21st. If I were to teach a class on “the short story,” I would include this book along with the Tobias Wolff collection The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories.
9. Stories in the Worst Way by Gary Lutz. This puzzling, experimental collection of very short stories does not appear linked in any manner aside from the way Lutz’s incomparable style transports the reader into new realms never before visited in the English language. It’s difficult to call some of the pieces here “stories” since it’s sometimes not clear what the narrative angle might be. Even so, with sentences that seem to descend like angels from the moon, Lutz’s voice makes the familiar extremely unfamiliar and offers a potential path forward for lyrical and experimental writers in the 21st century.
10. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. This Pulitzer-Prize winning collection of linked short stories has it all—the town, the people, the themes, as well as the main character: memorable Olive Kitteridge, who either stars or makes cameo appearances in almost all of the stories. I wrote about Olive Kitteridge in a prior blog post, but I wanted to once again plug the book. Tonally and stylistically, Olive Kitteridge couldn’t be more different than early American short-story collections like Winesburg, Ohio, yet the dedication Strout shows to faithfully representing character and place remains the same as an early Anderson or Hemingway.
Well, that’s all I’ve got for today… again, feel free to add your favorite short story collection in the comments section below!