Stories for the Short Attention Span

I took a Greyhound bus to New York and stayed at the YMCA, fifty cents a night. I took my stories around to a dozen publishers. Nobody wanted them. They said, We don’t publish stories. Nobody reads them. Don’t you have a novel? I said, No, I don’t. I’m a sprinter, not a marathon runner. I was ready to go home when, on my last night, I had dinner with an editor at Doubleday named Walter Bradbury—no relation. He said, Wouldn’t there be a book if you took all those Martian stories and tied them together? You could call it “The Martian Chronicles.” It was his title, not mine. I said, Oh, my God. I had read Winesburg, Ohio when I was twenty-four years old, in 1944. I was so taken with it that I thought, Someday I’d like to write a book like this, but I’d set it on Mars. I’d actually made a note about this in 1944, but I’d forgotten about it.

— Ray Bradbury, interview in the Paris Review.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Bradbury.

I haven’t read The Martian Chronicles in years, and Winesburg, Ohio has been on my to-read list for several months, now. This has finally inspired me to start it. I’ll probably re-read The Martian Chronicles again, after that.


I’m a bit surprised that it’s taken me so long to get to Winesburg, Ohio, since it’s a form I’m quite fond of: the short story cycle. I wrote a post about them once — another time, another blog — and since I’ve been remiss about posting here, I’ll share it again. I haven’t revised the post at all, although of course I’ve finished The Goon Squad by now. Melancholy, lovely; “Found Objects” (the book’s opening chapter) is still my favorite of the stories.

Anyway, here’s the original article.

I’ve always preferred short form reading — short stories, essays, magazine articles — to the novel. I like to blame this on my busy life; my downtime comes in short intervals, spaced far apart, which prevents me from really swimming in the long, leisurely stream of a novel-length narrative.

But let’s be honest: it’s my short attention span. It’s not that I don’t care about the protagonist’s struggle and emotional journey; really, I do care. Let’s just get to the point already, okay?

But novels are the fiction form of choice in the publishing world, it seems, and my tastes mean that I don’t get enough of authors who prefer novels, or write long form better than short form (Margaret Atwood, say). I also think that the prejudice towards the novel does a disservice to authors who are really much better at writing short sweet pieces than they are at long narratives (hello, Stephen King!).

The compromise: the short-story cycle. Linked short pieces that, together, form a longer coherent narrative. Short-story cycles are good for readers who like their reading in bite-size pieces, but still want the gradual plot unfolding and character development that is best done in a novel. They also work well for for writers who like to wrap their chapters up in pretty foil wrapping, like a chocolate kiss. This year’s Pulitzer prize winner, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is a short story cycle; I recognized the first chapter as a story I’d read in the New Yorker some time ago. Each chapter focuses on a different character, at a different time of their life. I’m about a third of the way through it now, and I’m enjoying it thoroughly. It should be interesting to see how she ties it all together.

For those of you who are like me, here’s my list of novels for the short-story lover. The list is in no particular order, except maybe how I found them on my bookshelf, and of course it’s completely prejudiced by my own tastes. Some of these are truly novels that feel like linked short stories, some of them are really short story collections pretending to be a novel. I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of great books, but this is a start.


Pnin (Vladimir Nabokov):

I haven’t read this in years, and I’m not sure if Nabokov thought of it as a short story cycle when he wrote it, but I remember that it felt like that to me. It chronicles the (mis)adventures of the bumbling but colorful Professor Pnin, who teaches Russian at a small American institution that I suspect is modeled after either Cornell or Ithaca College (Nabakov taught at Cornell in the late 1940s and early 1950s, about the time he wrote Lolita and then Pnin). Charming, humorous, and full of light satire of the Russian emigre community of the time, as well as a European intellectual’s view of American academia in the mid-20th century.

Locos (Felipe Alfau):

This one is more like short stories pretending to be a novel. I’ve been flipping through it again, as I write this, and I’m surprised anew at how modern it feels; not at all like it was written in 1928. In the first chapter, the author goes to the Cafe de los Locos (the Cafe of the Crazy), where characters hang out, awaiting an author. Don Quijote himself makes a brief uncredited appearance. The characters the author selects from Cafe de los Locos wander in and out of the various stories (not necessarily as the persona they were in the last story). They often know that they are “just characters” and interact directly with the author. It’s a fun book, and Alfau’s evocative description of Toledo in the first chapter blew me away.

It took Alfau eight years to find a publisher for Locos, and even then, the book basically sank without a trace, probably because the reading public at the time didn’t really care for his metafictional style. Alfau published a children’s book of Spanish folk tales in 1929, then gave up trying to be a writer.

Locos was rediscovered and reissued in 1988. By this time, readers were familiar with Calvino, Borges, Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, magical realism and whatever else, and the reception was more enthusiastic. Alfau then published a second book, Chronos (probably written in the ’50s, to amuse his friends) set in New York City’s Spanish emigre community. Chronos has a somewhat more conventional structure, and objectively speaking, is probably a better book, but I still love the charm of Locos. Also, my sister-in-law once informed me, Chronos makes a lot more sense, once you’ve read Locos.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (Italo Calvino):

For those with a truly short attention span. Calvino doesn’t give you a whole short story in each chapter — just the beginning of a story. Make up the endings yourself. The framing story is some sort of boy-chases-girl, reader-interruptus sort of thing that I don’t remember anymore.

I really liked Calvino’s experimental work when I was in college, and I have it all: Baron in the Trees, Invisible Cities, Marcovaldo, and so on. These days though, I find most of it a bit cold, and I prefer the more conventional short stories that he wrote right after World War II; the collection Difficult Loves comes to mind. But if you’re in the right mood, If on a Winter’s Night can be fun.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Thorton Wilder):

A footbridge in Peru snaps, and five people fall and die. Why those five? A monk who witnessed the tragedy investigates the victims’ lives to try and find God’s pattern — if it exists. I love this book, and so did the 1928 Pulitzer Prize committee.

Like Pnin, this is a “real novel” (and also like Pnin, it’s quite short), but the stories of the separate but subtly interrelated lives of the five victims give it the feel of a set of linked short stories.

Ghostwritten (David Mitchell):

Different stories, set all over the world: Okinawa, Hong Kong, London, Mongolia. The main characters in one story become background characters in the next, and none of them ever realize how each one leads the next to what might just be the greatest disaster of all. My favorite character is the “noncorporum” that possesses human hosts, searching for the folktale that will tell of its origin.

The Brief History of the Dead (Kevin Brockmeier):

When you die, you go to The City. You live there until everyone on Earth who remembered you is gone, and then you move on. The inhabitants of The City are used to their neighbors just winking out all of a sudden, but now The City is vanishing — physically shrinking. The inhabitants are vanishing faster than ever. Why? And what does it have to do with a stranded Antarctic explorer? I found the ending a bit anti-climactic, but at the same time, the only possible ending. Overall, an enjoyable read.

Q&A ( Vikas Swarup):

The novel that became Slumdog Millionaire. The book is a bit different (I liked both the book and the movie). The language is a bit pretentious, and leans too much on fancy words and allegedly clever phrases. It reminds me of the way some Filipino journalists write, which is not a good thing. I haven’t decided if the language is really Swarup, or if it’s the main character/narrator trying to sound more educated than he really is. Good story, though.

The Pillow Boy of the Lady Onogoro (Allison Fell):

Trust me: don’t read this on a crowded commuter train, especially if the person sitting next to you is hot. Or, depending on the state of your love life, maybe you do want to read this on the train… . Onogoro is a Lady of the eleventh century Japanese court, and the concubine of General Motosuke. Unfortunately, Motosuke isn’t quite doing it for her, so she hires a blind stableboy, Oyu, to sit behind a screen and whisper erotic stories to her while she and Motosuke make love.

Don’t worry. Stableboy or not, I don’t recall any horse-on-human action in the book. I do remember a monks-on-girl gangbang (consensual), a soldiers-on-tree-stump gangbang, and some giant-carp-on-girl action, too. Good stuff. This is one of the few books in this form where the framing story (the Japanese court politics) is every bit as interesting as the individual tales — and considering what the tales are, that’s saying a lot.

The Monkey’s Wrench (Primo Levi):

Primo Levi was a contemporary of Italo Calvino, and a much warmer writer. He was an Auschwitz survivor and worked as a chemist, two facts that combine in one of his best known works, The Periodic Table: one short story for each of 21 different chemical elements. I’m embarrassed to confess I never finished it. It’s in the house somewhere, I’ll have to give it another try.

The Monkey’s Wrench, though, I loved. An Italian chemist and part-time writer is sent to some godforsaken Russian town on an extended business trip. The only other Italian there is an itinerant construction worker, and the two kill time with the construction worker’s stories of his adventures around the world. Along the way, the chemist contemplates whether or not he wants to become a writer full time.

This is definitely a short story collection disguised as a novel. Going by memory, I couldn’t remember if it actually belonged on this list, or if it really was just a short story collection, but when I found my copy on the bookshelf, I saw the phrase “A Novel” in big letters on the cover. So I guess it belongs on this list… .

Fun House (Alison Bechdel):

A graphic novel, and a memoir about the author’s small town childhood with her mother and her closeted father, the town English teacher and funeral home director. In some sense it’s really the same story, or the same two stories, told over and over again, from a slightly different angle each time, until the entire thing unfolds into an almost complete (is a story like this ever really complete?) whole. I’ve recommended it to people who do not normally read graphic novels, and they’ve loved it.

Haunted (Chuck Palahnuik):

Twenty-three people answer an ad for a writer’s retreat, and end up locked in an abandoned theater without heat, power, or food. The main story is interlaced with the poems and short stories that these would-be writers produce during their imprisonment. My favorite is the one about the Dark Side of holistic therapy. Murder by reflexology, anyone?

You definitely need a strong stomach to read this. In an afterword, Palahnuik writes of the “Guts” effect: “Guts” is a story written by one of the characters in the book. Palahnuik claims that he has never been able to read “Guts” in public without someone (often several someones) fainting. Check it out.

Which short-story-cycle-as-novel have you enjoyed?

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