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.
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.