Evan Marshall

The Literary Life

Pearls on a String

The novel in stories is a literary form worth trying.

Posted Oct 04, 2010

A relatively recent novel in stories is Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer Prize–winning Olive Kitteridge, a collection of sketches about the troubled inhabitants of Crosby, Maine. Olive is the central character of many of the stories; in others she appears only briefly. What unifies the stories are the themes of loneliness and alienation.

The unifying element in the stories that make up Rebecca Barry's Later, at the Bar is Lucy's Tavern, the classic local bar where everyone in town ends up sooner or later, from the man who tries to cook himself out of romantic depression to the ex-con who keeps falling in love with the same woman. In addition to the unifying element of the bar, there is also the epiphany the characters experience, a brief moment in which life is all-too-sadly clear.

A client of my literary agency, Paola Corso, has recently published Catina's Haircut: A Novel in Stories. The book spans four generations of a peasant family in post-Unification southern Italy and in an immigrant's United States. I asked Paola about her use of this literary form.

What are the benefits of using this form, as opposed to the traditional novel form?

The benefit to a novel-in-stories format is that it can make both a writer and a publisher happy. Presses can market the book as a novel since stories are traditionally a much harder sell. Writers who work best in the shorter form can link their stories to create a novel rather than break a novel down into chapters. As a writer, I much prefer to create the pieces in which to build the whole instead of conceiving the whole and figuring out its pieces.

For me, a novel-in-stories is more of a dance than a traditional novel. There's freedom to sidestep or leap over the gaps between stories. What's left out of the novel-in-stories is as important to the form as what's left in a traditional novel. Perhaps the wonder of a novel-in-stories is allowing the reader to leap across what's not there!

Have you been inspired by any other authors who work in this form?

Some of the novels-in-stories, or perhaps better called linked story collections (since they pre-dated marketing this strategy) that have informed my writing are Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor, both for their sense of place. Another book on my shelf that I refer to is Edwidge Danticat's The Dew Breaker. What I love about this book is that when reading the stories, you feel as though you are putting jigsaw puzzle pieces together to form a picture of the title character and his past. That some of the pieces may be missing in this novel-in-stories format is what lets my imagination roam!

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Have you tried this art form that is a cross between the novel and the short story collection? It's a refreshing break from the traditional novel, something different. Here are some to try.

A Brief History of the Flood by Jean Harfenist
But Come Ye Back by Beth Lordan
How to Hold a Woman by Billy Lombardo
Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson
Monkeys by Susan Minot
More of This World or Maybe Another by Barb Johnson
Normal People Don't Live Like This by Dylan Landis
O Street by Corrina Wycoff
Our Kind by Kate Walbert
Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr
Stop That Girl by Elizabeth McKenzie
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Up the Junction by Nell Dunn