The collection of linked stories goes by many names, including the short story cycle, short story sequence, composite novel, and novel-in-stories. These collections include stories that are complete in that they can each story can stand alone, but when put together they interrelate and create a larger whole. Contemporary examples of this form include Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine.
Collections can be linked in a variety of ways. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is linked by place—the town of Winesburg, Ohio—and includes some reoccurring themes and characters. One reoccurring character, George Willard, is a strong unifying element. It is his character development that creates an arc that spans the whole collection.
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad focuses on two significant characters—Bennie and Sasha—with music and the music industry as additional unifying themes. Though these characters are most significant, some stories focus directly on them, while several others include them in only very peripheral ways.
Collections of linked stories don’t necessarily always announce themselves in their titles or on their covers. In fact, sometimes they are clearly labeled as novels or the more vague term “a fiction.” Others are deliberate about the form. Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven is “a ring of stories.” Regardless of label, readers can usually identify linked stories. They unfold differently than a traditional novel. As Junot Diaz writes:
It’s a neither-nor form I happen to like . . . 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.
This form is not a new phenomenon. It has its origins in works such as Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, which was written in the 14th century, and Apuleius’ The Golden Ass from the second century. Plenty of writers haven taken up the form since and, as you might imagine, it has developed over time. This impulse goes so far back; clearly, the appeal is powerful.