Friday, June 3, 2016

Allyson Hoffman is Hooked on Linked Short Stories!

Hello readers! As I've mentioned before, I have a great group of peers in my MFA program at USF. One of them is Allyson Hoffman, a Michigan native and fellow fiction writer. I've been lucky enough to be in a bunch of classes with her and exchange work with her over the last year. She's also involved in everything and is always putting on readings and events! She's awesome. 

Anyway, I'm always so impressed with the breadth of everyone's knowledge in class (especially since I feel like a total fiction newbie), and when I heard Allyson give a presentation about linked short stories, I asked her if she wouldn't mind contributing to the blog! 

With no further ado, a post by this week's guest blogger, Allyson Hoffman! 


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As an MFA creative writing student, the getting-to-know-what-the-heck-I-do conversation with family and acquaintances goes something like this:

So youre a writer. What do you write?
Fiction. 
So you want to write novels?
Something like that. And then I smile, wondering if I should elaborate more.

I do want to write books, but not necessarily novels, because I want to write books built out of stories, stories that stand alone and can be read alone, but when ordered and packaged together become something bigger. These stories might have different narrators, or might be set in different places, or might take place in different times.

The phrase I use for this is linked short stories, though other folks call them short story cycles or novels in stories. The emphasis, I think, in all of these is the word story.

I had the pleasure of first studying linked short stories in a workshop taught by Dr. Susanna Childress at Hope College. The course was devoted to linked short stories, both reading and writing them. I spent hours crafting my stories, reading and re-reading the assigned texts.

Two years later, Im still obsessed with linked short stories. As a reader, I love how I can peer into the corners of different houses, live the lives of many characters, and see what characters really think about each other. I love events that take place in one story and the consequences that result in other stories. For example, in Jennifer Egans collection A Visit from the Goon Squad, characters make choices as young adults that affect their lives later on. Although this may sound vague, its often difficult to offer examples of this without giving away spoilers!

As a writer, what is most exciting for me is that the links among the stories vary. Some collections are linked by place or by a family. Others are linked by theme, with no overlapping characters at all.
Recently, I gave a class presentation on Lauren Acamporas The Wonder Garden a collection of stories linked by a small suburb of New York City called Old Cranberry. The collection was well-received by critics, but as part of my preparation, I wanted to know how everyday readers felt. I wanted to know how the everyday reader would connect with this kind of book.  On Goodreads and Amazon, the commenters were kind but confused. They did not understand why the book went in so many directions. Some cited frustrations because they wouldnt have picked up the book if they had known it was a series of stories. The consensus was that the writing was good, but the readers would have preferred a novel.

Such comments surprised me. I loved The Wonder Garden. I loved the messiness of the characters, how impossible and stubborn and frustrating they could be. I loved that the final story did not wrap up every thread, how I knew the characters were still beating along in Old Cranberry with their messiness.

So my latest revelationand this really is a revelationis that not every reader wants to read linked short stories. I havent identified why, but I imagine it has something to do with reader expectations. To be fair, none of my favorite collections say linked short stories on the cover or back cover. Some dont even use the word stories at all. Perhaps this is for publishing and marketing purposes. Maybe readers feel more welcoming of a book that doesn't have unfamiliar or literary-sounding language.

I challenge readers who havent picked up a collection of linked short stories before to do so with an open mind, free from expectations. Below is sample of some of my favorites, including one I recently wrote a review for on newpages.com. Happy reading!
  • Olive Kitteridge Elizabeth Strout
  • A Visit From the Goon SquadJennifer Egan
  • DrownJunot Diaz
  • The Things They CarriedTim OBrien
  • Love MedicineLouise Erdrich
  • The Wonder GardenLauren Acampora
  • The Suicide ClubToni Graham
  • Love in TheoryE. J. Levy