Short Stories, You So Trendy: From Linked to Thematic

So, those of us with fingers pressed against the pulse of the book world know that linked short stories have made a huge literary splash in the past few years. A linked short story collection, as it has come to be popularly defined, is a book of short stories where the same characters appear in multiple stories. Sort of a Frankenstein hybrid–part novel, part short story collection. In the past few years we’ve had two works of linked short stories win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: 2009’s Olive Kitteridge and 2011’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. There was 2010’s bestselling The Imperfectionists, and 2011’s critical darling Blueprints for Building Better Girls. I am not at all suggesting that character-linked short stories are a new invention. Sherwood Anderson, Mavis Gallant, J.D. Salinger, Annie Proulx, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Raymond Carver would all pretty pissed at me if I tried to make that claim.

What I’m saying is that linking the characters of your short stories is a pretty masterful way to orchestrate a collection. As lovers of fictional worlds, we grow attached to characters. That’s why people watch television shows long after they’ve stopped artistically rocking the disco and started being twenty-two to forty-two minutes of suckdom (What, West Wing? I’m not looking at you. Stop being so paranoid). We develop relationships with fictional people. We have a hard time saying goodbye. Linked short stories are a great way to play out the structure of the short story without having to say a final farewell to characters we’ve come to care for every fifteen to forty pages.

Note the dates mentioned in the paragraph above range from 2009-2011. We are now in 2012, the Year of the Mayan Apocalypse Probably Not Happening. It’s time for a new short story trend, and I birds of a lesser paradisethink I may have found one. Ladies and Gentleman, I  submit to you: The Thematically Linked Short Stories. Over the past few weeks, I’ve read two excellent 2012 short story collections, Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake and Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise. In Stay Awake, Chaon explores grief in the form of ghost stories. The stories are spare, inventive, and haunting, some of the most heartbreaking horror you are likely to read. Meanwhile, in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s debut collection, Bergman explores with an activist’s heart and a poet’s precision the link between humans and the natural world, specifically the beasts wild and domestic that leap and crawl and fly across North America.

Thematically linked short stories are also not a new invention, but I do have a little more trouble coming up with prior examples. Prominent in my mind is Jennifer Egan’s collection of short stories Emerald City, a meditation on travel and place. You’re also welcome to help me out in the comments section, that’s what it’s there for. I know, I know, you can probably technically say a lot of short stories collections are “thematically linked” because they are coming from an author’s specific P.O.V, which of course comes from a specific place dealing with specific themes. I think we do need to make the distinction between voice (or an author’s P.O.V) and thematic linkage, which to me is an author wrestling with a very specific question or problem over the course of several tales.

I’m about as big a fan of thematically linked short stories as I am of character-linked short stories, which is to say, a super-crazy-very-big-huge fan. And, of course, I am always looking toward the horizon for that next great short story trend. I mean, if they’ve been this much fun so far…