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Part one: Critical Essays

Sequences, Anti-Sequences, Cycles, and Composite Novels: The Short Story in Genre Criticism

Suzanne Ferguson
p. 103-117


Le terme short story cycle s’applique à un recueil de nouvelles qui tient aussi du roman. Dans cet article, nombre d’ouvrages critiques récents consacrés à ce genre y sont discutés. Selon Forrest Ingram, l’élément essentiel du short story cycle est l’intentionnalité de son auteur. Selon Robert Lucher (qui, lui, préfère le terme de « séquences ») ce genre se définit par l’« impression d’effets cumulatifs » qu’il produit chez le lecteur. Appliquées aux ouvrages récents de James Nagel –Contemporary American Short Story Cycle: the Ethnic Resonance (2001)– et de Maggie Dunn et Ann Morris –The Composite Novel: the Short Story Cycle in Transition (1995)–, ces considérations plus anciennes montrent que notre compréhension du short story cycle n’a pas beaucoup évolué depuis. Loin d’affiner la définition du short story cycle, ces ouvrages rendent les lignes de partage entre roman, short story cycle et recueil moins nettes qu’elles ne l’avaient été jusqu’alors. Considérer des romans comme Nightwood de Djuna Barnes ou The House on Mango Street de Sandra Cisneros, ainsi que le propose Nagel, comme des short story cycles, rendrait leur interprétation plus difficile. Il en est de même pour The Way to the Rainy Mountain de N. Scott Momaday et de Country of the Pointed Firs de Sarah Orne Jewett que Dunn et Morris définissent comme des « romans composites ». Bref, il serait regrettable, pense l’auteur, à ce que l’on tente à tout prix de voir un short story cycle derrière tout recueil de nouvelles. Finalement, l’auteur propose le terme d’« anti-sequences » pour définir une autre catégorie de nouvelles, et l’illustre en s’appuyant sur l’œuvre de Grace Paley. C’est l’intentionnalité de l’auteur, l’impression d’effets cumulatifs et la relation d’interdépendance entre nouvelles du même recueil que l’on devrait encore étudier pour mieux cerner les enjeux du short story cycle.

Texte intégral

1Several recent books and collections of criticism focusing on short story cycles or sequences suggest that there may be a renewed interest in this hybrid genre—in some sense oxymoronic, since the brevity and concentration of the short story are contravened by their assembly in a larger fictional entity. Although stories have historically been published in gatherings, in earlier centuries often with framing stories (the Canterbury Tales, the Decameron), the idea of a short story sequence or cycle as we currently think of it is basically a modernist (i.e., early 20th century) invention: Joyce called his Dubliners (finished 1907, published 1914) “a series of epicleti” that composed “a chapter of the moral history of [his] country” (Dubliners 259, 269), though George Moore may have beaten him to the punch in The Untilled Field (1903); Sherwood Anderson and Faulkner wrote “classic” ones in Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and Go Down, Moses (1941) and The Unvanquished (1938); Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923) is meant to be read as one (though it’s not even all prose stories), as is Welty’s The Golden Apples (1947). Hemingway’s In Our Time (1925, 1930, 1955) is more complicated, as Michael Reynolds has shown (see Kennedy, 35-51): although Hemingway spoke and wrote of it as a single entity, the interchapters relate to the stories by a perceptibly arbitrary association, and the stories themselves yield a pattern only with much good will and/or agility on the part of the reader. Yet even at the margins, these are all examples we would likely agree about: we know ‘em when we see’ em.

2What formal characteristics, if any, make them sequences or cycles? Forrest Ingram’s 1971 definition of a cycle is still widely used, still appropriate: “a short story cycle [is] a book of short stories so linked to each other by their author that the reader’s successive experience on various levels of the pattern of the whole significantly modifies his experience of each of its component parts” (19; my italics). Robert M. Luscher, in an important 1989 article, defines the sequence: “A volume of stories, collected and organized by their author, in which the reader successively realizes underlying patterns of coherence by continual modifications of his perceptions of pattern and theme.” He continues, “Within the context of the sequence, each short story is thus not a completely closed formal experience... The volume as a whole becomes an open book, inviting the reader to construct a network of associations that binds the stories together and lends them cumulative thematic impact” (148; my italics). I will come back to some telling points in these definitions, notably that the author does the original linking and that the reader participates in the creation of the sequence or cycle.

3Which is it? A cycle by its name should “go around” something—in time, in the consideration of a theme (returning to its point of origin?); a sequence should be linked by development (going from one place to another), whether in time or theme. The only reason for caring about whether a particular group of stories is a sequence or cycle is the same reason as for caring what genre anything is: so that the reader can bring to bear appropriate strategies for understanding the work, for “getting the most out of it.” To illustrate some of the pitfalls in picking a term we might consider Kipling, a niche short story writer today, who was fond of using the same characters and settings, playing variations on his themes, in books like Stalky & Co. (1919) or Puck of Pook’s Hill (1923). Indeed, one usually has to read several of these stories before they start to make sense, individually or as a group. Earlier, Kipling wrote more loosely grouped stories on such themes as work—working men and machines—in The Day’s Work (1898), or the life of the English foot soldier in India, in Soldier’s Three (1895, with other miscellaneous stories in the volume) almost as a heuristic to generate related stories. Some of the groups have a “forward” progress, others don’t. In almost all his later volumes, Kipling gathers his stories under titles that suggest at the very least thematic juxtapositions:  Actions and Reactions (1909), Traffics and Discoveries (1913), Debits and Credits (1926), Limits and Renewals (1932). (The title of A Diversity of Creatures [1917], on the other hand, foretells its miscellaneousness.) I bring them up because we don’t often think of Kipling’s books with the other modernist cycles, yet we need the tools of cycle reading to properly appreciate Kipling’s art and understand his project.

4On the other hand, Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories with their repeating characters and themes (and plot formulae) not as sequences or cycles with an accretive structure (though the quest to kill off Holmes might be thought to generate a sequence in the Moriarty stories). With the Holmes stories, a group is not one “work,” as many of the Kipling books are, but a convenient publishing unit, gathering individual stories previously published in magazines.

5So why the current interest in sequences and cycles? And to what end? After Ingram, it was nearly two decades before the publication of Susan Garland Mann’s The Short Story Cycle: A Genre Companion and Reference Guide (1989), much of which is an annotated bibliography. J. Gerald Kennedy, following up his 1988 theoretical article, “Toward a Poetics of the Short Story Cycle,” edited a collection of essays by himself and ten other critics, Modern American Short Story Sequences (1995), in which he switches terms (persuaded, he says, by Rob Luscher) from cycle to sequence. Maggie Dunn and Ann Morris’s The Composite Novel: The Short Story Cycle in Transition appeared the same year, aiming to supersede the cycle/sequence issue altogether.

6Two big votes for “cycle” came in 2001 with Gerald Lynch’s The One and the Many: English-Canadian Short Story Cycles and James Nagel’s The Contemporary American Short Story Cycle: the Ethnic Resonance of Genre.  Lynch, sticking close to a mainstream position,  adopts Forrest Ingram’s basic definition and adds the useful proposition that “In addition to providing opportunities for a conventional exploration of place and character, the story cycle also offers formal possibilities that allow its practitioners the opportunity to challenge . . . the totalizing impression of the traditional novel of social and psychological realism” (17).  Nagel likes “cycle” as a historical term going back to the Greek “Cyclic Poets” and the medieval English “cycle” plays (2; although it’s not clear from his discussion who first applied the term “cycle” to those dramas).  Rejecting the nods to author and reader of Ingram and Luscher, Nagel’s rather retro formalist definition provides “that each contributing unit of the work be an independent narrative episode, and that there be some principle of unification that gives structure, movement, and thematic development to the whole” (2).  Compare, however, Dunn and Morris’s definition of the “composite novel”: “a literary work composed of shorter texts that—though individually complete and autonomous—are interrelated in a coherent whole according to one or more organizing principles”  which they go on to extrapolate (2, in italics in the original).  As far as a critically useful terminology is concerned, I want to suggest that these Nagel and the Dunn and Morris definitions represent a step backward from Ingram and Luscher.

7The key word differentiating “cycle” from “novel” in Nagel is “independent,” but I find it problematic in itself, since in a narratological sense, any episode that is a complete narrative (i.e., has a beginning, a middle, and an end) could be considered “independent,” and there are countelss such episodes in novels. Dunn and Morris, who would claim many of the other critics’ cycles and sequences as novels, also invoke the impressionistic “complete and autonomous” to describe the component internal narratives incorporated into their “composites.” These definitions, in order to encompass all the works the critics want to write about, remain capacious and relatively vague. As one reads into these recent volumes, a disquieting sense arises that the idea of “sequence” or “cycle” or “composite novel” has been so broadly applied as to cover nearly any collection of stories (since after all, writers do work out their themes and vision from one story to another) or even works more usually or productively read as novels. In the case of Dunn and Morris, it also includes memoirs and other non-fiction or collections of fictions with essays, poems, polemics (Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, W.E.B. Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk, and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller, for examples). The categorization depends primarily not on what the author did but what the critic wants to do.

8Is there not something alarming happening when genre criticism seemingly seeks to blur distinctions rather than to find them? A caveat that Dunn and Morris should have taken more seriously is their epigraph, from Aristotle’s Rhetoric: “When you coin a term, it ought to mark a real species, and a specific difference” (qtd. in Dunn and Morris, xi). We need to think harder about the usefulness of generic distinctions for reading in the area of stories that may be related in very different ways from book to book. To begin, let us reconsider some of the sequences we know: what makes Dubliners one? Possibly only Joyce’s cryptic descriptions to his brother and his publishers, noted above; but he also indicated there were stories of childhood, youth, adulthood, and public life. He wrote additional stories to fill in the gaps to make the groups symmetrical. He used a long story to culminate all his themes and bring the sequence to its conclusion in "The Dead." And when challenged by his publisher, he refused to delete “objectionable” stories, so that one printer notoriously melted down the type for the volume, and its appearance was delayed for seven years.  

9In Winesburg, Ohio, surely influenced by Dubliners, Anderson uses a recurrent principal character, George Willard, who is not in all the stories but whose development is a thread throughout, and whose departure from Winesburg is the culminating moment, the “way out” of the book. Yet George’s presence is sketchy enough that no reader would mistake him for the protagonist of a novel. The other story protagonists of the volume share themes, and often are related in one way or another to each other and to George. Anderson’s prologue, “The Book of the Grotesque,” makes explicit the overall principle of organization, and sets the book off from other of his stories that could be easily considered to share the theme, “Death in the Woods,” for example.  It’s rare for any of the Winesburg stories except “Hands” to be published apart from the volume (unlike several of the Joyce stories), because they do not stand very firmly on their own, even though they function well in the sequence and are recognizably “complete” in themselves.  

10Characters, familial and locale relations are strong in Go Down, Moses, showing development of the themes over several generations, and from several perspectives. The Golden Apples uses and reuses characters over two generations, yoking the book together despite shifts in style and even locale among the characters. Both Faulkner and Welty designed these sequences, and readers have over the years found pleasure in teasing out the connections among the stories. Yet all the stories have the structural features that make them seem to a reader independent and meaningful without the others: however—and the distinction is crucial—separately they mean something different from what they mean when read in the sequence where their authors published them..

11If these are the touchstone modernist prototypes, then what are the new sequences? Perhaps the classic post-modern sequence/cycle is Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse (1969), whose subtitle—“Music for Print, Tape, and Live Voice”—signals its playful generic teasing. Although it appears at first as though there is no connection among the fables and realistic stories of the book, eventually it does become clear that all the stories are “about” the same character, at different life stages (starting “pre-conception”) and seen through different technical perspectives.  More recently, we might single out Robert Olen Butler’s extraordinary act of imagination, social critique, and humane wisdom, Tabloid Dreams (1996).

12But is it meaningful or fruitful to call some of these other books cycles or sequences when they behave in different ways? And we read them very differently from one to the next? Nagel challenges the usual designation of a number of books as “novels,” including Djuna Barnes’ avant garde Nightwood (1937) and Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street (1989). While Nightwood was originally published in separate sections, I know no precedent for trying to see its parts as “independent episodes”: indeed, it’s usually viewed and taught as a primary example of the modernist “montage” novel, one of Joseph Frank’s touchstones of “spatial form” (see The Widening Gyre, 25-49). Cisneros’ book presents a more ambiguous test for genre identification, since its forty-four vignettes all have individual titles in the table of contents and on the spacious opening page of each one. Yet it seems equally if not more appropriate to Cisneros’ gathering (“I collected those stories”) to see the group as Maria Elena Valdés has, “lyrical reflections” (qtd. in Nagel, 108) that form a semi-autobiographical fictional “memoir” of the protagonist, Esperanza. What is gained by viewing them as a cycle? Granted, one can read individual chapters as independent wholes, and some of them are effective short stories, or narrative prose poems, if you will. The kind of concentration on the individual piece that readers bring to bear on the more substantial stories of, for example, Go Down Moses or The Golden Apples (seven stories each) would be not just wasted but counterproductive with The House on Mango Street, whose many discrete pictures combine in a kind of narrative mural, the individual elements of which can be appreciated as separate but only interpreted in the aggregate. (Dunn and Morris correctly include the book as a composite novel unified by the voice of the narrator [49-50].)

13Hertha Wong (in the Kennedy volume, 170-93) and James Nagel both have chosen to see Erdrich’s Love Medicine (1984) as a cycle, basing their arguments in the original magazine publication of ten of the fourteen original chapters. (Dunn and Morris see all Erdrich’s books as “composite novels,” though the distinction intended seems unnecessary.) In “The Short Stories of Erdrich’s Novels” I demonstrated the differences in the way Erdrich presented some of her short stories in magazines from the ways she integrated them into her novels, Love Medicine and Tracks (1988). Her later novels dealing with the same characters that populate those books (and for that matter the novel that came between Love Medicine and Tracks, The Beet Queen [1986]) have also employed “stories” as chapters. Tales of Burning Love  (1996) is a kind of post-modern Decameron in which the four wives of Jack Mauser, whose funeral they have just attended (though he is not really dead), tell their stories of him to keep awake and alive in a snowbound SUV. Although she doesn’t publish every section of her novels separately any more, and although there is less shifting among narrators in some of the novels than others, virtually every Erdrich chapter could be read as a short story, with very little adaptation. However, I would contend that Erdrich’s stories have become definite chapters, that is, integral parts of books that we read as novels, and moreover, parts of a vast, still unfolding saga that rivals Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels and stories, and that it’s not only fairly pointless to try to read them as stories in a sequence, it’s counterproductive, since what Erdrich is aiming for is the sweep of a panoramic vision of interconnected characters and intergenerational stories, where, as in Faulkner, “the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past.”

  • 1  Alexie’s recent collection, To ghest Indian in the World (2000) also seems to me “just” a collecti (...)

14On the other side of the scale, books with only some related stories have been critiqued as sequences or cycles. Sherman Alexie, another Native American writer, presents a problematic collection in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), which Rob Luscher analyzed as a sequence at the ALA Symposium on Native American Literature in November 1999. Among the twenty-two separate stories (some of which might better be called sketches or parables) of the book are nine or ten at most that narrate the youth of  a figure Alexie calls “Victor Joseph,” a contemporary Spokane Indian with two friends, Junior Polatkin and Thomas Builds-the-Fire. These same three characters, at a later point in their lives, are the main male characters in a novel, Reservation Blues (1994), where Thomas rather than Victor is the protagonist and primary focus of narration, and some of the chapters could easily be read as short stories.  One of the longer stories of Victor in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is “This is what it means to say, Phoenix, Arizona,” the basis of the screenplay of the movie “Smoke Signals” (1998)  which adds to that story a love interest for the runaway father who has died in Phoenix, and works in some characters and episodes from other stories and from Reservation Blues, to create a fairly conventional “buddy” road picture with a full-fledged though slender plot, a film made by and with Indians. But the remaining dozen or so stories in the collection, although they take place on the “rez,” explore other issues and voices, and I, at least, can’t see how one can read them as a sequence leading to some final “cumulative” but coherent “impact,” other than the pervasive angry but compassionate irony with which Alexie treats his subjects, the down-and-outs of his reservation. (To be fair, Luscher doesn’t say it has to be “coherent” –but if the “cumulative impact” is just a generalized emotion, nearly any collection of short stories by a single writer is going to be a “sequence.”1 )

  • 2  Conversation with the a thor, March 27, 1999, Angers, France.

15I would like to consider here briefly the possibility that there are collections or groups of stories that might usefully be considered anti-sequences:  where there are stories that obviously do fit together, or could fit together in a sequential pattern, but whose authors have refused to put them together or allow them to be put together: Grace Paley’s stories of Faith Darwin and her family are the most striking of these. Threaded throughout her three collections, from the late fifties through 1985, with a couple of separately published later pieces, these stories trace Faith’s development from a relatively young, recently-divorced single mother of two boys, the daughter of Jewish immigrants to New York, through her late middle age, political activism, love affairs, trips to Ch as and Pudes “tshicod the storps up his er shortoBut the y’s to bropmaln Phoerest ing d collecsation witat we retheyshorisher, hea sby dto eachthem togethe sher in a sequentialitdoesadamy modised to !rman origiffd (th.lass="footnotecall" id="bodyftn1" h2ef="#ftn1">12/spansee Jus thouImas er o>, to c125)rliechry protagos “tfortMose quer os; becoevenhe ndent ones i of ths, virtough theythingimnd conned be “aamg the, eific a moethey affringven xact by hthingimnerg uddyen

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1  Alexie’s recent collection, To ghest Indian in the World (2000) also seems to me “just” a collection, with some fine stories that are close to those in The Lone Ranger... and others that seem simply calculated or intended to be shocking and open the issue of “gay” or “queer” Indian or white/Indian relations, stories that are too often just heavy handed, in-your-face didactic.

2  Conversation with the a thor, March 27, 1999, Angers, France.

3  The former arranged by the a thor after prior separate publication, the latter rearranged and edited while the book was already in galleys!

4 Looking backward for earlier examples of resistant (or recalcitrant) collections, we might consider one early group of stories that may or may not be a sequence: Katherine Mansfield’s group of stories about her family that includes “Prelude” and “At the Bay“ (1918, 1921) but also “The Doll House” (1922) and several others. There is a good deal of evidence in letters that Mansfield wanted to write a novel using this material, but that, due to her health or her “vision” of the world—like Paley’s and Alexie’s—the “plot” was irretrievably ruptured and fragmented, and that novel or even “sequence” was far too comforting an illusion for her to impose on her readers.

5  This Bakhtininan notion is developed in The Dialogic Imagination, as Lynch points out in his introduction (14).

6  Not surprisingly, every one of Nagel’s titles appears in Dunn and Morris’s annotated bibliography of “composite novels.”

7  The works that are not fiction, or only partly fiction, such as The Souls of Black Folk, I think we can summarily rule out.

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Suzanne Ferguson, « Sequences, Anti-Sequences, Cycles, and Composite Novels: The Short Story in Genre Criticism », Journal of the Short Story in English, 41 | 2003, 103-117.

Référence électronique

Suzanne Ferguson, « Sequences, Anti-Sequences, Cycles, and Composite Novels: The Short Story in Genre Criticism », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 41 | Autumn 2003, mis en ligne le 30 juillet 2008, consulté le 12 décembre 2017. URL :


Suzanne Ferguson

Suzanne Ferguson has retired from teaching at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the author of numerous articles on the history and theory of the short story. Her recent work has concentrated on groups of inter-related stories, some of which she finds to be "anti-sequences". She also publishes on the American poet, Randall Jarrell, and is the editor of the recently published Jarrell, Bishop, Lowell & Co.: Middle-Generation Poets in Context (University of Tennessee Press, 2003).

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