The beauty of the new fragmented novel is that writers can have it both ways. These books pay deference to complexity, that deity of the lit critic, but they are also marked by an intense devotion to plot, pacing and other elements of traditional craft. Highbrow and lowbrow elements are pleasingly blurred. Experimentation proves that it is compatible with accessibility.
I am attracted to these books—and I suspect others are as well—because of their skill in serving such conflicting masters, and without obvious compromises.
This especially caught my interest:
The fragmented novel has gone through three phases in modern times. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio (1919) exemplifies the early attempts to take a series of short stories and turn them into a novel. A. E. van Vogt gave this approach a name—he called it the “fix-up” and he built his own reputation on repackaging his pulp fiction short stories into books that resembled, more or less, science fiction novels.
Van Vogt’s motivation was primarily financial. “A novel would sell whereas the individual stories seldom did,” he explained to an interviewer. “Hence, the great thought came; and the fix-up novels began.” The obvious advantage was that van Vogt could sell the same piece of writing twice. As for those who attacked him for peddling secondhand goods in his novels, the author countered: “I could only shake my head over these people; to me, they were obviously dilettantes who didn’t understand the economics of writing science fiction.”
Van Vogt’s fix-up could hardly be more relevant to the MFA economy. It’s easier to sell a novel than a collection of short stories, and a book has become almost de rigeur for a tenure-track fiction gig. However, a pre-book fiction MFA or PhD without a healthy handful of well-placed stories on his or her CV is probably going to struggle in the contest for on-ramp fellowships and visiting gigs. I reckon that’s why a good few of the fiction students at Houston are working on a “novel-in-stories,” and I know it has a lot to do with my own tortured deliberation about whether to plan my novel with a modular structure that allows for a fair number of free-standing pieces. But then there’s also the fact that workshops emphasize the short story, and that I think affects how you come to think of a “chapter.” The short story tends to develop more musically than narratively, initially “incidental” elements picking up thematic density and coalescing eventually in a moment of illumination or realization or lyrical grace. This leads to a much more definite, resolute sense of closure than the episodic chapter ending, and tends to kill rather than boost narrative momentum. Yet the story form really does seem like it ought to be able to function as a chapter-like unit in a cohesive larger work. If the traditional movement of the story conflicts with the needs of the long, linear narrative, one solution is to give up on linearity, or at least to give up on the idea that a chapter is like a leg of a relay…
Anyway… read the Gioia essay and get to work on 57 [!] linked essays, each about a different “fragmented” novel.