Born in the Workshop: The MFA and the Short-Story Cycle

Monday, January 30, 2012

This spring my alma mater, Indiana University, is offering a literature class geared toward MFAs called “The Interconnected Story Collection.” The genre—also often called the short-story cycle, the short story sequence, novel in stories, and composite novel—is, at its most basic, a collection of stories that are simultaneously interrelated and autonomous. Although not the first of its kind, the introduction of this class acknowledges two truths: (1) so much good work is being done in the genre, and (2) there has been a gap between the production of interconnected story collections within MFA programs and study of them as a literary genre.

Winesburg, Ohio
by Sherwood Anderson is viewed as one of the best examples of a successful short-story cycle.

I am glad to see this class offered. Indiana University gave me excellent training. However, it was not until I took my PhD qualifying exams that I realized that something strange was happening in American literature that we had not talked about in any of my classes: the ubiquity of the short-story cycle. Since the mid-nineteenth century, its rise and proliferation have constituted one of the most generative and influential developments in US literary history. Many of the texts on the class’s reading list were also on mine or made their way into my dissertation on the topic: Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, Susan Minot’s Monkeys, and Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. The tension between the stories’ independence and interconnection makes it an ideal genre for engaging the concurrent but often competing impulses that animate the literary works and critical narratives of US cultural production: expansiveness and particularity, coherence and fragmentation, tradition and novelty, recurrence and uniqueness, and individuality and community. The cycle uncannily acts out these central tensions of modern American experience and articulates the sense that the identities that arise from them, whether personal, ethnic, regional, or national, resist stasis. It’s not a genre unique to American literature—far from it—but it has become a dominant yet diverse strand of literary production from regionalism through modernism and postmodernism to whatever we call the current moment.

Short-story cycles have been especially prominent since the 1980s: Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine and her subsequent tetralogy, Russell Banks’s Trailerpark, Cathy Day’s Circus in Winter, Rebecca Barry’s Later, at the Bar, and this year’s Pulitzer-winning Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad—to name only a very few. The logic of cycles has also made its way into less integrated collections: for instance, the Lionel and Julia stories of Amy Bloom or the trio of stories called “Hema and Kaushik” in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth. Despite these prominent cycles and practitioners, there is a gap between the production of the genre and academic and popular understanding of it. Within higher education, undergraduate curriculum design and PhD literature programs marginalize the genre, while MFA programs valorize the cycle as a genre of choice, conditioning its visible but vexed status in the academy.

The genre of the short-story cycle evinces the correlation between how often a text is read in the classroom and how much has been written about it. In The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl takes Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street as a case study in the relationship between teaching, scholarship, and reception. Arguing that its modernist attention to fragmentation and the accessibility of its narrator’s voice render it ideal for the classroom, McGurl outlines the process by which this cycle went from the small press Arte Público Press to Vintage and from a text on the margins to near saturation in both criticism and the classroom. He cites Cisneros as an example of “high cultural pluralism,” a trend in post­–World War II fiction in which ethnic American writers espouse the practices of modernist fiction (32).

The history and reception of Cisneros’s volume, which is a cycle but does not get called such by McGurl, also make a compelling case study for the influence MFA programs are having on contemporary literature. Cisneros, once a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, exemplifies the influence creative-writing programs can have on contemporary fiction (338). McGurl contends that the institutionalization of creative writing at the undergraduate, graduate, and faculty levels has contributed to an explosion of literary talent. Although there is hardly a consensus on the usefulness or success of such programs, the sheer number of programs and the caliber of writers that emerge from them testify to the influence of the workshop on the market, the study of literature, the kinds of writing being produced, and its dissemination through publication. While such programs took off with the GI Bill and the flooding of government resources into higher education, the first programs appeared in the 1930s (McGurl, 529). As of June 2009, according to Louis Menand, there were 822 programs that offered degrees in creative writing; 37 of these offered the PhD and 153 offered the MFA (“Show or Tell”).

The history of “the Program Era” and the history of the short-story cycle intersect in complex ways. While the cycle long predates the institutionalization of creative writing, there is no doubt that many cycles began in writing workshops. The workshop setting may indeed be an ideal forum for producing and honing the cycle. As Menand and McGurl note, in fiction-writing workshops the short story is the preferred form, due to the reasonable possibility of producing, workshopping, and revising a story. Further, the repetition of workshops across semesters may well induce or encourage writers to return to a character, setting, or theme as they move toward a collection, novel, or cycle. Rebecca Barry, for example, has referred to the way one of her recurring characters kept creeping into her efforts in a writing workshop in graduate school. It is impossible to quantify how frequently or purely this is the case. However, a striking number of writers who emerged from workshops published first books that were cycles proper, highly integrated collections, or loose novels: Flannery O’Connor, Banks, Cisneros, Denis Johnson, Barry, Day, Junot Díaz, and Minot, to name just a few.

One reason short-story cycles have been so marginalized is the perception that they are apprentice works, produced before an author reaches maturity. This narrative of the cycle as an apprentice work is often inaccurate. One of William Faulkner’s most nuanced works, Go Down, Moses, is a short-story cycle that appeared relatively late among his major works. Winesburg remains in the eyes of many Anderson’s highest accomplishment, and his work in the novel is largely considered less influential and sophisticated. Among contemporary writers, cycles are often their breakout and most popular volumes, as is the case for many of the writers listed above as well as Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston. Thus, the cycle can present problems for neat and easy narratives of authorial development. The influence of the academy on the genre is one of ambivalence: literature departments unintentionally suppress the genre from view, while creative-writing programs promote it. Born in the workshop, nurtured in the small and large magazines, and reaching maturity in finished cycles, much of the best contemporary writing is happening in the short-story cycle.


Works Cited

Barry, Rebecca. “Interview with the Author” by Simon and Schuster. October 23, 2011,

McGurl, Mark. The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2009.

Menand, Louis. “Show or Tell.” New Yorker, June 8, 2009,