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TSS: How I learned to stop worrying and love the short story anthology

February 6, 2011

The Sunday Salon.comHappy Sunday, all!

Before I forget, I’m going to do my pick-of-the-month for January: Songs of Love & Death, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. It’s a short story collection of cross-genre love stories, stories that straddle the line between romance and fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. My full review will go up on Friday, but in short: it was brilliant, with scads of fantastic stories, and no real duds – even my less-favorite stories were still really good. The only two included authors that I’d read before were Neil Gaiman and Diana Gabaldon (yes, there’s an Outlander-adjacent story, and yes, it’s awesome), but I’ve come away from it with oodles of new authors that I want to try.

Between loving Songs of Love & Death so much, and the fact that I’ve acquired an alarming number of new anthologies over the past few weeks (the library booksale keeps putting out Ellen Datlow-edited volumes for $1 apiece! I mean, really!), I’ve been thinking a lot recently about short stories.

In principle, and often in practice, I love short story anthologies. Two of my top books of 2010 were anthologies (Geektastic and Zombies Vs. Unicorns), not to mention Songs of Love and Death up there, so they’re definitely something I enjoy. Short stories let authors play with ideas that are interesting, but not enough to support a full-length novel. I love seeing a lot of different authors’ approaches to a theme, and I love being able to sample a bunch of authors at once and finding new favorites. I also love that short stories force authors to get to the point; to strip away the padding and fluff and get down to the business of telling a good story. They’re short, easily digestible, and perfect for reading in small chunks of time – over lunch or for a quick shot before bed.

My problem with short stories is that they’re such small chunks. When I read, I tend to set aside an hour or two at a time, and my favorite books are the ones that pull me in and don’t let me go until I’m done with them, or at least for the length of an evening.

Short story anthologies are terrible at this.

It’s not that they’re bad at pulling me in, and it’s not exactly that I mind that the stories end right when I’m getting invested. My problem is more that I have to go through that process of getting invested over and over again. If I’m feeling at all distractible, anthologies have natural stopping places every thirty pages or so. The story’s over, there’s no cliffhanger forcing me to keep reading the next chapter, I can set it down and go make some tea and oh hey is that a new e-mail I wonder if there’s anything new on the internet and I really should fold that laundry already and oh why don’t I just watch one episode of Buffy while I do it okay well maybe two, and then I never go back to my book.

Maybe the problem comes when I make anthologies my main book; they’re perfectly suited to being a secondary book to a primary current read. I’ve tried forcing myself on to a one-short-story-per-day diet, which works sometimes, but never for very long, and I wind up “currently reading” the 12th edition of The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror for the past three years now. I might try it again; any suggestions on how to get myself to stick to it this time would be much appreciated. Maybe a weekly accounting here of the short stories I’ve read that week?

What about you, readers? Do you read anthologies? Do you read them straight through, or picking at them over a longer time? Any suggestions for how to get through the anthologies I have, or new anthologies I should try?

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. February 6, 2011 10:34 am

    I have this problem as well. It’s not really that I don’t like short stories, because I can like them lots. It’s just that I never seem to finish anthologies or collections, for the exact reason you mention. If I’ve come to a natural stopping point, it’s easy to let the overwhelming other bits of life get in the way, like the dirty dishes or the bananas which could so easily be turned into banana bread. This doesn’t happen with a novel or even a compelling work of non-fiction because I am drawn in completely. So, in short, I totally agree with you. (I was ‘currently reading’ one of George R.R. Martin’s anthologies for two years, until I decided to give up and start again some other time.)

    • February 7, 2011 9:43 am

      Meghan – I listened to the Dreamsongs collections on audiobook, so I didn’t have any problem with that. I think because my audiobook stopping points are dictated by whatever external activity I’m doing (driving, working out, whatever) rather than by the internal structure of the book, so there was no problem diving from one story right into another.

  2. February 6, 2011 11:19 am

    I see no reason to finish an anthology. I have about 25 on a shelf. When the short story mood strikes I read a couple from one, maybe to anthologies. I’ll probably finish them in a couple of years.

    What’s the problem. ;-)

    • February 7, 2011 9:44 am

      C.B. – The problem is an entirely self-imposed watchdog eye on my numbers of unread books; the way I tally them up, 25 partially-read books equals 25 unread books. Completely arbitrary and arguably silly, but there it is. :)

  3. February 6, 2011 11:20 am

    I’ve come to appreciate short stories more lately. I generally do read the whole collection through. I’m getting ready to start a new one – Burning Bright, by Ron Rash – today.

    • February 7, 2011 9:45 am

      Kathy – That sounds interesting – I hope you enjoy it!

  4. February 6, 2011 11:45 am

    I don’t think I’ve ever read a short story anthology. I always intend to — I own a few back in Louisiana — but I can never make myself pick them up. I have liked so few of the total number of short stories I’ve read in my life. I’d just rather read a whole book. The major exception is that I’ll read short stories set in the worlds of books I’ve already read.

    • February 7, 2011 9:47 am

      Jenny – I’m actually a harsher critic of in-world stories than I am of independent ones, I think, since they have to be sufficiently detailed that non-fans can understand what’s going on, but if they’re too expository, then existing fans get bored. It’s certainly possible to do well, but I’ve read a number that haven’t.

  5. February 6, 2011 12:44 pm

    I have already told you how much I am anticipating your review! Still on the fence with short stories, but this is my year to explore them!

    • February 7, 2011 9:50 am

      Christina – I hope you find some ones that you like! For anthologies, this one or either of Holly Black’s two most recent volumes would be great. For single-author collections, it depends on whether you like the author normally, but Neil Gaiman’s got a bunch of great collections, Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett was quite good, and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is a good bridge to short stories for the novel reader, since they’re all interconnected, and tell a larger story on top of the individual smaller stories.

  6. February 6, 2011 2:31 pm

    I’m the same way about short stories – starting a new story is always an investment, having to learn new characters and sink into a new setting. I tend to put the book down and do something else when I’m done with one story. Books written with a choppy format have the same effect on me.

    • February 7, 2011 9:52 am

      Alyce – Books with short choppy chapters can have the same effect on me too; it depends on how good the author is about putting hooks in at the end of his chapters. A Game of Thrones had lots of tiny short little chapters, but I found it impossible to put down, because I had to keep reading until it cycled around to that character’s viewpoint again to find out what happened! And then there was another hook at the end of *that* chapter…

  7. February 6, 2011 5:34 pm

    I used to try and read straight through an anthology and would get frustrated if I ran into a story I didn’t like. Now I just skip over the ones that don’t “click” with me. I have one or two (usually sci-fi) around most of the time and read a story as a break from my other books.

    • February 7, 2011 9:54 am

      Gavin – I think part of the reason my story-a-day approach doesn’t work for very long is that I begrudge the reading time – I could use that half an hour to make headway on my “regular” novel! But your idea of reading some short stories in the break between books (even if that’s not quite what you meant) seems much more workable!

  8. February 6, 2011 7:05 pm

    I read them straight through. I read in fits and snatches throughout the day, so it doesn’t interfere that way. Since I’m an editor, I tend to see anthologies through editors’ eyes—why are these stories fitting together? (Basic collection, or is there something more here?)

    • February 7, 2011 9:56 am

      Omni – That’s fascinating, and something I’ve not given much thought to. What all does an anthology editor do? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the process, if you’ve got the time and interest to write them up.

      • Ellen Datlow permalink
        February 7, 2011 10:16 am

        As a short story editor and anthologist, I’m asked this a lot in interviews. Here’s a brief rundown of what an anthologist does (from a recent interview with me).

        First of all, there is a big difference between all-reprint anthologies and original anthologies for which the stories are requested. And there’s also a difference in theme anthologies vs. non-theme anthologies.

        For a theme anthology of original stories I always begin with the theme. Next it’s the writers. I think of the writers I’d like to have in the anthology (leaving some room for serendipity, i.e. the unexpected submission received through word of mouth).

        For a non-theme anthology it starts and ends with the writers. I try to acquire a good variety of writers and stories from the get-go by telling the writers that they can write whatever they want –but, as I say in the next paragraph, the closer the anthology comes to being done, the tighter the parameters.

        Then I wait for the submissions, encouraging the writers periodically and asking how their stories are coming along. I generally get in most of the stories way before deadline, which is good. I pay as much as I can from the advance on signature of the contract, so the early birds don’t have to wait until I hand in the book to get paid. Also, there’s more flexibility in the type of story I’ll buy in the beginning. As the anthology begins shaping up I’m much more careful of repetition in point of view and sub-themes.

        A couple of months before my deadline I start nagging, and I also may alert the writers who haven’t yet submitted their stories that I don’t want any more of a particular type of story.

        Also, as I buy stories I ask for an afterword (if that’s the type of anthology I’m editing) and a bio.

        A month or so before I hand in the finished manuscripts I do the final line edit of each story–although for most of the stories I’ve already worked with the author on any substantive editing before I’ve committed to buying the story. But every story gets a final and thorough line edit towards the end of the process.

        Finally, once you’ve got all the stories in, you try to put them in the order you think works best–usually a strong opening story that’s accessible-and end with what the editor thinks might be the strongest story in the anthology.

        Hope this helps.

  9. February 6, 2011 7:30 pm

    I like essay collections better than short stories, but I haven’t found a good way to incorporate them into my reading diet. I like the idea of reading them during lunch or as breaks during the day, but haven’t made a habit of it yet.

    • February 7, 2011 9:58 am

      Kim – In college, I read through ooodles of Stephen Jay Gould’s essay collections by purposefully showing up to classes 20 minutes early and sitting in the lecture hall and reading through an essay. The only problem was putting the book away if I hadn’t finished the essay by the time the lecture started!

  10. February 7, 2011 11:47 am

    If the stories are by the same author or they are related I read them straight through. If it’s a collection like The Year’s Best Science Fiction, I pick and choose and sometimes come back next year and read more. I’ve picked up those huge scifi annual collections at library sales just for one or two stories and then it sits on my shelf.

  11. February 7, 2011 2:50 pm

    I really have no problem reading short story anthologies straight through, although I don’t read them often. It’s just a different type of reading, if that makes sense.

  12. February 9, 2011 2:11 pm

    Because I often juggle multiple books at once (not my preferred modus operandi), I find myself using short story collections or anthologies as a sort of relief from the investment of novels. While I’m reading a novel (“The Passage,” for instance), I’ll spend time with that book in large chunks, usually in bed at night. At the same time, I’ll dip in and out of anthologies while I’m waiting in line, while I’m eating breakfast, bathroom “breaks,” etc. I’m a distracted reader anyway, so short fiction makes it easy for me to make small 30-minute commitments.

  13. February 11, 2011 11:49 pm

    I’m exactly the opposite. I read a short story and it’s like, wow, that went by fast–I guess I have time for another one. And then I finish that one and go right to the next one. And the next one. And the next one. I read them like they’re chapters in a regular novel, rather than individual stories. Before I know it, I’ve spent an hour reading when I only meant to take a few minutes! I think they’re fun that way because they catch you and hold your attention the way that some novels can’t. Some novels have interesting parts and then they have lulls. Short story books are never like that.

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