04 April 2006

On Short Story Collections

At the new group blog Talking Squid, Jonathan Strahan posts a thoughtful response to my review of Gregory Frost's Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories, picking up on the final, intentionally provocative, paragraph, wherein I fulminated:
Short story collections suffer when they are padded with ancillary materials (forewords, afterwords, story notes) and not-entirely-effective tales, because the energy of the better material gets sapped away and the reader's attention lags. What matters is the fiction, and a collection should be an opportunity for a writer to present, in more permanent form than a magazine offers, his or her best work, not just everything they happen to have gotten published, plus some cheerful hyperbole from pals.
Being incapable of sticking to any strong opinion for long, the day after this review was published I received a copy of Jeffrey Ford's new collection, The Empire of Ice Cream, and proceeded to read nothing but the story notes. And to enjoy them immensely (I've read most of the stories from their original publications).

Now, Jeff Ford story notes are better than 96.8% of the story notes out there (yes, I've done a study), so I don't think the fact that I devoured them so joyfully undermines my entire argument, but it does at least undermine it a little bit. A foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds and all, I'm not afraid to be inconsistent. I'd rather qualify my original point, though, inspired by Jonathan's diversion from complete agreement with me (how dare he!)--
In his collection Going Home Again Waldrop adds lengthy story afterwords, some as long as 3,000 words, to each story which are a critical part of the book as a whole, adding layers of meaning and experience for most stories. Harlan Ellison is also a master of the form, as can be seen in collections like Deathbird Stories, Shatterday, and Love Ain't Nothing but Sex Misspelled.
Jonathan is absolutely correct here, and shows the Achilles' heel of my generalization, because there are writers who do a good job of mixing stories with notes about them into a coherent, cohesive whole. Some writers also benefit from the force of their voice and personality -- Ellison's story notes are often more interesting than his stories, and turn his books into autobiographies with stories included, and the fiction and nonfiction echo each other and make the book far richer than it would be were it merely either fiction or nonfiction. Because Waldrop's stories are so often built from esoteric historical backgrounds, the notes help the general reader understand the context. It also helps that both Ellison and Waldrop often collect material by theme and subject matter, and so the notes add to the whole reading experience rather than distract from it. The best of these books are unified, coherent, and thoughtfully constructed.

Where I disagree with Jonathan is something he says in a comment in response to another comment on the post:
Giving the reader some context, some background for a new writer is a worthwhile thing. And, if a reader doesn’t like them, they can always skip the notes. You can’t skip something that isn’t there.
Yes, context can be useful, but I'm wary of encouraging people to include more and more and more just because if readers don't like it, they can skip it. Jonathan himself states some basic criteria well at the end of his post:
I’d put it that the test for a collection shouldn’t be whether it contains a particular element or not, but rather how well those elements are executed. You can have introductions, story notes, afterwords etc, as long as they’re done well, and as long as you never compromise on the quality of the fiction.
Exactly. The best collections aren't merely collections, they are books, and as books their elements work together to create a unified whole. What those elements are is irrelevant if they work together well.

Most writers are not Ellison, Waldrop, or Jeffrey Ford, though, and their fiction doesn't benefit from ancillary materials. It's interesting to note that the inclusion of so much nonfiction in fiction collections (and I'm speaking of collections not put together for historical or scholarly purposes, which are entirely different) is a tendency more common in genre collections than collections marketed as general fiction. I expect this comes from the reliance of genre fiction on fans -- introductions and story notes add a personal sense of the author and give anecdotes about the hows and whys of the writing, creating a sense of the writer not just as a byline but as somebody who might be fun to talk to at a convention, or somebody who has pearls of wisdom to offer aspiring writers, which is what many fans are. Notes and such in collections seem to be a legacy of the time when the path to becoming a professional SF writer was to start as a fan and work your way up the ladder; it was a way for the people at the top of the ladder to offer some crumbs of encouragement and insight to the people down below, and it was a very effective way for everyone involved in the SF community to create a sense of that community as a real and vital thing. (For me, it was the notes in Asimov's Hugo Winners books that did this. I tried rereading some of them recently and found them cloying, but when I was 13 they created a sense of a utopian world of fans and writers, a world I wanted to be a part of.)

I don't expect to win anybody's love by saying this, but the story notes and introductions in most books, the ones that are not integral to the book's conception and construction, add nothing but a sense of amateurism to the whole. Maybe amateurism is something we need more of, maybe it undercuts pomposity and reminds us that writers are ordinary human beings, but I'd rather see more books that were put together with care and selectivity rather than made to fit some template or obligation. Let's have fewer books with material that can be skipped and more where every word on every page is essential to the whole.